by LtGen Bruce L. Fister, USAF (Ret.)
As I look back with satisfaction and humility at a just completed thirty-two year military career, I see God’s hand at work in the life of one who was allowed to become an Air Force General Officer. In this article, I want to share what the Lord taught me about Christian leadership in the military and how He helped Melissa and me to set priorities and obey His call to be ambassadors for Him during my military service.
An Important COMMAND
The Lord used OCF to help us integrate faith with profession and to develop a godly perspective on Christian leadership. We visited Spring Canyon just before we were to take our first command. Not only did we get a lot of spiritual guidance and prayer support, but the Fall 1980 issue of COMMAND magazine came out while we were there.
That issue dealt exclusively with the subject of Christian commanders and could not have come at a better time for us. Major General Clay Buckingham, Colonel Harry Ota, Colonel Dick Kail, and Colonel John Grinalds were a few of the key authors. Many principles from this edition were critical to me throughout the remainder of my Air Force career.
First, “you lead to serve and you serve to lead.” In Luke 22:25-26 Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” And in Mark 9:35, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” This is servant leadership.
Most people view an organization as a pyramid with the leader on top. Another thing I learned from COMMAND is that Jesus teaches that the pyramid must become inverted. Leaders must shoulder the cares and burdens of their people. Their job is holding people responsible for the work and motivating them to get the mission accomplished.
However, the Christian’s leadership strategy centers around serving God and making others successful. This includes tough training, fair and consistent discipline, enforcing high standards, and leading from the front when the going gets tough.
A unit commander’s job is to produce the best possible battalion, squadron, ship, etc. Professional excellence is what you are about. You are placed in command by God to defend the United States. How you do that mission determines your effectiveness as a witness for Jesus. Use biblical principles, and work very hard to produce a top quality unit, but remember God is responsible for results. The lives you affect along the way for our Lord will be the ultimate measure of success.
My success as a Christian leader and witness was largely determined by how I acted in crises. During pressure situations, your trust in the Lord and your acknowledgment of Him are displayed. Those who serve with you sense whether or not you are a leader who trusts in the Lord.
The leadership issue of COMMAND also taught me that the unit commander is the spiritual leader of the organization. This responsibility could not be delegated to the chaplain, although he was a key staff member in establishing a positive spiritual climate. To me, spiritual leadership meant that my people knew that I expected them to honor God, that I believed our nation’s and unit’s success depended upon His blessings, and that, as a commander, I would pray for those under my command.
This single magazine was packed with biblical principles to help the Christian commander. I highly recommend it to all officers I reviewed this issue often as a reminder of my leadership priorities. OCF has made a valuable contribution toward transforming our military for Jesus Christ with such resources, which prepare members to be effective leaders and effective witnesses to both officers and enlisted personnel.
Living as an Ambassador for Christ
During my career, my priorities were serving God, caring for my family, and doing my Air Force work in that order. God placed Melissa and me in the Air Force, but it could not be the number one thing in our lives. There were tensions between military responsibilities and my priorities. Balancing these tensions was an issue of time, energy, obedience, and trust.
The tension became more difficult with higher rank. Was I going to serve the Lord or serve the world? Was I able to trust God with my work so I could spend time worshiping Him and serving my family or was I going to try to do everything myself? I did not always make the right choices. At times, I failed miserable. I thank God for His mercy and an insightful, forgiving wife who loved me in spite of my failures.
I always declared my priorities when I began a new command. Subordinate commanders, the troops, and my immediate staff all watched to see how I handled them in my life, so keeping them was critical. When my priorities got out of order, there were always undesirable ramifications in both family and work. It hindered my witness and example to my family and to the military community.
I often fell short as a Christian leader. Many times, I became discouraged and questioned my effectiveness. On occasion, however, the Lord let me see results-mission successes for which I could give Him the credit, changes in the character of my units, or changes in the behavior of individuals that demonstrated a closer walk with our Lord. Some of our greatest successes came through Melissa. People knew she was accessible, would listen, love them, and would pray for them. The results were in God’s hands. Our call was to obey.
Now in retirement, I am content in consulting work but looking forward to God’s next mission for Melissa and me. We believe we are where God wants us. Our situation allows us to listen and pray more. We have time to reflect upon how God has worked in our lives the past thirty-two years. He provided OCF as an important tool in shaping our journey. He made me recognize biblical leadership principles. He helped me resolve tensions I created in my life. He continues to teach us that trust and obedience are central in our love of Jesus Christ.
As you move through God’s chosen career for you in our military, don’t forget who your Commander-in-Chief is. You can trust Him. Our God is all powerful and of infinite love and mercy. He doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes, but through His grace and His Son Jesus Christ, He allows us to be His servants. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20) To God be the glory.