Westmont Magazine An Officer and a Professor
From an early age, Bill Nelson felt called to the ministry. The son of an Air Force pilot and U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he wanted to become a military chaplain or a pastor. Attending the Air Force Academy interested him until he learned that cadets can’t study for the ministry.
Instead, Bill came to Westmont and his concept of ministry broadened.
“Religious studies professors such as Robert Gundry, Moises Silva and Ed Bouslough inspired me,” he explains. “They had significant teaching ministries. I began to think about going to graduate school and teaching college.”
A year of study in Israel confirmed his interest in the Old Testament. After graduating from Princeton Seminary with a master’s of divinity degree, he enrolled at Harvard University where he earned a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. He has taught Old Testament at Westmont since 1986.
But he never lost his interest in pastoral ministry or serving in the military. Pursuing ordination in the American Baptist Churches, USA, he joined the Air Force reserves as a chaplain and first lieutenant in 1993.
For two years he served at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, Calif., and drilled with the reserve unit one weekend a month plus an additional two weeks a year. The only chaplain on base on Sundays, Bill gained a lot of experience in a short time.
In 1996, he transferred to Channel Islands Air National Guard Station in Port Hueneme, Calif., where he soon became wing chaplain, an unusual position for a first lieutenant. He is now a major.
His first duty was hiring two chaplains and several enlisted staff, who carry weapons to protect the chaplain. As a non-combatant, Bill is not armed.
Concern about the lack of diversity in the chaplain corps led Bill to recruit Linda Cowan, an African-American woman and former Westmont admissions staff member, who is an ordained Four-Square Gospel minister. He also persuaded another woman pastor, the wife of a guardsmen, to serve. She is now in the process of leaving the military, and Bill has found a Latino chaplain to replace her.
“I have the greatest job in the Air Force,” Bill says. “I get to spread goodwill, encourage people, pray with them and help them solve problems in their lives, which are mostly family-related.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” he continues. “At Westmont, I work with 18-22 year-olds, and my ministry is primarily educational, although I spend some time counseling with students suffering through difficulties such as the divorce of their parents or a death in the family.
“At the air base, I minister to 18-60 year-olds, and my focus is pastoral, with preaching, counseling, visitation and a little teaching. I love it.”
Where-as students graduate after four years, guardsmen can stay in the military for years. “They don’t get transferred,” Bill explains. “The wing is like a big family with long-term relationships.” He performs both weddings and funerals on the base.
Many of the guardsmen were activated after Sept. 11 to patrol the Los Angeles airport. Bill co-led the Europe semester program last fall and was away until December.
“It was a terrible time to be gone, and it made extra work for my staff,” he notes. “The deployments have created stress for the guardsmen and their families, and we have done much more counseling, putting in extra time.”
Bill participates in all military activities on the base, including readiness drills, inspections and training. For example, he recently completed a course in critical incident stress management and can now teach others how to assist those traumatized by attacks, fires or other events.
“I try to keep a high profile on base and view my work as a ministry of presence,” he explains. “I wear the cross on my uniform, so the guardsmen always know I’m a chaplain. It helps to break the ice and gives me an opportunity to preach the gospel.”