Category Archives: Army

The Chaplain and Morale: A Conundrum.

So, what does a chaplain do? Exactly?

Well, the book answer to that question is that a chaplain

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The Tools of the Trade

 

is the commanders proponent to ensure the freedom of religion for their Soldiers. In other words, religious support. A chaplain: Nurtures the Living, Cares for the Wounded, and Honors the Dead. The Chaplain provides for the free exercise of religion (by performing their faith tradition and providing for the other religions represented in their unit) and advises the command in the areas of religion, morals, morale, and ethics.

Right.

So, what does a chaplain do when they are not doing services?

Many Soldiers would answer that question by saying that the chaplain “does morale.”

Being the “morale officer” is in the traditional wheelhouse of a chaplain. This, of course, has nothing to do with religion but more to do with the absence of anyone else having the time to work with it. This is not to say that the title is legitimate or the chaplain ought to spend their time doing “MWR.” It’s tempting of course. Nothing gets a compliment or the oft coveted title “combat multiplier” quicker than organizing some morale-boosting events. But it takes time. Precious time that can be better spent elsewhere.

Events are worthwhile but I’ve struggled my entire career to effectively answer the question, “so chaplain, how’s morale?”

It’s difficult even when you spend a great deal of time talking to Soldiers and circulating. When I circulate, I’ll ask “how’s morale” and Soldiers mostly will tell me how they feel about life. Which is not, of course, a holistic approach and will give me a picture of whoever I talk to. Its inherently limited because I don’t talk to everyone and how would I, really, effectively evaluate the morale of 500+ Soldiers and their families in a given week? If I talk to a Soldier today and don’t see that Soldier for another week, their outlook on life may have completely changed. Frankly, it’s difficult to really know beyond a fairly limited group of people what their morale is.

But, I’m supposed to advise the commander on this very subject.

So, I applied systemic thinking and observation to this conundrum. I have observed, over the years, that small units (companies, platoons, squads) really are like families and operate in that fashion. Therefore, I look to their leadership. If the CDR and 1SG are getting along and seem good with each other, it’s fairly consistent that the overall morale in that unit is ok. I have learned the traits of a good leader and toxic leader and if I identify an NCO that fits the bill, the units morale is likely to follow. It’s not a science but it’s fairly accurate.

Over time, I also began tracking specific conversations/counseling that I did in a particular unit. It works for BN or Companies. I suppose one could take is as low as they wanted to but frankly, I think that time prohibitive. I have had success using this at the company level in field problems and site visits. Daily, I use it at the BN level. What is most helpful is tracking counseling/conversations over time. I look for trends and spikes in certain areas and use that information to create training or focus ministry in a particular place to a particular unit. I have a chart that I use sometimes when I am able. It includes this information:

Morale Advisement Worksheet

Dates covered ______________________ Quarter __________ FY ___________

Company/Troop/Battery _____________________________________________

Commander/1SG ___________________________________________________

Length of Command _________________________________________________

CDR

Strengths                                                       Weaknesses                                                 Impact

 

1SG

Strengths                                                       Weaknesses                                                 Impact

 

Overall Mission

Upcoming Missions/Training Events

Overall Impact on Soldiers

 

(1-5, 5=doing best)

Sleep                   Food                    Safety                  Religion                             Other:

Assets in CMD

 

ASIST:

 

Strong Soldiers:

 

High Risk Soldiers (to keep an eye on)

 

 

*Any recommendations to command?

Counseling Trends – Place tick marks representing counseling (however you define that**) and summarize quarterly.

Marriage:

Family:

Stress:

Depression:

Suicide:

Self Harm (to include addictions):

Spiritual Growth:

Personal Growth:

Personal Identity:

Anger:

Grief:

Sexual Assault:

Getting along with others/personal relationships:

Financial:

Leadership/Unit Complaints:

Notes:

 

Other:

Notes:

 

Definitions:

Morale: the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.

*Recommendations to command includes:

  1. Critique – Assessment based on objective standards and experience, non-judgmental or personal, straightforward
  2. Feedback – Reflection based on subjective experience, personal, one’s personal experience of another, recognizes cultural differences, positive in nature

(as opposed to criticism which is negative, harsh, judgmental, pretends to be objective but is subjective, and does not seek to build up the other)

** Counseling – I define this as any significant conversation where I provide pastoral care, advice, or a listening ear. A conversation where a Soldier deals with issues. No time constraint. Includes scheduled office appointments.

Note the definitions. There are no “official” definitions of these ideas and every chaplain seems to approach them differently, however, it helped me to create some kind of quasi-objective standard by which to evaluate my work.

Over time, I have developed fairly good methods of evaluating morale quickly. I guess it just comes with experience. Also, I notice that if MY morale is struggling, others probably are as well. Life just seems to work that way.

If people have lost their humor, it’s a fairly good indication that they are in chaos and overwhelmed. In any Army unit, there is always a good amount of “gallows humor.” By and large, it is a healthy reaction to the hardship that we face. As long as it does not develop into toxic humor that is aimed at hurt and pain, it’s good and I encourage it. When I experience people whose humor has moved from the ironic, sarcastic, and good-natured profane to toxic and mean-spirited (by the way, I should note here that what sound “mean-spirited” to someone not familiar with the military may well not be. A practiced ear can hear the humor and genuine concern in what may sound a little cruel. When in doubt, I usually just check with the person and see if everything is ok) I make sure to follow up with that individual and group.

Of course, there are the usual things like checking on a person who isolate themselves. Of course, many times we need some space and some quiet time in the chapel is helpful. If I observe a drastic change in behavior, I note that and follow up with a person to see how they are. If I observe that they are “taking things to heart” its likely that their capacity for change and hardness is waning and they need some help building resiliency to the situation they are in.

The single best method I find for evaluating morale is if the unit is connecting to the mission. If they see that they play a role in whatever the unit is tasked with doing. If they can find meaning and purpose in their work. Is the end in sight? I find that Soldiers can be the happiest in the most austere and harsh circumstances as long as: 1. Everyone is in the same position – i.e. the leadership is down in the muck with them and 2. There is meaning in the suffering.  If those two things are in place, morale (no matter the suffering) tends to be high.

At the end of the day, what does a chaplain do? Listen. Observe. Provide Feedback.

I observe the life that is happening. If I see someone struggling, I pay more attention to them and find a way to talk. Perhaps that is, in a nutshell, what chaplain work is after all. Paying attention and finding a way to talk.

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Filed under 3rd Deployment, Army, Chaplaincy

Waiting.

Waiting.

Transient.

Waiting.

This is the part I like the least. I won’t say it’s the “worst” part because there are always worse days but I still don’t particularly like it. Soldiers come and go. Everyone is waiting for their number to be called so they can board a plane and get to their mission. Those who are stationed here and doing their job are just working and waiting till they can go home. Everyone is waiting and everyone is thinking.Waiting

During the wait, I find quiet spots to sit and wait with them. Often, it’s the smoke pit. It occurs to me that I don’t know why we call the smoking areas “smoke pits” but we do. The one I prefer has a sun shade and picnic table. I sit, read, smoke my pipe and gradually my Soldiers pass through. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we joke, sometimes we just share the silence. Always we wait.

Getting to war is slow. There is so much waiting. My battalion has missions in multiple places and they have all left now except a few of us who are going to the most remote location. There are not as many flights there so we wait till there are enough to fill a flight and we’ll go eventually. In the mean time, ministry happens in the waiting.

Waiting gives time to reflect. Perhaps its why I don’t like waiting. In these moments, I am thinking about my family, the kids, Sara, and this work. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be with my Soldiers. Glad that if someone has to minister here, it’s me.

I brought a noteworthy journaling Bible with me this time. I’m using it for my war journal and devotions. There is a daily reading and space to write. Yesterday I read, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Today, I read, “You are the light of the World, a city set on a hill cannot be hid… let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify God in heaven.” It occurs to me that purity of heart results in seeing God in everything around you and then, the light you shed cannot be hid resulting in God being glorified. God cannot be hid.

Even in the waiting.

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This is not the end!

Proper 28 Mark 13 15 NOV 2015

Title: This is not the end!!

Context: Field Service at Ft. Sill. Last Sunday of Mission Readiness Exercise in preparation for a deployment in February.

Text: Mark 13:1-8

Proposition: There will always be war and rumors of war but have hope, the end is not yet.

What makes a phrase “iconic” perhaps the better question to ask is what makes a phrase, “timeless?”

In our passage this morning, we have an iconic, timeless phrase, “there will be wars and rumors of wars…” It’s a phrase that is repeated in literature and in culture throughout West. It’s one of those phrases that is almost always true.

There will always be wars and rumors of war.

Why? Because we are human. Because we consistently fail to resolve our issues with one another with dialogue and conversation. Because we are greedy. Because we seek for power. Because we love violence. Because we can’t abide evil that destroys life. Because we are human. There will always be wars and rumors of wars.

It is nearing the end. The followers are starting to notice that their leader has been getting darker of late. It’s evident to them as they travel that people are less likely to welcome them, house them, and give them food. Good, Yahweh fearing, hardworking, respectable people are closing their doors when they pass. The young come out in droves. The hurting needing healing are hounding them. The poor who have nothing to lose anyway come out to see them and hear the prophet. But the respectable? The established? The connected? The wealthy who could support them in their ministry? Nowhere to be found. What worried them were the zealots, the outcasts and subversives that brought with them spies and traitors, agents of the empire. Fear began to creep in and disturb their comfort.

Something, something was happening.

It wasn’t always like this. When they were recruited, it was exciting! They were part of a movement unlike anything they had ever experienced! Jesus was a rock star. They were awesome just because they were with him! Early on, everyone came out to see them. Everyone surrounded them pressed them in. It was exhilarating! They were part of something big!

They had given everything to this movement. They had abandoned their careers. Left their families. Walked away from security and home because they felt the call to something bigger. Lately though, it didn’t seem as fun. It didn’t seem as clear cut. The teaching was darker and Jesus kept going on and on about dying in Jerusalem. Then they went to that very place. The place where Jesus said he was going to die.

Day one was amazing. People who only had one coat in their lifetime threw that coat on the ground so that the donkey Jesus was riding didn’t even have to touch the dirt. Branches of trees were strewn everywhere. Jesus was riding in like a king! They cried out hosanna!! Then someone (clearly a zelot) started saying, “blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” The people picked it up and it spread through the crowd. They weren’t screaming for a messiah, they were screaming for their king. So, Yeeeahhh, that happened. Their leader became the literal second coming of King David. Obviously Rome was NOT impressed. Things began to go south. Moderate people started to avoid them. The reception began to go cold.

It all went downhill from there. Everyone is watching them. People are looking darkly from behind corners. There is angst about what comes next. Is this what they signed up for?

Angst. Anxiety. Worry. Embarrassment. Maybe this wasn’t the best thing to do with their lives. (I might be projecting a little but that’s what telling stories is all about right?)

So, then they come to the Temple. It’s beautiful. The stones are so huge! They rise out of the ground. These fishermen, most of whom have probably never been to a city in their lives much less Jerusalem, the Holy City, are amazed. They walk around gazing upward like the country bumkin rednecks they are. They comment to Jesus how awesome the stones are, how magnificent the building is (maybe trying to cheer him up?) and how does he respond?

“Do you see these great buildings?” replies Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Crash and burn. Jesus is talking about the very seat of Jewish identity. This is the core of the Jewish faith and their nationality. Of course, we know now that not long after this, Rome would burn it all and what would be left is rubble never to even look like what it was. But they didn’t know that. Jesus rained on their parade with fire and brimstone. This is after (in chapter 12) he has laid waste the religious establishment for building their wealth on the backs of the poor who could not afford it.

So the cozy up and ask – “so, when’s it going to go down?”

Jesus replies by describing what the end of the world would look like. It is important to remember that Mark is an apocalyptic writer. He believed that Rome would bring (as it, in fact, brought) about the end of civilization. This writing was to a people who believed that they would see Jesus again in their lifetimes. The message is to a specific people but it is also timeless.

There will be war. There will be rumors of war. This is a fact of life. But the end is not yet come.

And that, I hear with hope. The world will be bad, it will get worse, it’ll be tough. Things will be demanded of you that you can’t imagine but don’t be afraid, the end is not yet.

What does this all mean for us, sitting here, in this room looking down the barrel at (for some of us) another journey into the breach? We all saw the news yesterday, Paris and Beirut attacked, once again, the drums of war sound and those of us who have carried that burden hear them with the exhausted ears of the boxer hearing the ring to start round 14. Will the wars never end?

Perhaps and perhaps not. History, if it shows us anything, demonstrates that as long as we’re human, we’ll be either at war or talking about it. War is an exercise in rhetoric except for us, we who put on the armor, pick up the rifle, shoulder the ruck, and move to contact.

Here’s how I hear the text this morning:

Listen, these walls you see, they are built on the backs of the poor. They will fall. They cannot stand. This is the nature of life. There will always be people who come along and profess that their way is the only way, beware of them. They will say they represent me but they do not! When you hear of wars and rumors of war, do not be afraid, this is not the end.

Soldiers, there could not have been a better text for us this morning. There will always bGetting readye wars and rumors of wars. We are fighting one that is 14 years old and another that is moving into its third iteration. There is no doubt in my mind that war will define the rest of my career and possibly yours as well. If we continue as we are, in 2025 when my retirement becomes possible, we just might still be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet, the message I hear is, “Don’t be afraid… the end is not yet.”

Saints, hear this from Christ, Do not be afraid, this is not the end.

So live! Love life! Anxiety is normal. It is part of recognizing that we are not working at McDonalds, we are Soldiers in the Army of the United States. And we, gathered here, are Christians. Followers of the Way. As we move to contact, as we live our lives, let us be the best of who we are. Let us be the best Soldiers for we represent our heritage. Let us be the best leaders for we represent our nation. Let us be the best people for we, believers, represent Christ. Let us live forward, into the light, unafraid, for this is not the end.

Amen.

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When “they fight for each other” just isn’t good enough

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. 2 Samuel 11:1

In 2009, I left the “Marne Express” (so called because the 3rd Infantry Division was one of the most deployed divisions in the Army back then and to be stuck there was to be on the “Marne Express” going back and forth to Iraq) and “took a knee” as an Advanced Individual Training (AIT) chaplain at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL.

It was the first time I came face to face with the “military industrial complex” outside of a combat zone.

In Iraq, the contractor support was everywhere but seemed necessary – in Huntsville, it is the economic reality of that city. Driving into the city, one passes large building after large building all dedicated to researching war and producing the material for more of it.

Benjamin, my brother, once came to visit while I was station there. He remarked on a sign he had seen and the memory is still with me. The sign was some large contractor praising the American “Warfighter.”

“Warfighter. As though it’s a career path. As though war never ends.”

Growing up, I idolized “warfighters.” These myths and legends of the books and movies I consumed were brave, always right, always in charge, and never quailed in the face of the enemy. I relentlessly imagined myself in their shoes; the enemy out front, the brave few holding the line, and with all the righteous indignation born of absolute truth, we would defeat all comers.

Of course, in my 11th year of Army service, I know the fallacy of youthful idealism. History has a way of bursting bubbles, facts have that unfortunate effect of bringing shades of gray to an otherwise easy, black/white perceived reality and my idealism was traded for the hard, nuanced truths of life.

Only empires have “warfighters.”

One of my favorite characters in fiction is Cornewell’s Richard Sharpe. Here’s a warfighter if ever there was one. He spends his life pursuing the goals of the British Empire. He is at once a very fallible man but also brave and kind in his own way. He is what I what I experienced in my Army. Brave, kind, generous, mean, cruel, and vindictive. We all carry the ability to be at our best and at our worst. Sharpe was a warfighter. A man talented at really one thing, winning battles.

In American history, there was a deep and established caution regarding standing Armies and professional Soldiers. After every war, the Armies were disbanded and those who fought them left to find their way in the Republic. But somewhere along the line, we became a nation that expects war. Expects that every day, someone, somewhere, is going to have to do combat with an enemy for “defense.” Who does that? Only people with enemies. And empires have enemies.

So we have warfighters.

Why does this matter to me? After all, I am a professional Soldier, a chaplain providing religious support to our Soldiers and family members around the world. I’ve had two combat deployments and am about to go on a third. It matters to me because of the narrative, because of our willingness to be honest about who we are as a people and nation.

Warfighter chaplainSo, the traditional narrative, the one I grew up with, cast America as the “land of the free and home of the brave.” It casts all military actions as the last possible measure. “We didn’t want war, but by God, if you bring it to us…” sort of thing. Our military industrial complex is labeled “the defense industry.” The capitalist corporations whose only existence is to develop and produce the weapons of war are labeled “defense contractors.” Incidentally, as I write this, I just finished my favorite MRE (meals ready to eat): chili mac, crackers and cheese, with a dessert of lemon poppyseed pound cake. So good. Thank you defense contractor in Evansville, Indiana for my wonderful, shelf stable meal!

Do we want peace? Of course. Do we want justice? Yes. Do we want our GDP to continually grow necessitating open markets around the world and why communism (and the closed markets it creates) is a threat to us? Also, yes. Do economics drive our warfare? Of course. Does idealism impact our willingness to fight? Yes. Do we go to war for political reasons? Really, do you even need to ask?

Turns out, our wars are just convoluted at the British Empire’s. Especially the recent ones.

So, now, here we are going back to Iraq. Soldiers, once again, moving to contact in that place. It makes sense. At least in this case, we can say that we made the problem and thus we’re the ones that need to fix it. We, the United States, broke that place and now it’s a hell-hole. So many have died. Tens of thousands have died on that altar of our fear and what do we have to show for it?

Debt. Death. Destruction. Division.

War.

There is a time when nothing will fix the problem except war. Nothing will get through but violence. But it is always bad. There is no good war. There is only death. Even in 2 Samuel, there was a time when kings went out to war.

Regardless of what we see in movies and TV, violence only begets more violence. It does not bring peace, it just shoves the problem deeper. So we try to fight small wars, limited conflicts, air campaigns (which is a nice way of saying killing thousands to people, innocent and guilty, from the air, far away from our sensibilities), and strategic initiatives. Violence might bring temporary peace but desperate people will fight back. Eventually, all the chickens come home to roost and the problem is worse.

War is the great human tragedy. It is the failure of humans to be human. It is absolute failure of the human race to be civilized and talk through their problems. It is sin. It is the brokenness of our people. War is terrible.

But we love it so much. We love the parades, the strength, the honor, the bravery.

We love the violence.

We fight because we want to. We fight because it makes us feel good. We create narratives and call them the “great cause” to justify it. We paste ethical names to it. We create offenses, straw men, faceless enemies, and throw all our blood and treasure at it. We call it beautiful, artistic but its just a fancy way of killing. We would rather our our people go hungry and live without than defund our beautiful, artistic, and brutal engines of death.

We call it just.

We claim that God is on our side, right is on our side, justice is on our side. And maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not. Either way, we could at least be honest about it and own that war is death. It is nothing else. If we’re going to do it, then own the animal nature of it and get it over with. Maybe that’s the narrative I want, honesty about the violence we pay for. Call it what it is. Own your stuff.

In the years before I commissioned, two movies came out that profoundly impacted me. They told stories that cemented in me the need to join up and be a part of the grand tradition of the Army. Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers told, in all it’s gritty detail, the stories of bravery, sacrifice, and honor that accompany war. They both had this theme, a theme that has become more and more popular as the “Cause” gets more and more convoluted and opaque:

“Soldiers don’t fight for the cause; they fight for each other.”

11 years in, I attest to the truth of that statement.

However, when that is the narrative, it releases those who run this great institution (i.e. – all of you who vote and influence elected leaders) from the duty of asking the question, why are we sending our Soldiers out to fight?

It is the duty of Soldiers to “fight and win America’s wars.”

It is the duty of the citizen to decide what wars are worth fighting.

I have stood by the greatest people I will ever know in battle. I have eulogized heros who gave everything for what they believed in and the person next to them. I have worked countless hours and ingested more caffeine than I thought humanly possible to effectively conduct warfare on behalf of the people of the United States.

I wonder how much thought they have given to their duty to hold their elected leaders accountable for how they expend American lives. I wonder how much thought you have given to it.

I’m not a pacifist. I toyed with the idea for a bit but I have guns and would use them to deadly intent on anyone who threatened the life of my family. I wear my uniform with great pride. I have, through blood, sweat and tears, earned every shiny thing on it. I am grateful to be a part of a great and honorable institution that has done so much good in the world. Though I sometimes question the cause, I always saddle up, grab my chaplain kit, and move to contact when called upon to do so. I have been a volunteer far past my initial swearing it. I will continue to stand by the greatest generation of millennials on the planet as they sacrifice over and over again for you, the American people.

Here’s the thing, “fighting for each other” just doesn’t cut it any more. There has to be a better reason. Causes matter. As a Soldier speaking for himself, I don’t need anyone’s thanks or for you to pay for my meal – I need you to take seriously the duty of deciding when and where you want to spill American blood.

I need you to ask the question – is this war worth the life of my child?

Because, if I’m going to stand on the doorstep of more mothers and fathers to tell them that their sons and daughters were killed in lands far away, I need to know that it’s going to be worth it. I need to know that it matters. I need to be able to say, the world is a better place because they died.

You need to as well. For their blood is on your hands. Their blood is in your hands.

I will own my place on the battlefield to nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead. I need you to own your place on the battlefield to ensure that when we send American boys and girls out to fight, its because there is no other way.

If “warfighter” is going to be a career path in the United States, then let’s ensure that every war is worth fighting and maybe someday, we’ll live in a world where “peacemaker” is just as viable a career field.

*Given the nature of this post, please hear again that this is MY opinion. I do not represent the Army, the Chaplain Corps or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I represent me. 

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Ministry by Inches

Years ago, a teacher joined the Army chaplaincy. He was idealistic, hungry, and ambitious. He dreamed of adventure and glory. He had visions of going to war, preaching – Billy Graham style – and flocks of war-torn Soldiers would come to Jesus. If he was really honest, he kinda hoped he’d get a chance to shoot a terrorist or two too. He was a wandering fundamentalist. He had been through 9/11 and had grieved those days. He had been denied entry to combat troops but waited his turn, bided his time, went into seminary and found a place in the front lines as a Chaplain.

He believed the rhetoric that Iraq was a just war. A war to defend the homeland.

So he went. And he learned. And he fought. And he returned a different man. He was changed. He saw the world differently. He came away disenfranchised and disillusioned, haunted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as he had been told. Maybe, just maybe, this was a hollow sacrifice.

He had seen so much death. So much destruction. So much sacrifice and so much heroism. Men who laid it all on the line for the men under him. Women, leaving traditional gender roles and heroically owning their space on the battlefield. He saw an America he didn’t think existed. One funded by massive amounts of cash. An America that seemed happy to contract out essential services and creating a proxy second class. A class that bowed their heads  and got off the sidewalk when Americans walked by. A real, no-kidding two class system with haves and have nots. It shocked him. He didn’t know what to do with that. He experienced the American Soldier, at once a hero, the best of their country, and also terrible, awful people capable of all manner of evil. Over the years, nose to the grindstone, he witnessed a country unsure of what to do with their sons and daughters who became warriors. They seemed to care but abdicated their role in holding civilian leadership accountable for sending them to war. It seemed all to easy to focus on killing the marginalized in some other place and thus ignore the chaos brewing at home.

The tension exploded in him. The fundamentals of his youth did not answer the questions swirling in his head. His journey brought him to this conclusion – violence only begets more violence.

He toyed with pacifism. But it wasn’t for him.

However, he saw truth in the ancient Zoroastrian thought, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community or peace.” (From Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker)

But his life was at the margin of violence. Sometimes, he was in the middle of it but mostly, he operated on the margin. Men and women for all sorts of reasons (few having to actually do with defending America) had volunteered to do violence and his role was to ensure they had the free exercise of religion while they did it. He was also expected to advise commanders of the morale and morals of their Soldiers while being the voice for ethical prosecution of said violence.

It tore at his soul.

Who am I kidding? It tears at my soul. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating to know the power at the disposal of the US Army. It is empowering to know what kind of violent force can be brought to the table by a battalion of Soldiers. But, oh the tension. The pain in my heart when I take seriously the teachings of Jesus and the reality of my work.

How does serving as a Chaplain in the most effective expeditionary land Army the world has ever seen mesh with “bringing Soldiers to God and God to Soldiers?”

For me, its only possible in the inches. When I step back and look at the meta, the over all strategy, it is overwhelming and sometimes depressing. When I focus on the steps in front of me, the inches and the margins, I see great ministry. I see God walking with Soldiers as they muddle through. Sometimes, its me doing the muddling and my Soldiers revealing God to me.

guitar on the roadThe crowds never happened for me. Most services I do are very small. Today I did four. At two of them, it was me and one other person. That is the nature of this work. Its one at a time. Person to person. It’s me walking from gun crew to gun crew, a troubled marriage here, a struggling spirit there. This one wonders if the God of his youth is still worth believing in. This one has the heartbreak of a poor choices impacting her life. This one wonders if they were just crazy joining the Army and are, frankly, frightened of what comes next.

They speak to me in the darkness, in smoke breaks, and walking along the trail. Drinking a hot cup of coffee, they sigh deeply and wonder aloud if any of their sacrifice and effort are worth it.

Its a question I ask.

I’m not sure I know the answer but I know the path to find it. I know grief and I know sorrow. I know the inches and the margins.

And I’ll walk with them. Every step of the way.

Perhaps that is the ministry I seek from the Holy Spirit. To walk with me in the inches and margins.

Every step of the way.

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If we wrote the rules, we can change them!

A follow up to yesterdays post about Career Management.

Thanks to all who read and responded to my thoughts yesterday. I learned something about the Chaplain Corps and about myself.

I had some thoughts after working through this yesterday and responding to those to took the time to write me. What follows are some of those thoughts.

1. Perhaps what I am getting after is a paradigm. While working in the prison, my mentor there, the deputy commandant had a very direct way of challenging issues. He would often ask if the rules were ours. If so, could evaluate the rules and change them if need be – we didn’t need to permission of the Army to do that!

Just because “it has been written” does not mean that we can’t change it! I witnessed years of institutional thought move in new directions because he empowered subordinates to look at core documents and rewrite something if it didn’t make sense anymore.

By doing this, he changed the culture.

I am saying that our current system isn’t good enough. It does not work as well as it could. I understand and appreciate that what has been built cannot be changed in a day (or in the case of HRC apparently ever) but I wonder what we could change?

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

What if the question personnel managers asked every day was: “What can I do today to make this process more transparent?” I wonder how that would start to change culture?

For example: there is a document that floats around every year around the time of the personnel conference. Its a simple excel spreadsheet that lists the various commands and locations and lists the number of openings they have. Some actually have a title like “family life chaplain” but most are just numbers. “2 0-3s at Ft. Carson” etc. Sometimes, this document is accessible. I’ve been able to see it and always find it fascinating. Who knew they had a slot in England??

There have also been years that I have asked for this document and it has been both refused (just fill out your “Chaps” form and don’t worry about it) and not available. It seems with the advent of the MilBook site that it has been more readily available but even then, there is still so much mystery about it. Basically, when we fill out the form, we have no idea what jobs are actually available, just that there are 10 captain slots on Ft. Campbell.

Question: what can I do to make the process more transparent and collaborative?

  • Here’s a way to answer that question that does not require a single change to the existing system.
    1. Have every chaplain fill out a job title and description for their unit. Create a form and have everyone fill it out. Find out what the unique challenges and opportunities that are available with each job.
    2. Collect those forms at DACH and create a searchable database of all the chaplain jobs in the Army.
    3. Link the available slots on that excel spreadsheet to the searchable database.
    4. Every chaplain could search that database and choose jobs they think they most desire and would be a good fit for.
    5. On the Chaps form, add a block that can hold more than 200 characters in which a chaplain can advocate for themselves why they want that job.

Of course, there are no guarantees but the process would be more transparent and collaborative.

It’s an idea.

But then, ideas have power. As do paradigms. I wonder what it would be like if we pushed ourselves to make the process more collaborative and transparent within the rules that already exist?

And if the rules are our rules, then maybe they need to be in a state of constant evaluation asking the question, “is this good enough? Clear enough? Does it put the right chaplain into the right job?”

2. I get it. I understand that in the Army, sometime it just is what it is. I’ve worked with it these ten years and, generally, I’ve gotten what I wanted. I generally take the approach that a job is what you make of it and as a result, I get great assignments!

That said, I still think that sometimes we accept systems that could be improved because it’s written in a regulation or SOP and therefore cannot be changed.

(side note: I learned early on that if I volunteered to write the memorandum or the SOP, I got my way because no one else wanted to do the staff work. Thus, organizations I worked with generally went with my recommendations because I was the one to write it down. Its my little secret way to control my world…)

In the end, what I am advocating for is more transparency, flatter communications, and a more collaborative effort towards getting the right chaplain into the right ministry. I believe that is a doable goal.

(Also, I still wish that the transition between reserve and active was easier and think that we’d get more and better chaplains if it were.) Just had to throw that in there…

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Career Management and the Army Chaplain Corps

Chaplain Corps, you can do better.

My entire career, any branch officer could pick up the phone and call branch, have a conversation with the branch manager, see what is open and advocate for what they want. It has seemed fairly straight forward for them and they always look a little confused when I try to explain our system for assignments.

So, as I understand it, after 10 years of active service, here’s how it goes.

We fill out a “dream sheet.” This is an online form that allows us to input our salient data, offers three choices for both continental US assignments and overseas (including Alaska and Hawaii) assignments as well. Then, in a single box, we are allowed (using only 200 characters including spaces and punctuation) to write out any other considerations for our assignments. It is here, in 200 characters, we need to be able to articulate where we want to go, what we want to do, and why we would be good for that path in a career.

This information is taken to a “personnel conference,” prayed over and assignments made. I have been told that our personnel managers are there to advocate for us (there is a list of about 30 items – needs of the Army at the forefront) that are taken in consideration in order to make the best choice.

If it seems convoluted and over-complicated, I think that it is. Where I am stationed, there are three lines of authority between myself and the personnel manager. I have to trust that my messages are getting through. In 2015. Really?

In the flat-earth information age we live in, it seems archaic that we (chaplains) need highly paid personnel managers to “advocate” for us at a central conference.

I do not disparage their work, I’m sure they are actively engaged with making moves that make sense for the Corps.

The problem is, as I see it, is that the process is shrouded in unnecessary mystery and does not allow for personal control of one’s career. I would like more control in the process. I would like more of a say in where I go and what my career looks like.

I offer the following as an alternative to bring the system into a more modern way:

Apply_Hand1. Make it a transparent process. Publish the slots that are coming up. Describe them. Highlight needs of the Army and what would be a good career move.

2. Own that there are tiered slots. There are slots that are “good career moves” only its not clear what those are only that the Corps seems to value combat arms and special forces above all. I don’t care if a slot is “good or bad” for my career, I just want to Corps to own it. Let me decide if I want to have quality of life vs. a good career move.

3. On that note, make those top tier slots application based. Give the senior chaplain the power to “hire” their own team. Let chaplains apply for the jobs they want to have. Obviously there will be jobs that people won’t want. Needs of the Army always reigns supreme. But give chaplains more of a voice in their careers.

4. Let chaplains choose their career paths. If a chaplain wants to stay somewhere, let them. Even if it hurts their chance a promotion, let them knowledgeably choose want they want to do. Let chaplains work in the fields they are most gifted in.

5. Every move is three years. If a chaplain wants to stay beyond that, they have to apply to do so. If the senior chaplain wants them to, let them stay. After 1 year time on station, let them apply for a different job. There is no guarantee that they would get it but they could apply. Too much movement is bad for a career and too less would also be so but let the chaplain choose.

6. Finally, allow a seamless transition between reserve and active component. There really is no reason a chaplain could not take three years, go back to civilian ministry, and then apply for a job back in the active component. It is institutional arrogance that says that this would not work. In fact, I believe that if the Army mandated that say, every 8 years, a chaplain needed to return to civilian ministry, we would have better, more pastoral, chaplains. Chaplains hanging on for that magical 20 year retirement is not good for the Corps.

In short, let chaplains manage their own careers. I believe we’d be a better Corps for it and hold on to talent.

The “good ole’ boy” system needs to go.

The Chaplain Corps is a remarkably white, male, conservative, protestant Corps which does not resemble the rest of the Army. Perhaps opening up career management to the individual chaplain would go a long way toward correcting the problem I wrote about here. 

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Institutionalized.

When I was a prison chaplain, one of the offensive things one inmate would say to another was “you’ve been institutionalized.” It was also an anxiety, inmates would seek counseling afraid they had become “institutionalized.”

I never looked up the definition. I gathered that, as an insult, it generally meant that an inmate had stopped fighting the system, given in and started just “doing their time.” Usually, those who followed this course did really well both in getting ahead on their sentence and in personal growth.

When referred to in an anxious way, it seemed that many were concerned that they would lose their identity, who they thought they were, and give in to a new identity, “inmate.”

I didn’t know what it meant, but I thought it didn’t mean what they thought it meant, though as their pastor, I just walked their journey with them.

Is “institutionalism” so bad? 

For what it’s worth, “institutionalized” is actually defined as: adj. An established practice or custom and established as a part of an official organization.

I’m a part of an institution. An ancient and modern one. A secular and a religious one. I represent that institution both externally with my alb, collar, and cross as well as my uniform, camouflage, and rank. A conflagration of institutions that carry baggage and tensions.

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In the context of my posts about the “ten year itch” I read this passage from David Brook’s latest book, “The Road to Character.” In it, he profiles several people of great character, tells their stories, warts and all while making some profound observations on society and our culture. What follows comes from a passage about General George Marshall. It was so moving, I will post it here in its entirety.

I’m interested in your thoughts. I hope my fellow chaplains will read it as well as pastors for I think it speaks to both professions:

Today, it is unusual to meet someone with an institutional mindset. We live in an age of institutional anxiety, when people are prone to distrust large organizations. This is partly because we’ve seen the failure of these institutions and partly because in the era of the Big Me, we push the individual first. We tend to prize the freedom to navigate as we choose, and never to submerge our own individual identities in conformity to some bureaucracy or organization. We tend to assume that the purpose is to lead the richest and fullest individual life, jumping from one organization to the next as it suits our needs. Meaning is found in those acts of self-creation, in the things we make and contribute to, in our endless choices.

Nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disruptors, and rebels. There’s less prestige accorded to those who tend to the perpetual reform and repair of institutions. Young people are raised to think that big problems can be solved by a swarm of small, networked NGO’s and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.

People who possess the institutional mindset, as [General] Marshall did, have a very different mentality, which begins with a different historical seriousness. In this mindset, the primary reality is society, which is a collections of institutions that have existed over time and transcend generations. A person is not born into an open field and a blank social slate. A person is born into a collection of permanent institutions, including the Army, the priesthood, the fields of science, or any of the professions like being a farmer, a builder, a cop, or a professor.

Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation.

Each institution comes with certain rules, obligations, and standards of excellence. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have certain methods they use to advance and verify knowledge one step at a time. Teachers treat all their students equally and invest extra hours to their growth. In the process of subordinating ourselves to the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. The customs of the institution structure the soul, making it easier to be good. They guide behavior gently along certain time-tested lines. By practicing the customs of an institution, we are not alone; we are admitted into a community that transcends time.

With this sense of scope, the institutionalist has deep reverence for those who came before and the rules he has temporarily taken delivery of. These rules of a profession or an institution are not like practical tips on how to best do something. They are deeply woven into the identities of the people who practice them. A teacher’s relationship to the craft of teaching, an athlete’s relationship to his or her sport, a doctor’s commitment to the craft of medicine, is not an individual choice that can be easily renounced when the psychic loss exceed the psychic benefits. These are life-shaping and life-defining commitments. Like finding a vocation, they are commitments to something that transcends a single lifetime.

A person’s social function defines who he or she is. The commitment between a person and an institution is more like a covenant. It is an inheritance to be passed on and a debt to be repaid.

The technical tasks of, say, being a carpenter are infused with a deep meaning that transcends the task at hand. There are long periods when you put more into your institutions than you get out of them, but service to the institution provides you with a series of fulfilling commitments and a secure place in the world. It provides you with a means to submerge your ego, to quiet its anxieties and its relentless demands.*

I wonder: what do I owe my professions? Both that of an Officer and a Pastor? 

*all emphasis mine.

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Air Assault. So, thats happening.

There was this moment. I was at the knot of the “Tough One” rope and I realized I didn’t think I was going to be able to get my leg up on the bottom beam to mount the obstacle. I had a good lock on the rope, I was high enough but my arms felt burnt and I was afraid.

Afraid I didn’t have the strength to hoist myself to the final beam.

Afraid of failing.

Afraid of having to go back to my Battalion in the shame of having the rope beat me again without the excuse of torrential rain.

Afraid of my pride.

I prayed. Reached inside and yelled, released the lock on the rope and swung my left leg up. I didn’t make it. My foot slipped and I frantically tried to relock my feet on the rope. I managed to do it and in the desperation of a man unwilling to lose his dignity, I threw my leg up, pulled with my arms and suddenly found myself on the obstacle. I had done it. There were other obstacles, other pain (some overwhelming) yet to come that day, but the one thing keeping my out of Air Assault School was over and I beat it. I felt the rush of victory and the anxiety of everything else that needed to be done that day.

Day 0

Air Assault School starts in the wee hours of the morning, long before dawn with a great deal of standing in formation, kneeling in the rocks (everything there is limestone gravel), a 2-mile run, PRT (a series of calisthenics that includes a half-dozen types of the push-up – also demonstrated the maxim that any movement done long enough eventually hurts (fire running through your body hurts) – until thoroughly smoked) and then, and only then, do you actually get to climb the rope on to the Tough One.

tough one

I completed all the obstacles and the day moved on to sitting in a classroom simultaneously trying to stay awake and avoid doing the wrong thing so as not to do more push-ups.

By the way, here is a sweet video of the O Course done by the 101 Sustainment BDE.

Day 1

Again, the wee hours of the morning. Ok, really, when your alarm goes off at 0200, its actually the middle of the night. At 0330, we had formation and by 0400, we were off on a timed 6 mile ruck march that had to be passed in order to stay in the course. I passed.

#21 out of over 160 so not bad considering most everyone there is about half my age…

After that, we had an equipment layout and inspection. I had a moment of panic thinking I had forgotten my id tags – I had, but I also had packed a spare set in my ruck so I was good – and passed that.

After the layout our class, which had started out as over 230 the morning of Day 0 was now down to less than 160. After Day 1, we were down to less than 150. I think we are sitting at about 130 now. Fairly normal for Air Assault School.

Classwork.

People had told me that there was a lot of classroom training in AASLT School. They are correct. Only, it’s not like any training I’ve ever had before. As a Direct Commission officer, I never went to Basic Training so I really don’t know what that was like. Lecture is simply an Instructor barking facts he has memorized directly from the Field Manual and my furiously writing them down. There really isn’t room for any kind of creative thinking. Or thinking at all. This is Army training at its finest. When the Air Assault Sergeant says, “Study Air Assault” (we are called by our roster number and Air Assault – I am “roster number 620”) what he means is memorize. Somehow, I don’t think anyone really cares about pedagogical methods and my own learning style.

Day 2

More intense PT. I expected this. I am suddenly remembering that I’m getting older. My recovery time is nothing like it used to be. I get home after a day and just want to immerse myself in a hot tub and not get out of it. At all. Ever.

Then, it’s more classroom training and some field training.

So far, we’ve learned about the various rotary wing aircraft in the Army inventory – I need to memorize things like allowable cargo loads and maximum speed/cruising speed of each etc. Air Assault Combat Operations, Aeromedical Evacuation Operations and a bunch of other things that frankly, I don’t remember at this moment. I have so much memorizing to do this weekend…

Oh and “Pathfinder Hand and Arm Signals” which I’m pretty convinced is Army Tai Che.

Day 3 is Monday and at 0600, I’ll have a written test on all this as well as a demonstration about the hand and arm signals. So much work this weekend. At least I have the weekend.

I’m glad I made it but it’ll be even better when June 10 comes along…

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Chaplains Represent… what?

There is a remarkable disconnect between the symbols of authority I wear on the uniform and the actual authority I bear as a person. A chaplain has no authority. They have no command. They have no real power. They only have representative power.

This looks like invoking the commander’s name when I need something acted upon as a staff officer. This looks like owning the rank on my chest as though it actually meant something other than a pay grade.

This looks like good, old fashioned pride often enough.

And yet, when I come into a room, it is not uncommon for Soldiers to stop with foul language or they will ask for pardon, “sorry chaplain…” Sometimes, people will shift uncomfortably in their seats waiting for me to finish whatever business I have in their space and leave; hoping, it seems, that I don’t start talking to them.

Is this because I am somehow intimidating? Heavens no! I am average in every way. I am a middle to end of the pack runner. I am always pushing the deadlines on my staff work. It is a great struggle and burden to keep up with the younger, more fit, better educated officers I work with.

So what drives the discomfort?

Representation.

I read this passage from a “Minister’s Prayer Book” this morning and it resonated with me.

                “I was a pastor ministering at a hospital. A patient said to me, “if you were a ditchdigger, you’d have a more useful calling than you do now.” That was a long time ago, but I have not forgotten it. I thought so myself many a time as I watched the nurses performing their tasks which are so needed and desired by the sick, and surgeons and doctors performing the most wonderful operations – while I stood there making miserable attempts at pastoral conversation. If I only were a ditchdigger! But a pastor? An impossible figure! Impossible before God, the world, and even myself. For there is a tremendous gap between what is required of a pastor in his (her) ministry and his (her) authority and power. Does he (she) have any power at all?…”*

I have oft felt that angst. I have oft flited about the “battlefield” on a mission or tasking with nothing more to do than visit with my Soldiers and just “be there.” Often, I have dealt with my angst by finding busy work to engage in. Becoming an expert in suicide intervention, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Leadership, morale work, budget analysis, event planning, and whatever else I could do to make myself useful to command.

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Really, I’m often just finding work to fill my day. To fill the void in my heart that seems so unfulfilled and worries that I’m of no actual use to the world I work in I create usefulness. I can own that it often came from pride.

It is noted, on the other hand, that I was raised with the maxim, “find a need and fill it.” This, combined with the embedded message of, “always look busy,” created in me a need to always have projects going. At its best, those projects were in the first vein but often, they could be easily identified as meeting the latter need.

Projects are good. Fulfilling needs and meeting goals are always healthy endeavors. For me, I’ve found that ignoring my spirit for the sake of keeping busy is injurious to my soul. They are an effort to be needed, to create some authority, please someone rather than the Someone, and by attempting to be indispensable, create power. That is inherently not good and not healthy.

It has been a challenge, growing into my ministry identity.

In a sense, I have suffered into it. 15 years into my ministry I am finally recognizing that what people need from their pastor is not programs or skill sets or leadership – they need authenticity. They need someone who knows their lane and knows their God and can represent that to them.

I love this from my morning reading:

                “The pastor’s authority is based solely upon the fact that Jesus Christ ministers to him (her) through the forgiveness of sins. What do I have to do in my ministry? I have to preach, and we say, “preaching is God’s Word.” And I know how those sermons of mine were produced. Often, it is true, with prayer and fear and trembling; but also by the dint of coffee and tobacco, sometimes in a burst of effort, very sketchily and superficially, because I have seemingly more important things to do. Strictly speaking, an impossible thing – unless Jesus Christ himself is not ashamed to accept this preaching.”* – Herman Dietzfelbinger

I know how my ministry has been produced. Through suffering both external and internal. Through the battles of the soul. Through disciplining my body and my mind, failing miserably in the intent, getting up and doing it again.

I think, and hope, that this is the sort of pastor people want and need. One who suffers as they do and yet, still embraces hope; even when it’s so hard to see. It is not about the work I do, the expertise I develop, the intellect I wield (thank God), it is about who I seek to represent. Can my people see Jesus through my stuff or does my business get in the way? Can they experience Christ in my presence, words, and actions or do they experience just another staff officer doing their jobs?

Pastoral ministry is, after all, all about who I represent.

 

* I chose intentionally to make the passage egalitarian.

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