Colonel Leah Botona Boling was notified on June 21 that she has been selected to serve as the director of the Air National Guard Chaplain Corps.
“It’s still hard for me to believe I got the job,” said Boling, in a phone interview with Good Faith Media, “but I’m truly honored.”
Boling, a chaplain for Hawaii Air National Guard’s 154th Wing, now awaits her “report date” for relocating to Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C. There, she will work out of the Air National Guard Readiness Center to oversee all the chaplaincy work of the Air National Guard.
“It’s been one blessing after another,” said the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship endorsed chaplain, who was promoted to colonel in March of this year.
That promotion made her the first Asian American Pacific Islander woman in the Hawaii Air National Guard to receive that rank. Now, her selection to lead the Air National Guard Chaplain Corps breaks more ground, as she is the first person of color to hold that position.
Her new responsibilities will include supervising the division chiefs for the chaplaincy work of 90 Air National Guard wings, as well as chaplains serving in U.S. territories. In addition to overseeing all the field managers, she will be an adviser to the National Guard Bureau.
While the job appears “overwhelming” at the outset, Boling said “this is where being creative is very helpful.”
Her prayer in facing this groundbreaking assignment, she said, is “God, I don’t mind being the first, just get my back. I’m not going to carry that burden.”
Boling said she trusts that “what has worked for me for 19 years will work for me as [Air National Guard Chaplain Corps] director.”
While based in Hawaii for all 19 years of her service, Boling and her husband, Jeff, who retired from the Air Force in 2003, soon after she began military service, are used to moving for various assignments.
“I’ve had my share of the mainland,” she said, “but I’m not looking forward to the winter and snow.”
A Philippines’ native, Boling has found breaking new ground in ministry and the military to be a natural progression.
In addition to her undergraduate and seminary training in the Philippines, Boling completed clinical pastoral education with Pacific Health Ministries in Hawaii and earned the educational specialist in professional counseling from the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Boling holds licenses in marriage and family therapy and professional counseling, and she has received numerous awards for military service including the Meritorious Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
In a 2015 interview with Baptists Today (now Good Faith Media’s Nurturing Faith Journal), then Lt. Col. Boling told of playing as a child on the grounds of Mati Baptist Hospital in the Philippines. She saw an elderly woman from her church going into the hospital’s emergency room.
“I followed her and noticed that she was visiting patients and their families,” she recalled.
Young Leah was intrigued by her mother’s explanation of the woman’s service as a volunteer chaplain and all that entailed.
While earning a Bachelor of Science in customs administration from Holy Cross of Davao College in 1985 and doing an internship with the Bureau of Customs, Boling was involved in discipleship training through her church.
It was during those formative years that her “calling into the ministry solidified,” she said. This led her to pursue theological education at the Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary with a focus on pastoral care and counseling.
Following seminary graduation, and a year of clinical pastoral education residency in Manila, she joined Interfaith Ministries of Hawaii (now Pacific Health Ministries) in 1991. It was in Hawaii that Boling met her husband, Jeff, who introduced her to military life and the chaplaincy.
Boling traces her understanding of and appreciation for ministry to her mother.
“She was very active in church from [Woman’s Missionary Union] to choir to teaching Sunday School,” Boling recalled in the earlier interview. “Even at a young age, she modeled for me what a woman can do in and for the church.”
While military chaplaincy was not on her radar early on, she discovered it fits her unique gifts.
“One of the unique things about military chaplaincy is our ability to work in a pluralistic environment,” she noted. “Even though I’m expected and mandated to perform according to my denominational endorser, I am still able to work with other chaplains and service members of different faiths to ensure everyone’s freedom of religion.”
Another component of military chaplaincy, she added, is the chaplain’s role in advising commanders regarding morale as well as moral, spiritual and ethical issues. Then there are roles specific to combat settings.
“One of the most fulfilling times I’ve had was when deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Philippines, through the Joint Special Operations Task Force,” she said, where ministry is provided “in the trenches.”
Now a newly minted colonel with an even bigger assignment, she is grateful for all who have mentored and encouraged her in her service. And she hopes her story will inspire other women and girls to see their full potential in following God’s call.
“Don’t let any other voices tell you any different,” she said.
Renée Lloyd Owen, director of chaplaincy and pastoral counseling ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said she was not surprised by Boling’s accomplishments due to her obvious dedication, leadership and passion for providing sacred spiritual and pastoral care to service men and women and their families.
“Leah is an exemplary chaplain,” said Owen. “She embodies and demonstrates the essence of chaplaincy – offering a compassionate and loving presence to all people, meeting people where they are in their journey and providing the care that is needed in that moment.”
“We are blessed to have her among our ranks as a CBF-endorsed chaplain,” Owen added, “and we are so very proud of her.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Col. Boling’s middle name.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.