Three Things I Did Wrong as an U.S. Army Chaplain

It’s time I can’t get back, relive, or redo.   Of all the years I’ve served in the Army, these have been the most rewarding and fulfilling: professionally, personally, and spiritually, thus far.

I was privileged to serve for five years as a Battalion Chaplain with 2-124 Infantry Battalion of the Florida Army National Guard.  During this time we deployed to the Horn of Africa for nine months (2015-16), responded to Hurricane Matthew (2016) and supported the Republican National Convention (2012).

However, it is easy to look back with a sense of nostalgia regarding my work during those years.  I did most things right.  However, I also did some things wrong.  My intent is that this post will encourage and caution you from making similar mistakes.

This is an After Action Review in part.  Those things that “went well” you can read here.  This post is specifically a reflection and honest assessment about three things, from least to worst, which I did wrong.  Have mercy.

3) Getting Political.  “Hide your crazy,” is guidance our Brigade Commander instills when it comes to a host of issues.  Politics is one area wherein I apply that wisdom.  As a voter, I registered my party affiliation as “None” over a decade ago.  A Chaplain risks being marginalized with one or more Soldiers or groups in their unit, community, or church if his/her Political affiliation shares space in the pulpit or with the faith insignia on his/her OCP.  This limits my operational effectiveness to provide and advise for Religious Support.

During the 2016 political season, I suffered from some self-inflicted wounds by making a few inane social media posts.  No matter how well thought out I imagined these comments to be, they were best kept to myself.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”  I certainly extend this to all the Soldiers, as well as neighbors and church members with whom I share this life.

As a chaplain, my role is to ensure that all Soldiers have access to the free exercise of their religion.  As a Soldier, my solitary role in regard to politics is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  As a Christian, I understand that Jesus mobilizes me to sincerely and authentically love my neighbor regardless of whether we vote the same or not.

2) Doling Out Advice.  While this may seem counter-intuitive or contradictory to what some may think a Chaplain should do.  It’s not.

During my time with 2BN, I had hundreds of appointments with Soldiers and thousands of conversations.  Most Soldiers just needed me to listen.  Generally, 75% of pastoral counseling is listening.  The other 25% is asking good questions and discussion.  Most people will solve their own crisis if you care to listen long enough.

Much of the counseling responded to crises – in marriages, in parenting, in units, with operational stress, suicidal ideations, grief, death of a loved one, and/or spiritual crisis.

Be assured, seminary along with pastoral experience, as well as training at the Chaplain Officer Basic Leadership Course prepares all Army Chaplains for a large spectrum of counseling situations. Most days I did it well.

The days I did it wrong that were the days I spent most of an appointment or conversation listening to myself talk, doling out advice, and trying to fix Soldiers’ situations for them.

1) Present but Absent.  I love the adage of my favorite professor that “90% of ministry is just showing up.”  However, it’s possible to be present but absent.  There were times that I was present with Soldiers but largely checked out.  I may make the effort to go sit in the same room with Soldiers, but then have little or no interaction with them while there.

Ministry of Presence is work.  It is active, not passive.  As with medical ministry, it requires me to observe, assess, and engage with what is really happening.  It demands mental, emotional, cultural, and situational alertness – before I arrive in the room and after I leave it.  Most Soldiers, as well as people, are dealing with some form of concealed trauma, pain, stress, crisis, or unaddressed spiritual needs.  A chaplain’s role is to provide support to these needs in context of “hanging out.”

One of my chaplain mentors tirelessly asks, “What’s your plan for Religious Support (RS)?  Ministry of Presence is not just showing up and standing around doing nothing.  What is your plan for that ‘presence?’  Are you going to engage in conversation, share a word of the day, or invite them into prayer?  Never show up to spend time with soldiers without a RS plan of how you’re going to intentionally spend that time.”

The days I did it wrong are the days I did not have a plan.  I just showed up and stood in a corner.  I was present but absent.

Soldiers and service members are some of the easiest people with whom you’ll ever talk, because you can have a conversation with him about anything: family, tech, sports, guns, art, music, politics, religion and why they joined the Army.  One quip from a recent blog about 5 things Veterans Know affirms that veterans know “how to get along with just about anyone.”  It is always so easy to start a conversation with a Soldier.  Our Soldiers inspire me.  I regret the conversations I didn’t start, yet never have regretted a single one I did.

I was recently assigned as Brigade Chaplain.  I’ll take these few lessons learned and relay them to the team of Battalion Chaplains whom I a privileged to now mentor.

I reflect on my assignment as a Battalion Chaplain.  It is a bitter-sweet celebration of those years mixed with a sober awareness that I’ll never get that time back with those Soldiers.   #Seminoles #NeverSurrender

2 thoughts on “Three Things I Did Wrong as an U.S. Army Chaplain”

  1. Good lessons for all of us. Hide your crazy, listen well, and show up with a plan. Never underestimate the power of showing up, though.


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