By Stephen Feinstein
Grace and peace to my fellow Southern Baptists. This is the second article in a series of articles telling the SBC a little more about myself. As some of you know, Dr. Chris Bolt announced his intention to nominate me as the 2VP of the Southern Baptist Convention this summer in Orlando. I have no idea if I will actually be elected to this position, but if the Lord wills it, I am ready to answer the call. Since most people know little about me, I decided it would help to write this series of articles. In my first article, I introduced myself and focused on my relationship with the SBC. That article is linked here:
I mentioned very early that I am a Jewish Christian, husband, father, pastor, Army Chaplain, Martial Artist, and author. The focus of this article is going to be on my career as a Chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.
When I first called on Christ as a 17 year old back in 1996, the Lord quickly impressed upon me the desire to be a pastor. Some of my decisions likely slowed this down. For example, I went to a state university rather than a Bible college. I pursued a degree in history rather than theology. So for obvious reasons, I ended up a high school social science teacher. Well, in the fifth year of my teaching career, I saw an article in Newsweek about the Army Chaplaincy. Seeing a man in an Army uniform with a cross above his last name truly intrigued me. Perhaps this was the pastoral ministry to which God called me. I couldn’t shake the thought. So I called a chaplain recruiter, and he told me I needed a Master of Divinity, or a graduate level degree in theology equaling at least 72 credits. Since I already had a graduate degree in educational administration (which is all about leadership and pedagogy), I asked if I could combine that with a theology degree if the two combined meets the 72 unit requirement. Normally, this would not be an option, but President George W. Bush just announced the Surge, which meant they needed more of everything. So my plan worked. I enrolled in Liberty University’s distant learning program and completed a MA in Theological Studies in only ten months; a 36 credit degree of which I graduated Summa Cum Laude. It was almost a decade later that I completed a Master of Divinity at SBTS.
With the educational requirements met, I applied for the chaplaincy. The Active Duty component, however, required two years as a full time vocational pastor. Since I was a high school teacher, I did not meet that requirement. Therefore, they offered me the Reserves as an option with the possibility of Active Duty later. So I agreed to the offer. One positive consequence of the global war on terror was the Reserves and Guard could no longer be the jokers you saw in Rambo First Blood. Our training was integrated with the Active Duty component. So when I went to BOLC (Basic Officer Leadership Course), it was a mixed class of 200 chaplains and chaplain candidates from all three components (Active, Reserve, Guard). Since we were chaplains, our BOLC was called CHBOLC (CH for chaplain).
CHBOLC was an amazing three and half months of training at Ft. Jackson, SC. For the first five weeks, we learned to be soldiers—long marches, obstacle courses, being gassed, wall-repelling, land navigation, day and night infiltration under live fire, radio training, combat life saver skills training (wound dressing, tourniquet application, IV hookup, stabbing a needle into the chest in the case of a collapsed lung, etc.). Over the next two weeks, we learned how to be a staff officer—writing memos, briefing our commanders, integrating with the command staff, etc. That concluded the first half of CHBOLC. Because I was a high school teacher, I returned home after the first half to resume my job, and I returned to Ft. Jackson the next summer to finish the second half. The second half was entirely chaplain related skills—preaching, military funerals, military weddings, counseling soldiers with PTSD, counseling with absolute confidentiality, advising the commander about how religion affects the mission (after all, we were fighting an enemy entirely motivated by religious impulses). CHBOLC certainly shaped me, taught me to endure austere conditions, and provided me a unique area in which to conduct ministry.
Normally, chaplains are supposed to work at a battalion for 3-4 years, and then attend the next school, Chaplain Captain Careers Course (C4). I attended only six months after becoming a Captain. Although this is not the Army’s normal preference, they were short on filling some seats, and so an eager junior Captain is better than no one at all. I knocked that course out, which prepared me for the next level, the brigade. This level requires that one manage and supervise subordinate battalion chaplains. It would now be a mix of administration and ministry. Upon graduation of that course, I was given a brigade chaplain position—again not the normal procedure to give that to a junior Captain. But I excelled in the position to such a point that I promoted to Major (MAJ) two years ahead of all of my peers.
I presently am still a MAJ, but I am looking to promote to Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) this year, which will put me four years ahead of my peers that I began with. To give you an idea, the average chaplain doesn’t make it past CPT. But for those who do, the average time to make LTC is 16 years. I will be pinning on likely in my 12th year. Most MAJs never make it to LTC because between MAJ and LTC is an intense school known as ILE, which is part of the Command and General Staff Officer School. All MAJs, regardless of position have to take this course. It takes usually one to two years to complete. It is a series of graduate level modules in the areas of military history, organizational leadership, force management, advance military strategy, understanding contemporary global threats, and understanding how guidance from the POTUS trickles down into military doctrine that affects the strategic and operational levels. In short, this course trains the staff officer to work at a Joint Task Force headed by a three star general. It is some high level learning. The graders are tough, the tests sometimes take four hours, and it culminates with the students planning a war that covers an entire region of the globe. It is difficult to graduate with a top block, as it is only reserved for the top 20%. And keep in mind, probably only the top 20% of field grade officers make it this far. By God’s grace, I graduated in the top 20% and received a top block. I also was part of pilot program to see if the course could be completed much faster than normal. Though it was very difficult, I finished an 18 month course in 7.5 months, and still graduated with honors. I truly appreciated the schooling, if for nothing else, I know things about the world entirely unaware to most people. Due to my completion of this course, I am eligible to promote to LTC this year. Prayers would be much appreciated.
There is so much I could say about ministry in the Army. I suppose I should start with what is different about the Army. In other military branches, the chaplain is assigned to a chapel, and military personnel only seek out a chaplain if they so choose. In the Army, chaplains are assigned to units, not chapels. If the unit is on top of a cold mountain, so is the chaplain. If the unit is cooking in a 130 degree desert, so is the chaplain. If the soldiers are marching 15 miles in full gear, the chaplain is too. If the soldiers are turning ripe with smell because showers were unavailable for five days, the chaplain is stinking up the area right along with them. Isn’t that what leadership is all about? Rather than sending people to hell on earth while you sit in safety and comfort, true leaders go straight to the gutter with their people. You would be amazed at how soldiers will randomly open up to a chaplain as they are leaning up against the same rock. Soldiers who in their civilian world would not step foot in a church are all of sudden bearing their heart to the chaplain as he marches through the mud with them. This opens the door for many unpredictable gospel conversations. Once soldiers realize the chaplain is the real deal, quite often they are willing to attend religious services. One thing this impressed upon me early on is gospel ministry is as much about relationships as it is about doctrine. People listen to those they trust. They are less likely to argue with people they respect. I know chaplains that weasel their way out of missions, and the soldiers have little respect for them. They don’t go to them for counseling. They don’t attend their worship services. And therefore, no one listens to their gospel proclamations. You can tell a lot about a chaplain based on how much the soldiers respect him and how much his commander and staff respects him. Some of this is highlighted in the video below.
The reason for this is simple. Most soldiers are terrified of talking to officers, but the chaplain is the exception. We learn things about the unit’s morale that a commander and his staff will never know. And because the chaplain is the personal adviser to the commander, he can enter the commander’s office at almost any time and let the commander know if morale is down, or suicidal ideation is up, or if most counseling crises come from one staff section (implying toxic leadership in that section). We leverage that relationship with the commander to help the soldiers, and the soldiers know it. At the same time, we leverage the relationship with the soldiers to get them embrace the commander’s vision, which helps the commander. I’ve never worked in any other environment that operates this way. But one thing is clear to me. Since leadership is really about influencing people, whereas management is about directing them, a chaplain must learn how to lead. We have no command authority, which means we cannot make anyone do anything. Yet, we live in a strange position where we have to convince both those higher and lower in rank to adopt our ideas. For this reason, I believe my time in the Army was a greater proving ground for leadership than any other position I have held. Being a full-time pastor is hard work, and the leadership it requires is beyond what most can imagine, and yet I think my Army experience made the pastoral leadership come much easier to me.
If you will indulge me just a little further, there are just two more things I will talk about concerning my experience as a chaplain. The first is staff integration. As a staff officer, I have to participate in staff meetings where the various staff officers report their section material to the commander. These officers have such a heavy weight upon them. And quite often, they are overworked. They are stuck in their own silo trying to figure out how to complete their piece of the mission. If a chaplain does not assert himself, the staff will never know he exists. So as a chaplain, I have learned to make sure I have a seat at the table. I make the effort of visiting each staff section, simply to be there if anyone needs to talk. I then learn some of the difficulties the staff leader is facing, and can then leverage my open door to the commander to help. That then opens the staff officer up to help me when I need it. When units go out to the field, some chaplains end up sleeping under a tree with no resources at all. Every time I have gone to the field, the staff has hooked me up with state of the art equipment and adequate work spaces so I can minister more effectively to soldiers. So integrating with the staff was another proving ground of leadership for me. It taught me how selfless service engenders an organic reciprocity, which enables greater degrees of ministerial effectiveness.
The final thing worth mentioning is how the pluralistic chaplaincy has shaped me. The First Amendment guarantees there will be chaplains from most religions. Therefore, I had to learn to be a chaplain that works with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and every kind of “Christian” imaginable. I am a missionary sent by NAMB, and therefore, I perform religious duties according the BFM 2000 and my own Reformed persuasion. But I have to work with chaplains that do not share my theology. When I was a brigade chaplain, I had to manage ten chaplains, three of which were Buddhist (because California is the most diverse state). I have had amazing debates with people who disagree with me, and I also learned how to work effectively with people who disagree with me. I think this is important for any leadership position. I can promise you this. The theological variation in the SBC is far less complex than the Army Chaplaincy. If I can work peacefully with people in the Army Chaplaincy, I think the SBC honestly would be much easier.
I am thankful to God that He has blessed my Army ministry. When I was a battalion chaplain (in the early years), I consistently had 60-70 soldiers attend my services. Those numbers are rare for the Reserves and Guard. In counseling sessions and Bible Studies, the Lord has used me to bring people into His salvation. When I moved up to higher positions, I leveraged my reputation with the staff to enable and empower the chaplains under me to have successful ministries. Recently I was asked to give a devotion to about 30 mid-career chaplains, where I reminded them of our calling. The video is below.
As I close this, if you made it this far, let me address why this matters. I think my time as a chaplain has prepared me to lead my local church as well as to work at bigger level in the SBC. I am a faithful NAMB missionary to the United States Army that just happens to love the Southern Baptist Convention that sends me. Personally, I believe the unique experience I gain from the Army chaplaincy makes me a good candidate for the office of 2VP. I appreciate you taking the time to read.