Tag Archives: chaplain

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. 

8 Comments

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy

A Humble Way Forward

I am, by training and vocation, a systems thinker. When I hear a problem, I first seek to understand the issue as best I can and then pose this question: What system might have caused or contributed to this issue and how can we utilize that same system to bring about movement towards a workable solution?

In the past few days, I have read about and heard a great deal of anger, confusion, frustration, angst, and, above all, grief in relationship to the Charlestown shooting. This morning, I listened to an NPR call in program where highly educated professors and journalists talked about the issue and what I came away with was this: there is a problem with racism in this country. Full stop.

Ok, so now what?

I mean, really – what can actually be DONE about this problem?

I humbly offer this as movement towards a workable solution:

  1. I have experienced over and over again that education and exposure leads to tolerance which, when leaned into, can produce (at its best) an eventual celebration of differences. I observed this phenomena at its height while overseeing the “7 Habits on the Inside” program. By the time I left after three years teaching and learning from my inmates, I watched as correctional professionals and inmates (some of whom had been going after each other for years) listen to one another. I watched them sit down, hear one another, seek to understand one another and seek mutually beneficial solutions. That kind of understanding only comes through intentional learning and growth – on both sides. The 7 Habits program fostered that growth.
  2. One of the reasons this worked was the hard work of CH (LTC) Mark Jones, myself, other committed correctional staff and chaplains who embraced their own growth and change while making the effort and sacrifice necessary to patiently teach others. In twelve weeks, inmates would look within themselves to discover what was holding them back, do deep personal work, and then seek to understand others. The change that families and correctional staff saw was convincing and permanent. Over them, trust happened when there was no trust before.
  3. Chaplains are professionals who are held to a professional ethic. They are responsible for ensuring the free exercise of religion. In that role, they often will work to expose others to different religions and thought while seeking to establish common denominators that are necessary for tolerance, dignity, and respect. In that way, they are able to help those who have different cultures, opposing viewpoints, religions etc to relate to one another and move forward in relationship.

Why couldn’t this happen in schools?

Why not have chaplains in schools?

In this country, we have an embedded system of thought which says that we just should not talk about “religion and politics.” The problem with that is, because we are not taught how to have respectful discourse, we only talk about those things in the worst way possible. I offer the anger, hate, and vitriol spewed on social media as evidence.

What if, as I did in my 7 Habits program, we taught religion in schools in a way that promoted healthy and respectful discourse based on seeking understanding? What if every school had a chaplain whose job it was to promote the free exercise of religion by educating (NOT proselytizing) all the students in all the systems of thought that make up our great nation? What if students took field trips to all the places of worship in their cities? What if religion included atheism and “free thought?” What if students learned to see other systems of thought as interesting and not as something to be afraid of and fight against?

There was this moment in teaching the 7 Habits that I came to really see how powerful this could be. The students were engaged in an exercise that had been written by myself, CH Jones, and other inmates. The exercise was to take an intentionally controversial question and discuss it. However, in discussing it, the students had to hear everyone’s past relationship to the problem. They had to make a real and concerted effort to understand the perspectives of everyone at the table (each person would have to agree they had been heard and understood) before they even began to work towards a solution.

It. Was. Powerful.

Over and over again, in class after class, students would break down decades old barriers simply by seeking to understand in a systematic way. It was there that I learned that we’re just not taught as Americans to hear and listen with understanding. It’s a skill that needs to be developed, honed, and constantly practiced.

What if that was a goal in education?

What if this troubled young man had to go through a class like this? Would it check the hate he was learning? Perhaps and perhaps not but I daresay it might have been enough of a check to hold back violence.

I’m a believer that if we taught our children how to listen with understanding, taught them that other races, cultures, belief systems were what make us great, exposed them to all those cultures in a systematic way then we would go a long way toward making better Americans.

I, for one, humbly advocate for chaplains in our school systems to do work like this.

Imagine that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Chaplaincy, Citizen

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.

BPcLETwBWkKGrHgoHEYEjlLl2qfnBJzqqTw_12

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy

Ten Year Itch: Part Four – A conversation about two careers and conclusions

The last installment of the “Ten Year Itch” series is a conversation between Sara and I. We decided that it would be fitting, as we extrovert these thoughts about Active Duty, to also extrovert some of the thoughts, ideas, and motivations we have as a couple.

It’s the whole “one flesh” idea. Any choice that one person in a relationship makes impacts the other – it’s felt – by the other. Thoughts about the future are as much about Sara as they are about me. We are a “two-pastor family.”

It’s been pretty easy up to this point. As soon as I got pregnant with Sophia, I stopped working and spent the next several years home with our kids. “My career” was never an idea that crossed our minds; while I knew I wanted to work when the kids were older, I had no clarity on what that would be. We lived the maxim “Home is where the Army Sends You” – Jon went to work every day, I was a stay-at-home mom. Whenever we needed to move, nothing would change about my life except the location. And then, one day… I DID have clarity. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And it became clear very quickly that my path would not always be “Where the Army Sent Us.” So then what?

Your call was clear. Certainly more clear than I ever experienced mine. I remember the first time you stood behind the pulpit at Memorial – it was an almost electric feeling that went through me. You belonged there. I remember thinking how obvious it was that this was where you were supposed to be. Clearly, it wasn’t just me that saw that. It’s been true throughout the last few years.

This calling presents a significant problem – how do we, as a couple – pursue two distinct careers? I’ve known dual military officers, dual enlisted Soldiers, and dual chaplains. But I’ve yet to experience a successful active duty chaplain and full time pastor. I’m wondering what some of those barriers might be to have a two career family?

There are the obvious:

  • Moves to areas we can’t control. I happened into a great position here in Kentucky, but it’s very likely that the next duty station either won’t have a Disciples church, or that church won’t be hiring. While I’m still pursuing my MDiv and ordination, part time/ intern positions are great – but in a few years when I’m done with that, it will be difficult to go through the denominational Search & Call process with Army moves.
  • I will have to leave good situations prematurely.
  • Pastoring requires networking and building relationships in a community and region. This is hard to do with frequent moves.

When I think of the challenges, the one that sticks out the most to me is networking. The way I experience the Disciples working, a pastor needs to “build a brand” within the region and that takes time. Consistent time working within a region building a reputation that will follow you throughout your career. As you follow my career, I’m afraid you’ll just have to be a volunteer or intern for the next 10 years until you’ll be able to actually embrace your call.

But the alternative isn’t appealing either. The only way for me to fully “embrace my call” (as in, enter the Search & Call process and we move to the church who calls me) would be for you to either not work or have a portable career. We rely on your income, so that is not a realistic alternative – whether you were Active Duty, or worked in the Bureau of Prisons or VA or anything else. Sometimes it just seems as though there’s no win-win.

There must be. I think its somewhere in trusting the call. At the time of every Army move, we take into account your career and what is available to you and choose accordingly. Coming to Ft. Campbell turned out to be a great move for us as you were able to work at First Christian and proximity to school/family. I have to believe that this will continue. While I am not really committed to the idea that it will always work out like this, I do believe that there will be two good opportunities for us to be a part of God’s work wherever we go.

In many ways, we make the opportunities good ones.

I agree. I think the conversation isn’t “your career” vs “my career” – or even how much weight each of our careers carries in the decision-making process. We take it move by move, job by job. Sometimes it will be really great for me and not quite as fulfilling for you – other times it might be the opposite. There IS no perfect. I think the key is acknowledging this – and acknowledging the grief that each of us has in our personal sacrifice for the other.

And as we make these move-by-move decisions, there might be a point where we do something nearly solely for one or the other of us. I think the move to Hopkinsville was that: after I spent so many years unfulfilled and mostly unhappy, we moved here because it was good for me. The next move will be different. We each make sacrifices for the family, because what’s best for the family will not always be what is best for you or best for me.

I really like that “move by move, job by job” – I think this is the challenge that everyone has in this age. We live in a two-career/income society. Really, in many ways, the Army is part of that last vestige of single-income jobs that make the traditional “breadwinner” life possible. One of the people that come to mind is one of my old principles, Brian Foreman who now blogs at Luke1428 He and his wife made the choice to switch who became the breadwinner but it does not seem like an either/or choice but one where they chose what was best for their family. I see our responsibility to each other’s careers in a similar way – what is best for us right now? The future is always changing but what is best for us: me, you, the kids; in the now and immediate future?

I’m fascinated when I meet dual pastor families who have been doing this for years. I’m amazed how they have been able to manage two careers that are based so firmly in relationships. How they know members in each other’s congregations and are engaged in the social fabric of two churches. It binds the two congregations together in a intangible way.

While we’re far from having this figured out, I am encouraged that we have these conversations. I am constantly reminded that whatever we do – we’ll do it together. We think about the two-clergy couples we know, and it looks different for every single one of them. There’s no “right” answer; there’s only what’s best for our family in each time, in each place, given the information we have at the time.

Indeed. Thanks for having this conversation in public.

Conclusions

For what it’s worth, we’re nowhere closer to any decision than when we started the conversation. At the end of the day, choices like this are just choices. I like what Andrew commented a couple days ago – things that are life-changing and massively significant to us are not to God. Wherever we serve, whatever we set our hands to, God provides and blesses. I believe that. In the mean time, we serve with our whole hearts engaged in the task at hand.

Finishing in the Army would mean total flexibility after I finish my career and that’s significant. One thing I have determined in this thought exercise, my value of family is more important that just about anything and that we’re going to bloom wherever we’re planted. Things like retirement and salary are important but not at the expense of our family.

I have loved being a Soldier – not all of it – but it’s a part of me that will never really go away. I suspect that no matter where we end up a decade from now, Soldiering on will be the order of the day…

Thanks for taking this journey with us. I hope it’s given some clarity for you.

2 Comments

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family

Ten Year Itch: Part Three – The Retirement

With calling addressed. I’ll approach the sticky subject – money.

When the question, “should I leave Active Duty” comes up, invariably, the answers come back quickly. There is a short calculation, basically how many years do you have left until the magical 20, and then it’s, “well you only have XX left.” It’s all about the retirement.

US-Army-retired-logo

The military pension, as it exists today, was set up for another time. When it was instituted, life expectancy was much shorter and military pay did not equal civilian pay. This, of course had dramatically changed over the years with the advent of the all-volunteer force’s pay coming up to par and sometimes exceeding civilian pay. To be fair, the demands of military life certainly justify the pay and benefits and if you survive to 20 years, the defined benefits package includes half of your paycheck and free healthcare (among other things) for the rest of your life. It’s a sweet deal if you can pull it off.

There have been some proposals to change the system. Proposals that seem beneficial in the long run. As great a deal as it is, I’m wondering if its really a sustainable system when people like me can “retire” at 47, pull a paycheck (while pursuing another career) for the rest of my working days. Truth be told, all I need to do is make it another 10 years on AD (this means not getting into trouble and passing my bi-annual physical fitness test) and I’m set. For life.

Too good to be true? In some ways, it kind of is. It’s a little like winning lottery – the check of the month club – if by that you mean exchanging your blood, sweat and tears for 20 years… it’s all or nothing. Either you make it there or you don’t.

Of course, there is always the reserves – in which I have 11 years good time – which also pays a retirement albeit I cannot draw until I’m 58.

With all the upside, what is the personal and family cost of serving in the military?
I’ve spent years away from my family.
My family and I are currently living in the 9th house in 10 years of Active Duty. My kids, ages 3,5,7, are in their third school district in as many states and 4th school. I think that as a field grade my moves might slow down a little but they haven’t yet and if I extrapolate that reality over another decade, my daughter might be in as many as ten different schools before she graduates high school.
These continual moves have been an adventure and we’ve adapted well but every one wears on me a little more. The last two were just work. No fun. No adventure. Just the “cost of doing business.”
When deployments happen, it’s 24/7 – the work never stops. Basically, the deployed Soldier just lives for the day that he or she can come home and rest. Only, there really isn’t rest for the weary. There is just more work. The optemp of the active duty force is all day/every day. After all, there are other Soldiers deployed and we can rest… when we retire…
We’ve not lived close to family – ever – all our vacations revolve around seeing them. I know this is a reality for many people in and out of the military but it’s a cost nonetheless.
The physical/emotional/spiritual cost on my personal wellbeing is intangible but there are days I feel it deeply.
My children make friends quickly and then suffer when we leave and we are always leaving. Sara and I find that it’s getting harder to maintain deep relationships since we’re always the one’s leaving.
My wife’s career is on hold until I get out. She can always get more education but to actual get a church, she needs stability and to network in a region. I’m not willing to be a geographical bachelor.
And then, there is the very real risk – to my life – being a Soldier. It was one thing to take that risk ten years ago with no children but I’ve changed, I have three who are very dear to me and it weighs on my shoulders.

But it is also true, we are well-compensated. I’ve gained a great deal from my time in the Army, not the least of which has been a DMin (still working on that one), 4 units of CPE and a residency, and all the experience that comes with a decade of ministry.

If I left, it would cost of a great deal. Besides drawing a pension at 47, there would be the exemptions I have from state income tax, homestead exemption, free healthcare (no copays, no deductibles) and other benefits I can’t really think of right now.

The benefits are tangible, the cost, less so.

Which is why Army service is never usually talked about in purely monetary terms – it’s not like other occupations – it’s a calling for most and chaplains especially.

Over the years the most impressive people I’ve met, those whose life has stood out to me are people that have such a clear sense of call that their service in the Army is just a part of that call rather than the sum total. Chaplains who served their deployments and got out (or went to the reserves) because their call to preach/family was stronger than the retirement. Soldiers whose calling to be a firefighter/doctor/police officer/business executive were stronger than a simple 20 year retirement.

Soldiers for whom the Army was a part of their identity but not their entire identity.

In many ways, I’ve envied them, looked up to them, wished I had such clarity of vision myself.

But then, I enjoy being a chaplain. I always have. There are parts I don’t enjoy but there are parts of any vocation that are not fun. What is remarkable to me is that the parts I no longer enjoy are the parts of this work that brought me in in the first place. That’s significant to me.

I have other options. Because of my 4 units of CPE, hospital and prison experience, I’m a good candidate for either the Department of Veteran Affairs or the Federal Bureau of Prisons, both of which would count my ten years of federal service toward a federal retirement.

If, in fact, a retirement was what drove me.

What drives me is fulfillment of the calling, the burning in my soul to be there for the outcast, the forgotten, and the underserved; to preach and teach.

The most fulfilled I’ve ever been was the last two years serving the inmates at the JRCF/USDB and the little congregation at Memorial Chapel. My weeks were full and I was often tired but it was a good tired – like a great workout at the gym – I knew what I was doing mattered. Every. Single. Day.

When it comes to retirement and compensation I’m reminded of a story in our family. There was a time in my mom and dad’s life when they were poor and just starting out. They needed some dishes and a church mother gave them some from her attic. They were beautiful plates with gold rims and ornate designs on them. My father, being a son of the Midwest, was astounded at the gift. He responded to the generosity with, “we can’t take these they are much too nice.” The Minnesota grandmother’s response has always stuck with me, “The’ re just things pastor, just things.”

It’s just money. Just money.

3 Comments

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family

Ten Year Itch Part 2: Calling

When I was in college, it was always a mystery to me how other “preacher boys” (always boys of course) just knew God’s exact will for their lives. I mean they KNEW it. There was this whole ritual that included finding a verse in the Bible (the more obscure the better) that spoke to them in “just that way” and somehow pinpointed on a map the exact location, job title, and sometimes the woman who would accompany them and bear their children…. sometimes the woman knew too…

Then there was passive-aggressive breakup move (might have used it myself a time or two *rolls head in shame*) where the guy would ask out a girl because he was following God’s leading, rejoice in God’s bounty as the relationship progressed, experience a “check in their spirit” as the relationship started to be, oh I don’t know, normal and finally, once again following the leading of God, break-up with the girl. God’s will all the way.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

So what then is a call?

Maybe it would be better to ask, what is NOT a call? I knew that whatever clear guidance the other guys I went to school with were feeling, I was not getting it. I knew it wasn’t some kind of warm feeling. Turns out, that Scripture means whatever you want it to mean so that wasn’t helpful. I never had a “burning in the bosom.” All my campfire decisions were exactly that. As an adult looking back, I can see my family of origin issues in every life altering declaration of God’s leading.

For many years, I put hope in that tired axiom, “if you can do anything else in life, you probably should. If you are called to preach, you won’t be able to do anything else.” But then, I love to preach. I mean, I really enjoy preparing and delivering sermons. I get meaning the purpose from preaching. I am more myself there than about anywhere but… there are many ways I can earn a living and not preach. Typing this blog post, as an Active Duty Army Chaplain, I have not preached a sermon in 9 months.

9 months.

In 15 years of full time Christian ministry, I’ve never made my living as a preacher. Ever. I’ve been a teacher, worship leader, chaplain etc. But paid as a preacher – not so much. And I’m ok with that. I came to terms years ago with working a meaningful, fulfilling job to finance my preaching habit. Often, it seems the best ministry I’ve done has been on my time, voluntarily given.

As a young man, I declared that I was “called to preach” and I believe that I was even if I’m not sure as an adult, what that means.

What is a call?

Direction. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Opportunity.

It’s that moment in a believers life when she or he experiences the intersection of what they love and a real human need. It’s getting on board with the plan the Divine has for the world. It’s knowing that what you are about is what God is about.

I experienced it in the classroom at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, NJ. I loved being a teacher. Not every day, but most days.
I experienced it downrange, in Iraq, serving the Soldiers of 2-121 Infantry Battalion and the 603d Aviation Support Battalion.
I experienced it teaching ethics to the medical hold Soldiers of the 832d Ordinance Battalion.
I experienced it, deeply, in my Clinical Pastoral Education group.
I experienced it teaching Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to civilians who volunteered at a homeless shelter in Huntsville, AL
The day I walked into a prison, I knew I was where I needed to be. It’s existential, it’s mystical, it’s spiritual – and it was clear. I experienced it throughout my time both at the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and the United States Disciplinary Barracks.

I experience it every single time and get behind a pulpit and preach. It’s what I’m here for.

A calling is sacred. A calling is personal. It is fundamental to my journey as a Christian.

But does it change?

I’m not sure. I know I have changed. I have grown. I’ve become a different person than I was ten years ago when I started this journey.

Was I called in the Army?
I have a journal that I kept while teaching that first year at New Life. In it, close to the front, bookended by one of those “God’s leading” relationships – 9/11 happened. Jesse Gardner and I sat in a room that included kids who parents worked down at/by the Towers and watched them collapse. We gathered on that Wednesday night service the next day as traumatized Christians gathered, prayed and told their stories. At the end of the week, I wrote, “This week the Towers went down. We’re going to war. I don’t know how or when but I’m going to be a part of this.”

I tried to join the Army that fall but medical issues kept me out.

I came in several years later after completing seminary. Deployments defined the first 5 years, then a year interlude at an Advanced Individual Training unit, and then CPE, then the prison. My time in the Army has been one of constant engagement in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s been amazing.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

But was I called?
Not sure. I know I wanted an adventure. I knew I wanted an opportunity to prove my manhood. I knew I wanted to go to war. I knew I wanted to fulfill a childhood dream.

I did all that. Checked those blocks. I finally arrived at Ft. Campbell and now, I just don’t like any of it. The possibility of going to Air Assault school just pains me and the talk of war saddens me. The man who came into the Army a decade ago joined to go to war. He had no children and no real future plans. He just had a passion and needed to accomplish something.

Does calling change?
I still love preaching. I still love teaching. I still love work in which there is a clear line connecting the work I do with changed lives and the visible working of God in other’s lives. That has not changed.

You know, it occurs to me that I’ve never believed that the specific location really mattered in terms of exercising a call to ministry. Just do the work and the location/job title/congregation will take care of itself.

During my time at CPE, I developed this pattern of call, it’s not for everyone but it’s how I work with God’s call in my life:

There are human needs, there is the Divine plan to meet those needs, there are my hopes/desires/skills/gifts and they intersect. This vocation is then confirmed by others who, themselves, follow close to God’s voice. Calling/confirmation. It’s what works in my life.

I’m interested in what others have experienced in relationship to ” the call.

2 Comments

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Theology, Two Pastor Family

The Ten Year Itch. Part One.

In which I ask the question, “should I stay or should I go now?” And for introducing that ear-worm of a song into your head, you’re welcome.

When I started blogging… ten years ago… I did so with the intent of extroverting the new, exciting adventure I was undertaking – becoming an Army Chaplain.

The journey took many forms and at one point, I stopped blogging for 4 years while I figured out who I was theologically. I’ve been committed to saying out loud things that are often just questions asked internally. I’ve discovered, by extroverting those thoughts, that others are feeling them, experiencing them, asking them. I’ve enjoyed the community of questioning.

Side note: I don’t have all my blog posts any more so I am not sure if I ever told this story – the time I quit blogging was because after that second deployment, I knew that I wasn’t an evangelical anymore. I had stopped calling myself a fundamentalist years before but was holding out on the notion of being an “evangelical.” I explored some of my questioning internally and was reading a great deal at the time. I posted how I was more “ecumenical and open” than I had ever been before and how central the Lord’s Table had become to my expression of Christianity. My endorser at the time was a fundamentalist group who had endorsed me since coming into the Army (they charged me $160 a month for the privilege – but that’s another story). This group had not interacted with me at all. They didn’t call, they didn’t write – as long as I submitted my monthly report of numbers saved, baptized, coming to church, Bible study etc. I was good.

Until I posted that on my blog.

Two weeks. That’s all it took. Two weeks later, I sat in a Golden Coral in Savannah, GA convincing them that I had not strayed from the fold and was a good chaplain still. I knew then that I needed to get out and into something that was a better expression of who I was. After moving to Huntsville, AL and meeting the wonderful folks at First Christian Church, Huntsville and Pastor Guy McCombs, I knew I was home.

That’s why I needed to stop blogging for awhile. I knew that if they pulled my endorsement, I’d have to leave the Army and I was not ready to do that at the time.

I was thinking about that story this morning while reading this post on becoming a disciple. Or at least why you should think about becoming one… we’d never just ask you to be one or certainly tell you that it’s better than anyone else. We’re a bit too polite for all that…

I love being in the Disciples because there is room for me and there is room for everyone else at the Table. There are room for the questions. Isn’t community like that what Christianity is at it’s best?

This post is part one of a series I’m going to do on midlife career changes.

Yup, you heard that correctly, I’m thinking of a career change.

Not too drastic but certainly not Active Duty Army any more.

Or, maybe I’ll stay. That’s the thing, over the years, I’ve wanted to shine a light on the journey of a chaplain and these questions are a part of that journey.

Questions:

  1. What is a calling and does that calling change as we change?
  2. What role should finances play in pursuing a call?
  3. Is personal happiness and fulfillment more important that taking care of your family as best you can?
  4. What about suffering in the now to reap the greater reward in the future?
  5. How does a couple, who both are pursuing careers, balance all of the above and still develop those careers? What responsibility do I have to my wife’s career?
  6. Where does serving God and making good money intersect?
  7. What would God have me do?

The answers might end up being that I need to stay in the Active rolls, continue my journey and end in 10-20 more years.

The answer might be that it’s time to take my talents/abilities/calling to another field and work there.

Either way, I want to be certain that I am leaving to pursue a calling deeper and fuller than the one that brought me into the Corps in the first place.

4 Comments

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy

Speaking out.

All this talk of torture has reminded me of a memory I have from my first deployment in Iraq, 2005.

The battalion had just experienced a tragic death. The third vehicle in a patrol of four had been hit by a bomb buried under a road. The vehicle, an armored HUMVEE was totally destroyed. It had been turned inside out like a cracked egg. All four Soldiers and NCOs inside the vehicle were killed.

I walked through the tactical operations center in a fog. I was 26, a 1LT, been in the Army for all of a few months, and overwhelmed. I walked from person to person praying, encouraging, crying – I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

Then I saw a patrol getting ready to go out to the scene. I don’t remember what it was they were planning to do but I do remember that they were angry. The talk was of vengeance and death. I grabbed my gear to go with them. Before we left, I looked into the eyes of each Soldier and NCO and said something like, “Remember who we are. Don’t forget the flag you wear on your shoulder. Remember who you are.”

At a memorial a few weeks later for another four Soldiers killed from the same platoon, same squad, in the same way, I heard an officer who outranked me telling some Soldiers with tears streaming down his face and anger in his voice to “do what you have to do. Kill the bastards.” Later I would tell him that by telling some privates to “do what they have to do,” he was giving them permission to follow their emotions rather than their training.

As Soldiers, we do our duty. We do not “do what we have to do.” And we certainly do not do what we feel.

Soldiers follow standard operating procedure. We follow Field Manuals, Regulations, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

I remember a pit stop during a patrol I was on at the “safe house.” We had stopped to refit, drop off some supplies and continue. During the smoke break, sitting in the shade of a fig tree, several Soldiers asked me why we couldn’t just give our detainees to the Iraqi army since they didn’t have the rules that we did. In other words, they were frustrated that we took detainees into custody and gave them food and water. The Iraqi Army was brutal with them. (My commander once confiscated a stick that had a ball on one end of melted plastic. Into that plastic was embedded all sorts of sharp objects. The stick had been taken from the Iraqi Army.) I replied to the question that the rules governing our conduct was an extension of our constitution. That our code of justice was an extension of US Law. US Law forbade torture and torture was counterproductive anyway. Of course the Iraqis wanted to be detained by us rather than their Iraqi brethren. At that time, Iraq was in the midst of ethnic cleansing. At least Americans were governed by something other than brutality and cold pragmatism. We talked about ethics and morality in the heat of an Iraqi afternoon.

Then, this week, I heard the former Vice President talk about doing what we “had to do” after 9/11 to keep the country safe. Apparently that included feeding an untried, uncharged inmate (detainee) through his rectum. Apparently that included paying contractors to do it for us. Apparently, it included keeping people, uncharged and untried, locked in boxes shaped like coffins. I could go on but you get the point.

Bottom line: it would seem, what I told those Soldiers, what I encouraged leaders to think about, what I taught young Soldiers about the American ethic and law – was wrong.

From what I am hearing from our former vice president, religious leadership, political leadership in this country is that our ethic should be based on:

1. Effectiveness – if it works we should do it.
2. Legality – if a lawyer will write a memorandum detailing how its legal, we should do it.
3. Retribution – if 3,000 people were killed, then we should do it.
4. Punishment – if a person is thought to be guilty, there is no mercy, we should do it.
5. Semantics – if we can call it something other than torture (such a negative word), we should do it.

By it, I mean torture.

But is it torture?

Ask this question: if an American Soldier, held by the Taliban, Al Qaida, or ISIL had the following done to them, would it be torture?

Detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding,” a process by which food or nutrients are pumped in through the anus…
Detainees were told they would never leave these “black sites” and that their families would be sexually assaulted or murdered.
Detainee died from hypothermia after being chained to a floor and left there.
Detainees were waterboarded until they turned blue… and were on the verge of drowning.
Sleep deprivation, nudity, dietary manipulation, facial holds, abdominal slaps, facial slaps, and “walling” – being thrown against a wall.
Confined for 11 days in a coffin-sized box.
At one black site, groups of detainees were regularly stripped, beaten, hooded and bound with tape.
Detainees were also refused access to toilets, put in diapers and left hanging by their wrists in cells for extended periods of time.
Others were forced to maintain “stress positions” even on broken limbs and though medical personnel had advised against it.
Not everyone was guilty – Some mistakenly held detainees were subjected to prolonged periods of torture before being released.

If it was your son or your daughter – would it be torture then? Or would it be acceptable since we’re at war and they are just “doing what they have to do” to protect their homeland?

I’m certain that if it was me locked in a coffin shaped box, I would think it torture.

If I was getting fed through my rectum, I would think it torture.

If I was being forcibly drowned, I would think it torture.

As a US Army chaplain, I am obligated by AR 165-1 to speak to ethical and moral issues. The chaplain is to be the moral and ethical voice in the Army.

Torture, effective or not, legal or not, is wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. It violates our constitution and collective conscience.

It is not for the operator, the corrections officer, the Soldier, the policemen to punish the offender. Retribution comes through the legal process by which a person is tried under US Law and an open, transparent penal system doles out said punishment. No single person can be judge, jury and executioner – not in America and not by Americans.

I worry that we too easily accept the notion of effectiveness. I mean, after all, if Jack Bauer gets it done through torture, why not us?

The other day, on Facebook, I wrote the following as satire in response to the “effective” argument:

“If this ‘torture’ that you speak of is so ‘effective,’ then why do we relegate it to accused terrorists? Why don’t we apply it to domestic kidnapping cases? War on drugs? Traffic violations? Seems like if it’s not ‘torture’ and it ‘works’ to gain actionable intelligence, and it demonstrates the morals and ethical stance of this country, I just don’t see why we need to do it to do it overseas in private, secret prisons. Maybe if we made videos of this safe, effective, and moral non-torture, it would act as a detergent to all sorts of bad behavior. Maybe we could start using it to find out who sprayed that ugly bad word all over the town monument! This is awesome! By making this sort of behavior not-torture and legitimizing it, there is no end to how we could use it for good! After all, if our intentions are ‘right’ then the end justifies the means….”

It was sarcasm but my point is this – if we govern our ethic by pragmatism and effectiveness – it opens the door to everything. That is a world of which I am afraid.

What about the argument that the enemy does it to us??

We are not Al Qaida. We are not ISIL. We are not the Taliban. Our standard of behavior is US law not a terrorist. Full Stop.

But it was legal!

I understand. That does not make it right. Being angry, scared, and needing retribution does not make it right.

So where does that leave us?

Let us collectively decide that torture, by any name, is wrong. We will not do it no matter what is done to us. Let us be above the actions of our enemies and do what is just, regardless of what is done to us.

As a Christian, I am governed by the imperative to “do unto other as you would have done unto you.”

But when it comes to vengeance, retribution, and torture, there is no tension. Vengeance isn’t mine to give, retribution comes through the justice system, and torture is just not done.

We are Americans. Let us be great. Let us be shining lights on a hill. Let us be examples to the world of what it means to have power and wield it for good.

Epilogue – I was going to embed all kinds of links to back up my points but realized that most would not follow them anyway. A quick Google search of these terms will bring you loads of articles agreeing and disagreeing with my opinion:

“Christianity and torture,” “Torture in American history,” “Is torture right,” etc.

I speak for me. The above is my opinion and recommendation I would give anyone in this situation. I’m sure the operators and agents involved with this did so out of love for their country and in a desire to protect it. They also did so with the backing of a legal system that said it was ok. That should protect them. I believe we should search our souls, ask ourselves if this is who we are and examine our systems to see if this is where we should go. It is certainly not where I think we should. Please, for the love of that freedom we hold dear and all that is holy, let us not condone torture – for any reason.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, Chaplaincy

Purple Pizza – the skit we did for my CHOBC 2005 class ball

For my old ensemble comrades, I pulled out the classic “Purple Pizza” in my Chaplain Officer Leadership Course military ball in order to make fun of my leadership. I ran across this little gem while moving. This was 1LT Fisher and company in 2005. Three days after this video happened, I was married and a week after that – on my way to Iraq with 2/121 Infantry Regiment. This was a young chaplain who had not yet tasted war. What a life!

1 Comment

July 2, 2014 · 12:49 am

I’m a prison chaplain. I talk about sex addiction with addicts on a regular basis.

…You should know that before reading this post. In it, I am going to acknowledge the existence of sex and… other words…

So… I read this today on Huffington Post. It’s about a reddit group “NoFap” (Fapping is masturbating), a collection of (and I just saw this – it’s significant) no less than 74,000 “fapstronauts.” These are *mostly* men, 89% of whom are under the age of 30 who have taken a pledge not to “fap” for a variety of reasons not the least of which is to improve their sex life. Read the article, there are alot of amazing stats. 

Item I find MOST fascinating? Zero talk of religion. 

This is not a religious movement. It’s a personal health one. 

When I was in Bible College (I now own that I am a graduate of Pensacola Christian College – they kicked me out 3 weeks before my graduation, then gave me my degree a year later – though for years I said something like, “I went to a small private college in Florida when asked…) there were thousands of sexually repressed young men who “fapped” all the time. It was referred to by those who dared acknowledge it’s existence (though never by it’s actual name – I have a memory I’d love to erase of Gregg Mutch the college president preaching a sermon to “just the guys” about, and I am not kidding here, true story, “stroking the snake of pornea”). Those progressive enough to own that sometimes 19 year old men who are not allowed to get within 6 inches of a girl (broke that one a few hundred not sure how many times..) sometimes might give into the lustful thoughts constantly on their mind and “fap” also used the most powerful tool in the fundamentalist arsenal to fight it – guilt. 

Nothing like some good, old-fashioned, unadulterated guilt to make someone go forward and confess to someone else that you had “thoughts” and sometimes even “lustful thoughts.” It was unhealthy and made sex dirty. 

We were told it was bad, bad, bad and then, once married, its on like Donkey Kong. Cause that’s not weird and backward. 

Understand. I have, as a chaplain, experienced the dark side of porn addiction. It is very painful and what it does to families is a plague. 

What is amazing about this article is that this group approaches the idea of purity for their own health. It is people who come to some kind of awareness that their tastes and pleasures are not healthy and they want purity. And they seem to be doing it without guilt! 

More power to you. 

This article was encouraging to me. Whether we approach a healthy view of sex from a religious worldview or not, less porn use is better for the human race. 

Update: here’s the website: http://www.nofap.in

Also: your brain on porn – quite good

1 Comment

Filed under General