Top 10 'lessons learned' from my time as a Chaplain
September 6, 2013
As I reflect on my past 14 years of service as a U.S. Army Chaplain, several key principles involving religious support and leadership come to mind. These principles and lessons-learned form my 'Top 10' list, and represent, not only what has guided my ministry to Soldiers and Family members, but also my daily pursuit -- and, at times, struggle - to put them into practice.
1. Take the Long View
The culture of the Army likes to quantify things. Concepts that cannot be counted and measured, to some, simply do not exist. Accept this. Also, understand that the Army likes to measure things--like training schedules, evaluation reports, deployments--in nice, neat, one year increments. Be the one person who does not think this way. When you look at senior leaders, diplomatically remind them that, eventually, everyone gets passed over. Encourage them to invest in things that have long term returns, like family, faith, etc.
2. God Talk Does Not Replace Good Staff Work
Saint Augustine said it this way, "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you." Too many chaplains play the spiritual card in order to cover up poor staff work. You are a pastor, yes, but you are also a staff officer. You can, like I did, get away with minimal administrative skills when you are a battalion chaplain. When you become a supervisor, your lack of skills will immediately become apparent and will hurt your team. I suspect that the battalion chaplains who have had to struggle to learn their job and roles have a better chance to become effective brigade leaders. Those who have to work at it usually stay hungry.
3. Be Missed for Who You Are, Be Appreciated for What You Did
When someone ETSs or PCSs, we often stand before a group and recognize them for their contributions to the "team." This is a good thing. The great chaplain is missed for who he or she was. Did you inspire others, especially your subordinates and family members, to become better people? Did people seek you out when they returned from leave? Do Soldiers recognize your voice in the dark? I know and respect some chaplains who ooze this. We have to continually challenge ourselves to be this type of chaplain.
4. Remember Who Got You There
In your leader book, wallet, purse, Scripture, whatever; keep a written list of all the assistants and supervisors you have every worked with or for. Aside from God, they have been the ones who have made you a professional success. You may not have always gotten along, and the relationships may have been tough, but of all things be grateful for the folks who have set aside time in their lives to make time for you. It is never too late to send an email or (gasp!) a letter to that person who shaped you.
5. Leadership Is Lonely
This applies to your commanders and NCO leaders more than it does to you. Leaders carry tremendous burdens. Leadership is not easy. Remember this when you interact with your superiors. When you show up at work on Monday morning, have a quotation, observation, or Soldier story that is positive.
6. Don't Be a Rock Thrower
Everyone in a formation complains about the unit's leadership. It is easy to throw rocks. What we forget is that while we are busy throwing rocks at others, our subordinates and peers are building rock piles of their own. Be remembered as the person who is honest and loyal without being a bootlick. Help the Soldiers in your formation to understand that they do not always have all the information, and that the Army does a pretty good job of picking leaders who are smart and capable.
7. Don't Be an ALL CAPS Leader
An ALL CAPS leader reacts before they have all the information. They send emails that DETONATE on the recipient and everyone in the cc: box. Would you dress down someone in public? Then why do it over email? If you have a tendency to go volcanic, conduct a self-assessment to determine why. The higher up you rise, the more damage your reactive emotions will cause. I worked for a chaplain who was often justifiably frustrated with me or my subordinate's decision making skills. He would call me on the phone and say two words, "See Me!" Soon I would be on the receiving end of a coaching, teaching, and mentoring session. And when it was over and a couple of days passed, we would go out to lunch like we often did. Subtle and professional is much more effective than ALL CAPS.
8. Be a Transformational Chaplain, Not a Transactional One
A transformational chaplain invests in others, especially his or her subordinates, because he wants to help them become better people, not just better Soldiers. A transactional chaplain does things for others in order to get something in return. A transformational chaplain is quick to overlook the quirks in others and correct the mistakes that are getting in the way of improvement. A transactional chaplain often confuses quirks with mistakes and holds both against the Soldier. A transformational chaplain does not have a job but a vocation; he or she understands what an honor it is that other people are willing to let him or her play a part in their lives. A transactional chaplain looks at the world through the lens of entitlement and ease, expecting others to defer to his or her wants and needs. A transformational chaplain does not take anything - especially themselves - too seriously, and remembers what a joy it is to serve regardless of the difficulty of the job or conditions. A transactional chaplain is always keeping score of the slights and deference paid to him or her and resents the success of others. A transformational chaplain can rejoice in the gifts that God provides to others, especially other chaplains, even when they are far superior to his or her own.
9. Live Your Epitaph
Will you have an expensive coffin or a packed church at your funeral? Will your family rejoice at your crossing into the Promised Land or hold on to the lingering regrets over what could have been? Sam Boone, a former Army chaplain and mentor to many in our ranks, once said something to our 1996 Chaplain Basic Officer Course class that still sticks with me. He asked us what our epitaph would say. He wanted his to be, "He Loved God, Loved His Family, and Loved Soldiers…and It Showed." Will your epitaph say this? Or will it say, "He Lived a Well-Intentioned But Inconsequential Life"? While I often feel like my day has been spent too much in the latter sphere, I do my best to live in the former.
10. Have Fun
Being a chaplain is an action figure job. We get to serve with great people and do cool things. We serve a God who is more concerned with what we can do than what we have done. It may not always be pretty, and it is often filled with doubt and dismay, but we as chaplains can truly say we have the best "job" in the Army.