As a couple, Jim and Jo Kirkendall take the concept of “having things in common” to a whole new level.
Both grew up overseas as children of missionaries with the then-Foreign Mission Board. Both became Navy chaplains – and met briefly in the service in the late 1980s.
Both switched their chaplaincy endorsements from the SBC to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Both were previously married and divorced before reconnecting in 2008 and hearing calls to help military personnel and veterans heal wounded relationships.
While the arc of their careers has also differed – hers after the Navy in health care chaplaincy, and his spent 26 years in uniform before retirement – the experiences common and unique to each has shaped them into a powerful spiritual and ministry partnership.
“We consider ourselves a team,” said Jim Kirkendall, who serves as the disaster response coordinator for CBF Mississippi. “We complement each other.”
‘Third culture’ childhoods
One of the more powerful commonalities the couple shares is growing up in the international mission field.
Jo Kirkendall spent her childhood in Tanzania and Nigeria with her physician mother and preacher father.
Jim Kirkendall’s father was a missionary called to be a minister in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Their common upbringings came to light when the two met briefly as naval officers in San Diego in 1987.
Being the children of missionaries provides a “third culture” experience that both can identify with, said Jo Kirkendall, currently a chaplain at Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, Miss.
“We grew up in different cultures than our citizenship and as a result … we don’t fit in either one,” she said.
Yet both found a spiritual home in chaplaincy.
Jim Kirkendall said he was initially drawn into military service by a seminary friend who joined the Navy chaplaincy corps. Kirkendall’s Navy time was spent mostly in Marine Corps assignments. Later he switched to the Army.
It wasn’t until he was in uniform that Kirkendall realized he had followed in his father’s footsteps after all.
“My dad eventually became an itinerant minister in Saudi Arabia, working with three congregations of Americans down there,” he said. “He preached and he took care of everybody there – and that’s what chaplains do.”
Jo Kirkendall was led to military chaplaincy by a pastor who had served in the Army Reserve.
“I called the Navy recruiter because my father had been in the Navy,” she said.
She served at Naval Hospital San Diego and since leaving the service in 1995 has remained in health care chaplaincy, including service at three Veteran’s Administration institutions.
It’s since dawned on her why she landed in health care chaplaincy.
“What do you get when you cross a preacher and a physician?” she said of her parents. “A hospital chaplain.”
‘So incredible for both of us’
After several years spent pursuing their careers, the two reconnected in 2008. It happened when Jo saw Jim’s birthday listed in a new publication for CBF chaplains and pastoral counselors. He resided in Oklahoma at the time and she was in Pennsylvania.
“I got his phone number and called to say happy birthday,’” she said.
They exchanged email addresses and she soon moved to Mississippi when a position opened with the VA.
“The next thing I know we got married,” he said.
Today the couple resides in Biloxi and together they lead two-day Warrior to Soul Mate workshops through the VA.
The program is open to active duty, retired military and reservists whose relationships are stressed by the rigors of military life.
The Kirkendalls’ own military service enables them to identify with those experiencing relationship challenges.
“We lead the workshops as a team,” she said. “That’s what has been so incredible for both of us.”