Tag Archives: Chaplaincy

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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Cleft of the Rock

So, here in Iraq, there are times the enemy wants to lash out in their death throws so they lob things at us. We have amazing systems to deal with such things so its not really an issue. When we know it’s coming we run for the bunkers which are placed strategically around the FOB. These bunkers sometimes are built up and reinforced like this Hesco behemoth:

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But mostly, they are like this one, a concrete tube. Sometimes they have sandbags and sometimes, like this one, just the tube. What they all have in common is the small opening you have to get through in order to get to safety. IMG_20160318_163634

There is literally a “cleft in the rock” though which is safety.

On Sunday, we sang this:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
cleanse me from its guilt and power. 

 

 

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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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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.

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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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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Theology

Ashes in Prison.

Now that I am no longer at the prison, I can reflect on some strong memories I have from there. Ash Wednesday is of particular note.

There hadn’t ever been an Ash Wed service before. It was not because there was not a need, there just had not been the energy to make it happen. In the prison system, everything runs according to a very strict, rigid schedule. Deviation from the standard, “schedule of calls” throws off the day and usually is not very helpful. The downside of this kind of rigidity is that being spontaneous and creative just makes a mess of the day, is frowned upon, and often just cannot happen. The upside is an extreme amount of predictability in my workday and the fact that while it was hard to change the schedule, once the change happened, it became an embedded part of the work day very quickly. That schedule of calls was a bit like the “law of the Medes and Persians.”

In order to make an Ash Wednesday service happen, I looked at the schedule and for reasons I do not remember, it couldn’t take place in the evening so I planned it for the opposite end of the spectrum, 0730-0800.

This meant that the prisoners would come to chapel instead of work call, attend service and then return to work after. One of the interesting impacts of this which I was not planning or intending for was that myself and my inmates were getting ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of the day. There is something very spiritually significant about “bearing the cross” all day long. Going to work, lunches, visiting, and interacting with my Soldiers while wearing an ashen cross. Over and over, every year I was at the prison, I would need to explain why “my forehead was dirty” or what Ash Wed was. Inmates who chose to come to service and wear the cross had to do so very publicly.

It put “bearing the cross” in a whole new light.

Not only was it a reminder of our own frailty and humanity, it was also a testimony to the Gospel. It took some courage to bear the cross.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

The first year, I was able to coordinate a service with our Catholic Deacon that provided pastoral care to Catholic inmates. This made the service truly eccumenical and helped to emphasize that in the Family of God, we can come together to recognize our shared humanity.

The second year, the power was out, the correctional specialists had switched to 12 hour shifts and the service had been lost in all the movement. I showed up that morning and was greeted by emergency lighting and the inmates were all still in their housing areas.

(side note: in military prisons, every inmate had a job. Every day is the same. Your cell pops open at 0500, breakfast soon after and by 0730, everyone is at work. Everyone goes to work, every. single. day. Therefore, the only time anyone is able to sleep in is Saturday and Sunday. Even then, you can’t really “sleep in” as wake up and breakfast always happen at the same time. However, you can go back to bed after breakfast if there is no work call. So when work call is cancelled and you have the opportunity to sleep a bit, it makes for a very quiet prison…)

So I had it put out over the sound system that there would be Ash Wed services that morning. I really didn’t expect much participation as work call had been cancelled and most everyone was taking advantage of the time to sleep away their time and to top it off, the Deacon could not come because of the weather.

But after putting out the word, the doors to the housing areas opened and out came inmate after inmate, filing into the chapel where we, with emergency lighting and no instruments, had our service of penitence and reflection.

The final Ash Wed service was a year ago today. I had mentioned in service on Sunday at my post congregation (Memorial Chapel) that I’d be conducting the service in the prison. A couple of my church members to include the Garrison Commander asked if they could join us in worship.

That morning everything worked, the schedule of calls was on time and the church was fairly full. Looking out over my congregation, it was a picture of the Church. The powerful and powerless, the formal worshippers next to the informal, the Catholics side by side with the Protestants, the Mormons next to the Baptists, the handsome next to the homely, the brown (prison uniform) next to the green (Army uniform), the inmate and the Garrison commander, the public sinners who were tried and condemned for their crimes and the private sinners who alone knew of their brokenness – I remember sitting in the pastor’s chair a little speechless by what was before me.

I knew it was to be my last Ash Wed service in the prison and very soon I would be leaving the prison and my inmates. My voice quivered when I started but soon confidence took over and the service went on. As inmates filed up to receive their ashes, the officers and Soldiers mingled with the prisoners, all one, all equal, all aware of their humanity and frailty.

Finally it was time for me to receive my ashes. I motioned to one of my inmates and, surprised, he came forward.
“Will you put the ashes on me?” He nodded.
I said the words, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” His hands trembled a bit as the prisoner applied the ashes to the chaplain’s forehead.

We are all one. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all come from dust and no matter what power or prestige is given to us on earth, to dust we shall return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Sacred dust. Sacred Ash. Sacred Redemption.

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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.

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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Two Pastor Family