Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marine Corps Officers & UU Ministers

As is probably revealed elsewhere in the blog, I'm a Washintarian (a Unitarian, now UU, from Washington, DC), the son of a WW II vet who spent most of his civilian career in the Pentagon, and a retired Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employee. Most of my life has played out surrounded current and former members of the armed services and their families. This is not the typical UU story, especially here in Berkeley.

I returned to DC to work in the VA headquarters slightly before the Carter Inauguration. Ed, a Marine Corps Reserve officer, trained me in my duties. Though our job was to support the staffing of senior positions throughout the Department, I also had the opportunity to learn a little about some of his duties in the Marine Corps Reserve.

One thing Ed told me over 30 years ago has become permanently implanted in my brain. He said that all Marine Corps officers were outstanding, but some were more outstanding than others.

Ed also told me that Marine Corps had a 20-year "up or out" system for its officers. This meant that once officers had 20 or more years of service, they were retired if too much time had passed since their last promotion. I couldn't wrap my mind around the following question: If everyone was outstanding, then how did the Marine Corps decide who was promoted and who was retired?

Ed explained that while everybody was outstanding, some officers were more outstanding than others. Promotion panel learned how to read between the lines in fitness reports to assess whether the officer was being recommended for promotion or for retirement.

The Marines Corps officer corps is a very tight-knit, caring bunch. They literally are willing to lay down their lives for one another. They certainly do not wish to badmouth one another in fitness reports. Giving nearly everyone outstanding ratings is one way of recognizing the contributions of these hard working, talented, and dedicated individuals. When officers not yet eligible for retirement do need to work on their growing edges, the outstanding ratings demonstrate the respect in which they are held and the confidence that they have the capacity to make the needed changes.

Although I am new to UU ministry, I have already seen parallels to the Marine Corps ethos among UU ministers and candidates for ministry and among clergy and clerical candidates from other religions. I support this ethos of evaluation. My concerns are that aspirants and candidates not used to such systems may be believe their own press, and as search committee members and other laity who are as naive as I once was may also be misled.

A major caveat to the above concerns: my experience with ministerial evaluation is limited. Maybe like one of the blind men touching the elephant, I have mistakenly inferred that what I've perceived is true for the whole enterprise. Your comments and insights will be appreciated.

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