Lessons from an Air Force Chaplain

April 17, 2018 | Chris Payne

I wanted follow-up on my recent post about my experiences as an Air Force Chaplain. If you haven't read it, please take a minute to read it here. Previously I discussed why I decided to pursue the chaplaincy opportunity. Today, I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned in the past three years while serving.

It’s daunting to attempt a summary of all that I’ve experienced and learned…so I’ll give a few categories of lessons learned so far.

1. Team First.

“Never leave a wingman behind.” This mantra is drilled into every Airman from day one. Individual performance is required and expected. However, your individual achievement is always tied to your squadron’s achievements.

I’ve learned the importance of ensuring that all team members know not only their role, but also their responsibility to the team.

Our flight in Officer Training School (OTS) included a few folks who really struggled with the individual academic tests. So what happened? Our flight rallied around them to provide countless hours of tutoring, extra class notes, and encouragement. In other words, our flight was going to win or lose together. This was a huge motivator, and it helped strip away the me first mentality that so many of us brought to the table.

2. Standardization.

This lesson probably doesn’t sound as appealing, but I came to understand how important it truly is. A military hallmark, standardization refers to the “standard” that everyone is held accountable to. It was brought to my attention very quickly in your first few days of Basic or OTS. Simply put:

“We inspect what we expect.”

An “individual-first” person will struggle with this. I watched several of my flight-mates, myself included, being chewed-out by instructors over the issue of standardization. There is a standard for your room, uniform, weapons, appearance, demeanor, words, written communications, and anything else you can imagine. You are expected to learn what the standard is, and then hold yourself and others to it.

A Colonel inspected my uniform on the final week of OTS. I was good. Then he asked me to recite my chain-of-command from my flight leader, all the way up to our Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States. I messed up the Air University commander’s name. He wasn’t happy, and I heard about it in front of 300 others (who, by the way, were depending on me to know my stuff).

Later, the Colonel pulled me aside and said, “Chaplain Payne, the reason why we inspect is because of what we expect.”

If you don’t know your chain-of-command, then how can you perform at your highest level when needed? Not an easy lesson, but a needed one.

3. Readiness.

World-class performance is expected from each member of my team. Everything that we do points in one direction: Fly, Fight, and Win.

I learned so much as a leader about the importance of making sure your team is ready to do their best when the moment of truth arrives. There was a sign hanging in one of the classrooms where I trained in as an officer. I think it sums up this lesson well:

“In a crisis, you will not rise to the occasion. You will rise to your level of preparation.”

Clearly state your intention as an organization, team, or family. Then implement the required steps to bring that intention to reality. In order to perform, you must be ready.

Thanks for taking the time to journey with me through this chaplaincy experience. I’m very grateful to New Charlotte for the opportunity to serve military members and to grow as a leader. -Chris