Recognizing a pioneer in military chaplaincy on this Veterans’ Day

Retired United States Air Force Chaplain Major General Lorraine Potter’s career has been a series of illustrious milestones and firsts. She graduated from Keuka College, an all-women’s college in Keuka Park, New York, in 1968 with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and religion. She proceeded to earn a Master of Divinity from Colgate Rochester Seminary. Then, at a time when women in the United States were fighting for equal opportunities and pay, she broke through a stained-glass ceiling by becoming the first clergywoman ordained by the American Baptist Churches USA in Rhode Island.

Potter desired to serve God; however, she did not see herself in congregational ministry. Her dream was to serve in the U.S. Air Force, where she could care for airmen, airwomen and their families by providing them with religious support.

On her first attempt to be commissioned into the Air Force, Potter was unsuccessful. This initial effort occurred before the passing of the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment, and being male was a requirement for a chaplain role. However, she persevered, heeding advice from her parents, both American Baptists, which she later recalled from the website My Future Purpose. “Whatever you want to do, you work hard enough, you can accomplish it,” Potter told her interviewer.

Once gender-based discrimination was outlawed, Potter joined the Air Force Chaplain Corps in 1973 as the first woman to break the gender barrier both in religion and the military. She then went on to achieve other firsts: In 1988, she became the first woman to serve as senior chaplain. That same year, she became the first woman to serve as the Air Force command chaplain in the U.S. Air Force as well as in Europe in Air Education and Training Command. Further, she was the first female chaplain in the armed services to be promoted to colonel in 1992 and then to general officer in 1999.

At the time of her retirement in 2004, Potter was the chief of Air Force Chaplains and the senior chaplain in the Department of Defense. She retired as a major general. In retirement, Potter has served at Keuka College as a trustee and consultant. She is a member and past president of the Board of Directors for Fisher House, Inc., Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and a volunteer chaplain at local retirement communities and nursing homes.

Chaplaincy is a calling of paramount importance to American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS), which biennially bestows four distinguished national awards on American Baptist chaplains, pastoral counselors, spiritual directors, and other specialized ministers who demonstrate exceptional faithfulness in ministry that manifests cultural sensitivity, generational inclusiveness, contextual relevance, and missional appropriateness.

One of these awards celebrates faithful and effective pastoral and spiritual care in the U.S. military. The Lorraine K. Potter Military Chaplaincy Merit Award, named in honor of Potter as a chaplaincy trailblazer, affirms American Baptist military chaplains who are the epitome of exemplary spiritual care and spiritual leadership in their service to others.