News Stories

DINFOS instructor hopes to get back in uniform – as a chaplain

By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Sarah J. Godette and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Leslie L. Koxvold | Defense Information School | November 18, 2015

FORT MEADE, Md. --

On a quiet Sunday morning in Marydel, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Calvary United Methodist Church welcomes parishioners through its bright red doors.

The walls are white, like the high ceiling above them, framing eight stained-glass windows.

Parishioners and visitors are greeted with programs and warm smiles. The pews fill until there is little room left. About 50 people sit in silence until the choir begins to sing the classic “Jesus Loves Me,” and the congregation joins in.

A boy in a white robe, carrying a candle lighter, walks down the central aisle from the church entrance.

Following behind him is the pastor, also in a white robe. His full, well-kept beard and almond-shaped blue eyes highlight his smile as he passes among the parishioners.

This is Stephen Woolverton, 42, a full-time instructor at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, and a part-time pastor at Calvary Methodist.

He is also a former sailor who, in response to a calling, is planning to return to naval service as a chaplain in the Navy Reserve and possibly on active duty.

A Navy Reserve recruiter submitted an application package on Woolverton’s behalf in early November with the expectation that a selection board will consider it in February.

“I don’t know where this is all going to lead,” Woolverton said. “I know I am supposed to come back as a chaplain.

“I don’t know if I am supposed to finish out my time in the reserves or if I am supposed to go active,” he continued. “I am leaving that up to God.”

Woolverton served nearly six years in the Army and Kentucky Army National Guard, primarily as an infantryman, before joining the Navy in 1999 and becoming a journalist.

While stationed in Naples, Italy, he applied twice for a commission as public affairs officer but was turned down both times.

So, thinking it might be time to leave the military, Woolverton looked into civilian public relations positions, but they weren’t quite as appealing to him as he had hoped, he said. Then, one evening in 2007, he was driving down a winding road in Naples, Italy, lost in his thoughts.

If he were doing the work God intended him to do, then he would have a sense of purpose, Woolverton said to himself. His struggle inspired him to pray, and he asked God to clearly tell him what to do.

Before he said amen, he felt a tingling sensation and tightness in his chest.

“I felt God was telling me, ‘I have equipped you to communicate; now, go and communicate to the people that I love them,’” Woolverton recalled, adding, “That was a really strange drive.”

After taking a few days to fully understand the experience, Woolverton sought advice from his chaplain, who encouraged him to become a pastor. The next step was to consult his wife.

Rita Woolverton, a stay-at-home mother who home-schools the Woolverton’s two children, already knew his intentions, however. She had heard the news from other members of their church, and to her it felt right.

In the Navy, “Change was normal,” she said in a soft, encouraging voice. “I think God had been preparing us for a while with our lives and the way that we were living.”

With his wife’s blessing, Woolverton researched the process of becoming a pastor in the United Methodist Church. At first, he thought he would have to leave the Navy to start the process, but then he learned of an opportunity at DINFOS. He prayed, and it came to him that being a DINFOS instructor would put him in front of students – good practice for being a pastor. After three years on active duty at DINFOS, he transitioned to contractor status and enrolled in a Master of Divinity course.

Among the denominations, the United Methodist Church has one of the longest and most difficult ordination processes, Woolverton said. In addition to earning a master’s degree in divinity, every candidate must undergo a criminal and financial background check, plus a psychiatric evaluation. He must be approved by a church board, district board and conference board, and become a licensed chaplain. After completing these qualifications, the candidate is ordained on a two-year probationary basis.

Until then, he can lead a church as a licensed pastor.

Woolverton is still working toward his degree and has about one more year before he can begin his probationary period, but he is eager to get back into the military setting, he said. That eagerness led him to the Navy Reserve’s chaplain candidate program, which allows chaplain hopefuls to join the force as commissioned officers while continuing to pursue ordination.

In August, Woolverton first spoke with a recruiter about the program, which looked like a great opportunity but had some standards that were a challenge for Woolverton to meet.

The mental and moral standards weren’t a problem for Woolverton, but after five years as a civilian, he was overweight.

By Nov. 6, however, Woolverton had lost nearly 30 pounds. His body-fat index was at 22 percent, only 1 percent over the Navy standard. The recruiter submitted his application, and Woolverton said he will certainly be within the physical fitness standard by the time the selection board meets.

His wife is trusting in God, she said, and the couple’s two daughters are hoping for an eventual deployment to Japan.

Meanwhile, Woolverton continues to preach at Calvary United Methodist Church and to teach at DINFOS, where his latest students were glad to see him fulfill the role of chaplain at their Nov. 13 graduation.

A certain facial feature, however, wasn’t in attendance. It went away on Veterans Day, two days earlier.

“I said, ‘Once I get down to standards in order to join the Navy, I will shave the beard,’ ” Woolverton recalled. That way, “When I start the process, I am clean-shaven and ready for the Navy.”