Solhjem Outlines Priorities
New Army Chief of Chaplains Thomas L. Solhjem is establishing priorities as the top spiritual adviser for the military branch’s 1.25 million members.New Army Chief of Chaplains Thomas L. Solhjem is establishing priorities as the top spiritual adviser for the military branch’s 1.25 million members.
High on Maj. Gen. Solhjem’s priority list is investing in developing the leadership skills of chaplains. The professional development of Army chaplains has been impacted by the extended period of persistent conflict since Sept. 11, 2001, due to the necessary shift of religious support operations to the front lines. A renewed focus on Chaplain Corps calling, identity, and leadership development is needed.
“We’ve been at war for almost 18 years,” says the 62-year-old Assemblies of God chaplain. “As a result of counterinsurgency type fighting, we have lost a lot of chaplain competencies that served the Army well.”
Solhjem has reassessed how the Army recruits and retains quality chaplains. Part of that involves ensuring that chaplains have a strong sense of ministry calling.
“We want people who are passionate about the souls of soldiers and their families,” says Solhjem, who has been focused on taking care of the families of military members for many years. He and Jill, his wife of 41 years, have four children — including three sons, two in the Army and one in the Air Force — and six grandchildren.
In addition, Solhjem says chaplains must balance remaining true to their faith tradition while serving all members of the Army.
“A chaplain must identify as an officer and a man or woman of God,” says the physically fit Solhjem. “The chaplain must cooperate without compromising, and be a good role model.”
Finally, Solhjem says the Army must empower chaplains with the right leadership training, skills, and abilities.
“We have great chaplains doing great work, but we need to get healthier,” says Solhjem, who spent a combined 68 months deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Army deserves the best from us, and as leaders we have a stewardship responsibility to deliver what they need.”
The new chief views every chaplain as a religious leader and a religious adviser, an emissary who needs to be equipped with the right tools and resources. Each chaplain is charged with caring for the heart, soul, and spirit of soldiers and their families, he says.
Solhjem has manifold duties, including oversight of over 5,900 active, Guard, and Reserve chaplains, religious affairs specialists, and civilians engaged in Army religious work. He is based in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and is responsible for the spiritual care of Army leaders.
But Solhjem is also connected with Army leaders in the field, regularly visiting division and corps commanders as well as noncommissioned officers on Army posts. In these sojourns, he likewise connects with chaplains. And Solhjem manages to visit seminaries to talk with those about to enter the military mission field.
“One of our new initiatives is ‘Every Chaplain is a Recruiter,’” says Solhjem. “We need to be recruiting the next generation of chaplains today.”
Clearly, Solhjem is a deep thinker and forceful speaker. Despite his promotion to major general on May 30, he remains humble, as a testimony to his Christian faith — and his own history.
“I know what mercy is,” says Solhjem, who accepted Jesus as Savior in 1975 in an Army barracks. “When you’ve received mercy, it’s important to learn to dispense it — generously.”
Solhjem’s warrior temperament was evident in a plenary address he delivered at the annual AG Chaplaincy Ministries conference in Springfield, Missouri. Due to a schedule conflict and missed flight, Solhjem drove overnight to the conference from St. Louis, arriving shortly before an early morning address on June 20. He effectively mixed humor and pathos in an encouraging yet no-nonsense talk. He told the assembled not to isolate themselves and not to wallow in self-pity.
“If you’re looking for something easy, go do something else,” Solhjem told the chaplains. “When you suffer, you grow.”
Solhjem enlisted in the Army in 1974 as a long-haired 17-year-old hoping to escape the trauma of a broken home. At the time, problems of racial tension, drug abuse, and promiscuity rankled the ranks.
“We need to open the paradigms in reforming religious support and how we incorporate cultural changes. The U.S. Army chaplain needs to be the harbinger of the culture.”
In the increasingly pluralistic society of which the military is a microcosm, a faith-based chaplain must balance the tenets of his religion with the realities of Department of Defense directives. Exercising religious liberties and accommodating faith sometimes clash with changing cultural mores. That isn’t something to fear, according to Solhjem.
“We need chaplains who understand the environment we are living in and how to minister in that environment,” Solhjem says. “As confounding as all this is, it’s a tremendous opportunity to help people who are struggling with their identity when they seek us out. We can help them work through those issues, just like any other life challenge.”
A chaplain should dispense compassion without compromising religious convictions, Solhjem says.
“I know where I came from,” Solhjem says. “I’m deeply flawed, yet profoundly forgiven. So how do I live out my faith as a chaplain in such a way that it whets the appetite of someone who is way different from me?”