Army Reserve Chaplain Nate Wheeler – in his military dress blues – stands near a monument displaying the words “Pro Deo et Patria,” meaning “For God and Country.” It is the motto of the U.S. Army chaplaincy, signifying that chaplains serve both God and the United States. The photo was taken at Fort Jackson’s chaplain school in April of this year. (Photo by David Montes, Jr.)
By Gaye Bunderson
Army Reserve Chaplain Nate Wheeler could be shipped out along with the soldiers of the 814th Transportation Battalion in Boise at any time to any place. As it is, he serves the soldiers on a 24/7 basis, along with working a full-time job, serving as a Planning and Zoning commissioner, and growing grapes in his backyard.
Nate’s journey from where he once was to where he is today was neither easy nor pleasant. But he contends he wouldn’t be the person he has become if he hadn’t taken a troublesome ride down a rough track as a younger man ministering in churches.
He is an Idaho boy born and raised. Now 47, he fellowshiped at Emmett Christian Church as a youth, was schooled at Nampa Christian High School, attended Boise Bible College, married an Oregon girl named Tami, and studied the Old Testament and archaeology at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, receiving a Master of Divinity degree.
“I’ve done a lot of observation, and I find patterns,” he said, in reference to his decisions about what to study at seminary. At BBC, he noted that many students were interested in such things as children’s ministry or church administration, but no one seemed interested in subjects like archaeology or Hebrew. “I wanted to fill the gap so I could help churches,” he said. He also wanted to study the Old Testament in greater depth because it sometimes presents a hole in people’s understanding of the entire Word of God.
“Most people are scared of the Old Testament, because they don’t completely understand it,” said Nate. He explained his research brought him to the conclusion that God is the same in both the Old and New Testaments and that people are also equally alike in both. In each of the two sections, people were flawed and sometimes failed and sinned, but God extended them grace in both. Conversely, while God may have seemed a harsher judge in the Old Testament, He still meted out punishment in parts of the New Testament as well. For instance, when Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) tried to deceive God by holding back money from the sale of their land, and then lying about it, they were immediately struck dead.
Nate graduated from Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 2000 with the goal of being a preacher like his father, Bruce Wheeler. He came back to Boise and got a job as an associate pastor at a local church; in 2003, he took his family to Sacramento, Calif. for a church planting, then on to Klamath Falls for two years of another church plant. He helped with four church plantings in three different states to good results, especially in the areas of youth ministry and small groups.
But the church culture in some of those places – especially in the area of leadership – left Nate feeling beaten up by ministry and struggling with bitterness. “I was blackmailed, lied to, and cheated by leaders in the church – and more than one church,” he said.
Then in his late 20s, his wife and parents were supportive of him throughout his trials, but he nonetheless refers to those years as his “Alice in Wonderland Tour.” Some of the good to come out of that time were the three kids he and Tami had in the three different states where they lived. But also, God was preparing to make something good out of the mistreatment he endured.
Someone who helped Nate a lot was a man named Greg, a former pastor he’d known in California who ended up on the streets following years of drug abuse. At one time in his life, Greg went through an unpleasantly severe time and was offered relief from an acquaintance, who told him, “Here’s something that will make you feel good.” It was cocaine, and while it took away some of Greg’s pain, it also robbed him of his family, his vocation, and around $100,000. Nate met Greg as he was coming out of addiction and re-entering society and the church.
God used Greg to help Nate put the shards of his broken plans back into a meaningful pattern. By then, Nate and his family had returned to Boise.
“I had walked in faith with Greg, and we stayed in communication. He helped me understand perspectives that kept my faith strong – and, even today, my faith is unshakeable,” Nate said, then stating that people can do anything to him now and he won’t break, because he’s learned “God is my only source, strength, and purpose.”
“Greg gave me mind-shaping words. He told me I was at a dark place in my life and said, ‘There’s no doubt there have been some injustices done to you, but can you see that in an attempt to protect yourself, you’re hurting others?’ I could feel the rudder of my life just shift. It was impactful, helpful.”
Nate explained he’d been withdrawing and disengaging as a way to insulate himself from any more harm. But at the same time, he was separating himself from his wife and children, the people he loved the most.
Greg also told him: “If you stay on this train [God has deliberately placed you on], you will have deeper insights into Him, and then you’ll have something worth saying. You’re going to see things differently.”
Nate said he realized that, through his experiences, he would not be simply parroting Scripture or taking the easy, listener-friendly approach when speaking in church or ministering. His words would have the growth and wisdom of personal trials behind them.
Studies in school were “the toolbox that gets you started,” he said, but God used difficulties to make a shift in his life that deepened his message. “God is so passionate about connecting with us that He will remove every barrier that is between us and Him.”
This year marks milestones in the lives of each member of Nate’s family. His kids are now 21, 18, and 16 – all ages with significance in a young person’s life – and Nate and Tami marked 25 years of marriage in 2021. Over the years, Nate worked in real estate like his mother, Darlene, and now works as a business development manager for Wright Brothers Building Co. in Eagle. He attends church regularly and hosts a home-based Bible study group of 12 people, some of whom are agnostics and some of whom are believers who may have lost their love for church.
His work as chaplain with Army Reserve Unit 814th Transportation Battalion in Boise is near and dear to his heart; he was commissioned two years ago. “My pain in ministry helps me minister to these soldiers, and to people who left the church,” said Nate. “It fills a spot in me for ministry, and for helping people. I really wanted to care for people. My life hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to, but I can see how God was shaping me for His work.”
Of the soldiers, Nate said: “They’re really good people.” Some have seen combat and are struggling with the effects of war. Among other things, Nate is trained in suicide prevention through the military’s ACE-SI [suicide intervention] program. His M.Div. helps him in his chaplaincy, and he is also a prodigious reader of psychology books.
To become a Christian chaplain, a man or woman must be affiliated with a church and must qualify with the Army, including being medically fit and going through military training. Nate explained that chaplains go through a kind of boot camp, though a lighter version than boot camp for soldiers. Chaplains learn such things as how to salute, how to carry a heavy backpack, to say Sir or Ma’am, write a military-style memo, and other training.
“Here’s the best thing about the chaplaincy: it can be a later-in-life career. The young soldiers need an older person to be a father figure to them. If you’re in your 30s and 40s and think you’re too old to be a military chaplain, it’s actually a good time to try. The young people are away from home for the first time, and they need help to make good choices,” said Nate.
It’s especially good for anyone who wants “to do a little more” in a ministry way, or who had a father in the military or a friend who went to combat.
In his capacity as chaplain, Nate does a lot of crisis counseling, as well as marital, financial, and other guidance as needed. He met all educational requirements for the position through his Master of Divinity degree.
Despite the challenges with church leadership he faced in his 20s, the hurt he dealt with, and the bitterness that almost consumed him, Nate is now a man with much more joy. His ministry as a home church host and as a chaplain, along with his family, and his involvement in the community – serving on a P&Z commission and on the board of an educational non-profit – are all a good fit for him. Asked if he is a happier man now, he replied: “Yes. I’m very happy.”
Greg’s wise advice to “stay on that train” was a trip that took him closer to God.