After more than 36 years of service in the military, as a National Guard Chaplain and former Kentucky Baptist Convention president, John Mark Toby is urging those called to ministry to what he believes the Bible describes as a field that is white for the harvest – the United States military.
Toby serves as a state command chaplain colonel in the Army National Guard and is set to retire from his military duties on Dec. 31. He began his military career as in infantry officer in the National Guard after becoming involved in the ROTC program at Eastern Kentucky University in 1982.
Shortly after joining the National Guard, Toby felt a calling to ministry. He soon went to seminary and became a chaplain within the National Guard and began his ministry in the church.
“I just sought to be obedient and to go where the Lord led me,” Toby said.
The chaplain’s obedience to this calling and his focus on evangelism is evident in his military role and in his heavy involvement within the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Toby also serves as the Associational Mission Strategist for Warren Association of Baptists and is a professor of Leadership Studies at the University of the Cumberlands.
Within the Kentucky Baptist Convention, Toby has served in countless capacities since the 1980s which have included roles such as Church Development and Evangelism Committee chairman, Kentucky Baptist Pastors’ Conference president and KBC first vice-president and president. He also served as the first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Toby’s impact with local churches is notable as he has previously served as pastor for various churches for 27 years. During this time, his ministry reached incredible feats for the kingdom of God. While serving as mission pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, he planted its first church and that church plant went on to have the highest per capita baptism ratio in the KBC with one person being baptized for every two members. As associational mission strategist, Toby said the Warren Association of Baptists led the convention for seven consecutive years in the number of baptisms in the state.
Toby said there are parallels between his service to God and his service to the country.
“People have the same needs no matter where they’re located. People need Jesus. They need hope. They need encouragement. They need love. They need grace.”
He pointed out there is a great need within the military that provides a unique opportunity.
“Many people in the military are young adults and are in the process of shaping their worldview—what they believe and why they believe it. If we don’t have chaplains to communicate Christ in that context then, some other worldview is going to get their heart and their minds,” Toby said. “It’s important for us to be there and to engage in ministry and to present biblical truths that will transform their lives.”
Toby said his role within the military provides him the opportunity to truly connect and engage with soldiers and their families which make it possible to minister to them.
“A lot of soldiers are open to the gospel in trying times and difficult situations,” Toby said. “I have had the opportunity to engage in people’s lives when they’re more receptive to receive the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
It’s because of this Toby said there is a need for people to be open to the chaplaincy ministry.
“If ministers are not willing to at least probe this as a possibility, it’s going to be hard to meet the demands of the military down the road,” he said.
Chaplains have served the United States armed forces dating back to the American Revolution and it is important they continue, Toby said. “General George Washington, who was the commander of the Continental Army, established chaplains because he understood their importance. We have a precedence to do what we do before our nation was even a nation.”
To anyone considering pursuing a ministry within the United States military, Toby offers this encouragement: “It is hard work, but making that commitment will position you into an opportunity that most ministers never have the chance to function in. It’s a field that really is, as the Bible says, ‘white for harvest.’”