As a military chaplain currently serving at Louisville’s Veteran’s Administration hospital and working with a range of faith traditions, Chaplain Colonel Brenson P. “Bren” Bishop (MDiv ’95) understands that ministry means respect and love.
“The most important faith in the room is the patient’s faith, not yours. Those being ministered to simply need to know that the pastor loves and respects them,” he said, after receiving the 2011 Distinguished Alum Award.
The award, which recognizes graduates who have influenced the Church and society through outstanding professional, volunteer, or philanthropic accomplishments while enhancing the mission of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, was presented at a luncheon on Tuesday, May 2, as part of the 2011 Festival of Theology and Reunion events, hosted on the campus, May 1-4.
Chaplain Bishop is an ordained Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and a 30-year veteran of the United States Army. A native of Arkansas who grew up in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Bishop said he understands being different and said he experienced firsthand a lack of sensitivity about his roots.
So when he deals with military personnel and veterans who are non-Christians, even Atheists, Bishop meets them right where they are. “I have to ask myself – in every hospital room, in every situation – what is God doing here, and how am I supposed to be a part of it?” he said.
Bishop credits Louisville Seminary with “challenging me to think in new ways.” He said several professors nurtured in him the “gift of learning,” and field education in settings, such as Baptist Hospital East, “kept me grounded.”
As a result, “I am not threatened by new ideas. I was taught how to think in new ways,” said Bishop, who also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in history from the University of the Ozarks.
Before enrolling in Seminary, Bishop began an active-duty military career commanding armor and infantry units and serving a deployment with “Operation Desert Storm.” After graduating from Seminary, he was commissioned to the Chaplain Corps in 1996. Though he served as a congregational pastor for a time, the majority of his ministry has been providing pastoral care and leadership to an ever-changing and diverse parish of men and women serving in some of the most challenging situations. His parishioners have been soldiers deployed and re-deployed to and from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Bosnia, as well as others with whom he has served, side-by-side, in Baghdad and Mosul, Iraq, responding to crisis, trauma, and mass casualty. As a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) and the National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains (NAVAC), Bishop is now the clinical staff chaplain at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), in Louisville, Kentucky, where he provides pastoral care to patients in hospice, psychiatric, and intensive care wards.
While his decorated career has earned him the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Achievement Medal, the Parachute Badge, and the Combat Action Badge, among others, he is most honored to have found a call of service and to have been where God needed him most.
At one of Louisville Seminary’s Brown Bag Lunches with local alums, Bishop spoke passionately about the horrors of war and was equally passionate about the incredible rewards of his tours as a military chaplain. “Politics don’t matter when you’ve got a platoon of scared young soldiers in your spiritual care, or you witness Iraqi women line up to vote for the first time in their lives,” he said.
His hope is that today’s seminarians will discern God’s call in their own lives, especially at a time when there is so much need in the world. “Seminary students need to learn everything they can learn, and understand that learning is not about believing.” Professors bring gifts that come from their inspirations and their wounds; “Take all the tools they give you, and learn to think,” he said.
Colleague and friend The Rev. Marcia Myers, director of the Presbyterian denomination’s Office of Vocation, highlighted Bishop’s contributions to the church as a thinking minister. And, in introducing him at the awards banquet, she said, “You have distinguished yourself in the chaplaincy, among your troops, as a churchman, as a man of Christ, and now you are distinguished as an alum of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.”
2011 Distinguished Alum awards were also presented to Dr. J. Michael Efird (’58); The Rev. James H. Brown (’58), and The Rev. Dr. Willa Fae Williams (‘93).