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The Sting of Not Being Promoted

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I recently had to avoid Facebook for a while because it was just too painful to be there. Not because of the waste of time that is inherent to Facebook or the idiocy that so many people display in their posts and comments but because, at least in my military/chaplain circles, there were too many posts of “congratulations!” and “I’m humbled at being selected…” and “I feel do blessed…”

You see, the Chaplain, Lieutenant Colonel, Promotion Board results were officially released on Monday and (you guessed it) my name was not on it. There were several chaplain friends who reached out to me with their condolences and words of encouragement, which was kind but as much as I appreciated it, was often not helpful (sorry). Sure, words of affirmation are usually encouraging, but they seldom reduce the sting of being passed over for promotion.

If you have never been in the military, you may not fully understand why being passed over is so painful. I can’t say for sure what others feel, but I can share what I feel and thought that some of you might want to know.

  1. Being passed over makes you feel like a failure because if you weren’t a failure, you would have been promoted.
  2. Being passed over means you won’t be considered for assignments of greater responsibility, so you’re stuck in positions tied to your current rank.
  3. Being passed over means you have to watch many of your peers (and sometimes subordinates) advance beyond you and become your “superiors.”
  4. Being passed over means you won’t be included in discussion groups, advanced training and chaplain teams that are gathered to consider the future of the chaplaincy.
  5. Being passed over means you won’t be asked as much for your advice or opinion, because you’re not viewed as successful like those who have been promoted.
  6. Being passed over means your pay (and your future retirement pay) remains at a lower rate.
  7. Being passed over makes you wonder if everything you have done for the Army, for the Chaplain Corps, for the Church, has been worth it.

Even though you’ve worked for years to try to effectively minister to the Soldiers and Family Members in your unit; you’ve train and mentored your subordinate chaplains and chaplain assistants; you’ve done your best and poured yourself out, often neglecting time with your family along the way; you still aren’t recognized by the promotion board as having potential to serve at the next higher rank.

Let me explain how promotions in the military work, at least promotions in the Chaplain Corps. Every year, officers are evaluated (called an Officer Evaluation Report, or OER) by their superiors, usually with their 1st line supervisor being their rater and their rater’s supervisor as their senior rater. If neither of those are chaplains (which is often the case) you also have an “Intermediate Rater” who is a chaplain who can speak more specifically to the performance of a chaplain. The rater and senior rater have an option of where to place you in relation to the other officers they rate, similar to getting a grade in school except only a certain number can get an A, the others have to get a B or a C. This is supposed to be based on your performance the past year but sometimes is more based on the percentages. Your rater just has so many “A’s” to give (referred to as “Top Blocks”) so everyone, regardless of how well they performed, can’t get one.

Every few years, chaplains’ “board files” (mainly their annual OERs) are reviewed by a Promotion Board. To be competitive, a chaplain needs to have at least a “heart beat” in their OERs: a Top Block then a “center mass” then another top block, then a center mass, etc. If there aren’t a sufficient number of top blocks, the promotion board will assess the officer as not being of sufficient caliber for promotion and they’ll be passed over.

Sometimes chaplains just don’t do a good job so they don’t get enough top blocks. Sometimes, the chaplain may do a great job, but not better than the other officers of his/her rank that the senior rater rates, so can’t get a top block. Sometimes the senior rater saves his top blocks for officers in his/her own branch. Other times, it’s just the timing and the assignments, like not being in a position long enough to get a top block.

As you can imagine, nearly everyone who gets passed over has an explanation for why they didn’t get promoted. Sometimes they’re just reaching for some way to explain their failure, sometimes they have legitimate reasons. I won’t go into my explanations here, not much point to it, but regardless of whether one’s explanations are legitimate or delusions, the pain of not getting promoted is real.

Many will offer what I have already told myself, that my work as a chaplain is doing God’s work which He sees so I don’t need what the “world” has to offer (a promotion and higher pay). Others will contend that the rank really doesn’t matter, it’s the cross we wear as ministers/chaplains that matter. Still more will console, “you’re a great chaplain, those who have worked for you and with you know it.” And one that I have told others recently, “God called me, not the Army, so I’ll keep doing my best anyway.” All of these sentiments are true and maybe for some they may relieve the pain, but for many who have been passed over, or at least for me, the pain continues.

The good news is, the pain won’t last forever. Like any loss, one works through the stages of grief and eventually gets to the point where things begin to feel normal again and life goes on; that is until the next promotion board results are announced, or they encounter one of their peers who has been promoted, or they look in the mirror with their uniform on.
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