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A Ministry of Broad Respect - John B. Owen (MDiv '96)

by Louisville Seminary | May 25, 2010
John B. Owen (MDiv ’96), Distinguished Alum 2010

By Toya Richards

As a military chaplain The Rev. John B. Owen (MDiv ’96) has ministered to a multitude of people from various backgrounds and faith traditions.

He fully understands that if you show people you care about what they are doing, eventually you will gain their respect, and they will start to relate back how faith is applicable in their lives, he said.

Being present and available wherever he has been called to serve has been the backbone of Owen’s ministry.

“Your people come from all kinds of backgrounds. You have to earn trust and respect.” Ministry is about “going where people are and showing them that you care about what they do and who they are,” said Owen.

On April 27 Owen was one of four Louisville Seminary alums to receive Distinguished Alum Awards, which honor graduates for their vision, accomplishments, and leadership in their respective callings. The recognition was celebrated at a luncheon on campus during the annual Festival of Theology and Reunion.

“Throughout our 157-year history, Louisville Seminary has trained pastors, chaplains, teachers, counselors, and public leaders who are life-long learners and who assume personal responsibility for integrating classical theological knowledge with the skills and practices of ministry,” Rev. Dr. Dean K. Thompson, LPTS president, told luncheon attendees.

“We have challenged our students to live compassionate lives that are congruent with the Gospel, taking seriously the commission of Jesus to spread the good news of salvation, justice, love, and mercy,” he said.

“As a military chaplain, Rev. Owen’s ministry has spanned the globe in situations of international crises aboard the USNS Mercy medical ship and in ecumenical service and leadership among the diverse community of college-age students at the Naval Academy,” Thompson went on to say.

Owen enrolled in theological education after roughly 10 years in the United States Coast Guard, where he had been a helicopter pilot. “We had a great time,” he said. Yet, at the same time he always wanted to go to seminary. He was inspired while growing up in a vibrant Presbyterian Church youth group in Pasadena, Calif., where Thompson was the pastor.

“I didn’t know what type of ministry [to pursue],” Owen said. “I just had a strong sense that anything can be a ministry.”

With that, Owen entered Louisville Seminary, where he found people to be “caring and friendly,” and where he also discovered other students working on second careers, like himself.

He applauds both his field placement at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., and his clinical pastoral education at Central State Hospital, an adult psychiatric hospital, for preparing him to work in the church and for what he would encounter in the world through his vocation.

Rev. Dr. Johanna W. H. van Wijk-Bos, the Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Seminary, fondly recalled Owen during his time at Seminary. His forthrightness, kindness, and interest in the material stood out, she said in her introduction of Owen during the awards luncheon.

A person with “fortitude and faith are good ways to describe you,” Bos said of her former teaching assistant. Owen also embodiments holiness, including devotion to God and people, she said.

After graduation from Seminary, Owen answered a call to serve as an interim associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Port Angeles, Wash., and in 1998, he became chaplain for a U.S. Marine Corps Air Station.

Owen combined his military and ministerial service in several calls, including the position of chaplain aboard the USS Denver from 2001 to 2003, and with the Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD) from 2003 to 2006. He is currently completing his assignment as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary where he is studying ethics, after which he will become Command Chaplain of the USS Enterprise in Virginia.

It was during his post with the NMCSD that Owen was the chaplain aboard the USNS Mercy, a naval hospital ship, during crisis and humanitarian deployments to Indonesia, following the 2004 tsunami; East Timor; and Papua New Guinea.

Owen said in those challenging situations the tools he used, some of which were garnered at Louisville Seminary, included a strong background in the Bible, flexibility, and an appreciation for diversity. “Louisville Seminary is committed to diversity,” he said, “and there really was an emphasis on learning to respect other perspectives [when I was a student].”

That emphasis also served Owen well in his three-year service, from 2006 to 2009, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he worked with an ecumenical team of eight chaplains, religious program specialists, civilian employees, and volunteers to provide religious support to a Brigade of more than 4,300 Midshipmen, all college-age, of whom 25% are women.

“If you are a pastor or a chaplain … you can’t just walk in and expect everybody to fall at your feet,” he said.

Respect is earned, which meant, as Chaplain for the 2007 Navy football team, Owen often spent time at the sidelines in the heat and cold. “If they see you out there … then they come to trust you.”

His year with the football team is recounted in his book, Into the Fire: A Season of Navy Football, Fortitude and Faith, which chronicles the 2007 season, during which the NCAA team overcame injuries and historic odds to finish a season that “earned them a place in the record books.”

Owen’s book, however, is less about statistics and more about the “courage, resilience, and sheer determination” of a group of regular young people doing extraordinary things, and a chaplain’s own search for how to minister to a diverse group of athletes.

“At the heart of everything I believe is the concept of treating other people the way I would like to be treated myself. Once trust is built, we can begin to talk about faith and how it applies in our lives,” he said. “There is, in my mind, no better witness to my own faith than this.”

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Since the Distinguished Alum Awards were established in 1986, 93 Louisville Seminary alums have been honored for their vision, accomplishments and leadership in their respective callings. To learn more, or to nominate an alum for this award, visit Louisville Seminary Distinguished Alums.

There are more than 2,200 active alums. 80.0% have graduated with the Master of Divinity degree; 68.3% are in active ministry; 20.7% are retired; 7.9% are students or in an inactive ministry period; and only 1.9% are out of the ministry. Alums serve in more than 60 distinct vocational professions, with the majority in church-based ministries.

Additional images from the 2010 Festival of Theology and Alum Reunion are available at: LPTS Photo Gallery

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