Christian Fighter Pilot Priorities

A Christian fighter pilot’s priorities should serve as a guide rather than a list of rules engraved in stone.  Even if he has his priorities “set,” there are times that sacrifices must be made, and situations in life may require temporary adjustments to priorities to achieve a required goal or fulfill obligations.  With that in mind, I suggest the following thoughts when setting personal priorities:

God First (This section has been updated separately.)

God is always first.  When a Christian tries to make Him anything but that, his entire life suffers as a result.  The application of this “God priority” is largely in the personal, because regardless of the demands of duties a Christian must still choose to make God his priority in his personal life.  Whatever his spiritual habits, he must allow himself time for prayer, personal Bible reading, spiritual “stretching” that will result in growth, and communion with a church body.  The God priority means that instead of hanging out at a squadron party late on Saturday night and being unable to get up the next morning, the Christian fighter pilot goes home and goes to bed so that he’ll be coherent at church.  It may mean that in his packed schedule he gives up a precious TV sitcom to have a few minutes of Bible reading.  Ultimately, the God priority means that when ideas, goals, and activities conflict, he values God above men—and himself.  In the professional application, the God priority doesn’t mean that a Christian should refuse to accomplish his duty—if the orders are legal and moral, he has little reason to contest them.

Obedience to God is required above obedience to men, but there may still be times when legal, official duties conflict with desired spiritual activities (Acts 4:19; 5:29).  In those cases a Christian may need to make a change in his personal life to ensure the preeminence of the God priority.  If he’s required to accomplish an official duty on Sunday morning, he may need to alter his normal schedule and go to a Sunday evening service; though it consumes precious free time, he makes the extra effort because of the priority of God in his life.  In the case of a regular interruption that he cannot make up in his personal life, it is not unreasonable to ask for occasional time from a supervisor to attend to spiritual needs.  For example, if he’s required to work every Sunday morning and could not somehow attend an evening or Saturday service in lieu of Sunday morning worship, he should feel free to ask his supervisor for time to attend a service; depending on the circumstances, the supervisor may even be required to allow him time to do so.  (AFI 36-2706, which governs the Military Equal Opportunity program, dictates guidelines regarding religious accommodation.)

Family Second (This section has been updated separately.)

A Christian fighter pilot’s second priority should be family, and it is high priority for good reason.  I knew a pilot who had a young wife and a daughter who was less than a year old.  During a lull in a base exercise his wife thought it would be nice to try to bring him lunch at the planning cell, where he was hard at work behind a desk instead of flying.  She strapped their baby into the car and deftly navigated around the concertina wire and concrete barricades.  She arrived at his work just in time to get caught in the middle of a mock ground battle.  A young airman from the security forces unexpectedly lay across her hood and let loose hundreds of blank rounds from an M-60 machine gun.  Fortunately, she had some experience with the Air Force and knew it was part of the exercise; she managed not to panic as brass rounds bounced off her windshield.  She was concerned for their daughter, but she needn’t have been:  the kid slept soundly through the entire firefight.  While her situation was somewhat unique, her circumstances were not unusual; the family is just as much “in” the military as is the fighter pilot.  The military life is challenging not only for the service member, but also for the spouse and children.  An oft quoted phrase regarding the military/family relationship is that “you’ll retire from the military in 20 years, but your family will be around for your lifetime.”  If the Christian fighter pilot wants his family to be there when he separates or retires, he needs to give them the attention that they need now.

God has given specific commands for husbands, wives, and parents to be responsible for their families (through Paul, for example, in Ephesians and Colossians); additionally, the Air Force, which has generally been regarded as the more “family friendly” of the services, continues to recognize that a military member’s family life directly influences the performance of his duties.  The family priority means that after the Christian assesses his actions in relation to his God priority, he determines what the impact will be on his family.  He may be offered a duty assignment that would be beneficial for his career but would consume so much of his life that it would detract from his support of his family.  He may be faced with the prospect of a remote assignment that will separate him from his family for a year or more.  In the case of an involuntary remote assignment, the family priority may mean investing in cameras, internet connections, large phone bills, and an immense amount of personal time to maintaining the integrity of his family.

Again, the family priority does not mean that because he has a family a Christian will refuse to accomplish his duty.  It is important to note that legal, required, and moral duties can still be “harmful” to the family:  the most obvious example is the deployment of troops to war.  Wars are not fought only by single, childless men.  The separation that occurs and the stress that it places on the family are unfavorable, but this is one case where I believe the commitment to country rises above the needs of the family.  Outside of responding to the nation’s call to war, though, there will be many times when a Christian will need to assess the requests of his professional career with the needs of his family.

As a general rule, fighter pilots work very long days.  In many cases the long days are separated by short nights; it is often tempting to come home, fall asleep, wake up, and go back into work.  While that is easy and maybe occasionally desirable for a single pilot, the family of others will not appreciate it.  In a perfect world, a pilot’s spouse will understand that the military will sometimes make those requirements of him and will honor his fatigue.  However, his family still needs his presence, time, and effort.  Most “honest” time stealers are temporary in nature:  combat, preparing for combat, exercises, and inspections all demand extra time but also have limited durations.  Even during those times, a Christian fighter pilot may need to make up lost time and attention by making special efforts on the weekend.
I personally believe that a fighter pilot should try to keep his weekends “sacred” to relax and be with his family—if he is not required to work on the weekend, he should make every effort not to.  When life is harder—when it’s toughest to spend time with family—family time is more important, not less so.  Even those who are single need to consider the family priority.  Single fighter pilots still have parents and siblings, and at some point they may eventually desire to have a family of their own.  Considering the impact of decisions on a family life—even while single—will make a Christian habitually consider his family priority after he is married and has children.

A Christian fighter pilot must also carefully consider conflicts between his God and family priorities.  There is no Biblical example of God demanding (or allowing) the break-up of a family to accomplish His will; on the contrary, the Old and New Testaments place priority on the marriage and family relationship, which are to be followed by Godly service.  In the Old Testament, newly married men were not sent to war until a year after their wedding (Deuteronomy 24:5).  In the New Testament, God commanded that men be in control over their own houses before they started working for Him (1 Timothy 3:12).  Unfortunately, there are countless examples in the Christian community of those who have had the foundations of their faith questioned by the break-up of their family.

Sandi Patty was one of the leading figures in the contemporary Christian music movement; her positive contributions were virtually forgotten when she committed adultery with a band member, then divorced her husband and married her newly divorced lover (1).  Amy Grant, an extremely popular Christian singer, practically fell out of the Christian music industry when she divorced her husband and married country music artist Vince McGill (also recently divorced) less than a year later (2).  Dr. Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta and the personality of the television ministry In Touch, divorced his wife of 44 years in 2000 (3).  Dr. Stanley’s case gained particular notoriety because of his celebrity status and because in 1995 he had promised to step down as pastor if his then-separation became divorce.  When he did not do so, he was supported by his church and widely criticized outside of it for leading a life that was inconsistent with God’s commands; in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, Paul said that someone who wanted to be a church leader had to have his family in order, because, Paul asked, if he could not manage his family, how could he take care of God’s church? 

Besides such infamous stories of spiritual shortcomings, there are also many anecdotes about missionaries’ marriages failing due to the unique challenges of the mission field.  One Christian couple rationalized their failed marriage by saying that they were “serving God so faithfully” they had neglected their own relationship; I don’t believe such an attitude is scriptural.  God repeatedly emphasized the marriage relationship throughout the Bible—from the union of Adam and Eve “as one” in Genesis, to Jesus’ “let man not separate” directive and the description of the church as Christ’s bride in the New Testament (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:6).  Ultimately, obedience to God is the highest priority, but a Christian must not take on the attitude that what he perceives as service to God is worth the loss of his family.  This is similar to what Samuel was trying to explain to Saul when he told him that “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22).  To obey God, including His commands that families are appropriately tended to, is better than any act of service.

Third: The Job

A Christian fighter pilot’s third priority should be his job.  The job priority means assessing how decisions and actions will impact work, professional advancement, and a career.  I emphasize the word “job” and place this priority here for a very specific reason:  being a fighter pilot is a job, it is not a life.  I have chosen a job that I enjoy and one I think I’m good at.  In the end, though, it is still just a job.  If I awoke tomorrow and could not be a fighter pilot, I wouldn’t go out and commit suicide.  I wouldn’t wallow in self-pity or be unable to see my existence outside of a jet.  There is more to this life.  While I would be disappointed, I would still stand up straight and ask God, “What would You have me do now?”  My job as a fighter pilot is not the definition of who I am; it is but a fraction of what I am.  It is also not a Christian’s duty to be a fighter pilot.  A military job is often confused with duty.  By virtue of choosing a military fighter pilot job, I have volunteered and vowed to accomplish my duty.  There are times when a Christian may need to make sacrifices in other areas of his life to accomplish his military duties.  I believe that a Christian should freely, even joyfully, sacrifice to accomplish his sworn duty.  However, he should carefully examine those times when his job demands such sacrifice, and do so with caution.

Many fighter pilots misprioritize their job, placing it above themselves and their families.  Even Christian fighter pilots sometimes put their job above God; to many non-Christians, being a fighter pilot is their god.  For a Christian, being a fighter pilot must have its proper place—an important aspect of a complete life, but ultimately just a job to accomplish. 

By placing the job so low on the priorities I don’t intend to imply that a Christian’s job should be considered a nuisance or something to be avoided.  He cannot become a slave to his squadron, but he also cannot marginalize it.  Work is not evil; on the contrary, it is divinely commanded.  New Testament verses repeatedly state that those who do not work should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).  Even Paul, whose ministry spread the gospel throughout the world, continued to work as a tentmaker well into his missionary journeys (Acts 18:3, 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:8).  A Christian fighter pilot should work at his job wholeheartedly, as though working for God and not men (Ephesians 6:7).  He should put his best effort into the work he does and demand the highest quality results from himself.  This will ensure that he presents a good image of himself and of the God he speaks so often about.  A Christian also shouldn’t marginalize his job to focus his spiritual efforts somewhere else; the harvest is plentiful in the fighter pilot community.  A fighter pilot who neglects his job to serve God elsewhere may devalue God to his coworkers.  Ultimately, the importance that a Christian fighter pilot places on his job needs to be placed in the proper perspective relative to all his priorities:  himself, his family, and his God.

Somewhere a military science instructor is rolling over in his grave (or, more accurately, falling out of his little rolly chair) because of where I placed the priorities of self and job.  Yes, it is true:  the second Air Force core value is “Service before Self.”  Service before self means an officer puts the interests of the Air Force and the nation above his own; that is, an officer doesn’t make decisions that benefit himself but harm the service or the mission.  In the plainest terms, service before self means pilots should not be selfish.  When the needs of the Air Force and the country are greater than the Christian’s own needs, then, yes, he should place service first; this goes back to the caveat that there are times that sacrifices and temporary adjustments must be made in priorities.  However, each person needs to make sure that he is rightly interpreting what the service “needs.”  Does the Air Force really need him to spend 80 hours at work a week?  Service before self doesn’t mean that he continually neglects himself—or his family, or his God—for the service.  A fighter pilot can only deny himself so much before service suffers—service and self are not mutually exclusive.  People accomplish the mission, and if the priority of taking care of self is too low, then the fighter pilot won’t be in any condition to perform his mission. 

Executing Priorities 

The primary adversary for all of these priorities will be time.  Most time restrictions in the fighter pilot world are self-induced:  an upgrading instructor pilot may spend hours working on a perfect brief, a supervisor may go in on the weekend to write a performance report, and every pilot is “highly encouraged” to attend every conceivable social function.  If these events are consistently stealing a pilot from other priorities, some of the fault may be his own.  It is very tempting in the Air Force, particularly as an officer climbs in the ranks, to come into work on the weekends or take work home.  If he is unable to accomplish his assigned duties during the week it is possible that he is managing time poorly.  Many officers spend a significant amount of time socializing or otherwise filling their day with distractions or unnecessary tasks, which results in them departing at the end of the duty day without having completed a full day’s work—meaning that they’ll have to take work home or work on the weekends to fulfill their obligations.  In such a situation a Christian needs to strive to adhere to his priorities, have the discipline to work diligently without becoming sidetracked, or perhaps invest in time management instruction, for which there are a plethora of secular and religious self-help resources.

The Perception

Because a Christian fighter pilot has many high priorities outside of his work—his family and his God, for example—there are times when it may seem as though he is not making a sufficient contribution to the squadron.  In some Air Force units, mission planning for sorties on Sundays is normal; staying at the squadron long after the work has finished is routine.  A Christian fighter pilot who goes to church on Sunday, or who wants to leave work to attend a Wednesday Bible study, or who places time with his wife above “goofing off” with the other pilots may generate a negative perception about himself.  For a pilot, being a “valuable member of a fighter squadron” has less to do with flying prowess and more to do with what others see him doing.

Regardless of the reality, it is often the perception of effort that generates an attitude about a pilot.  While many spiritual priorities may be outside of the squadron, the Christian must also preclude the perception that his extracurricular activities are impinging on his work.  His best means of fighting this perception is to demonstrate a typical Christian trait:  an intense work ethic.  Never slack off, whether by showing up late, leaving early, or taking a 2-hour lunch.  He must make sure his work—both flying related and not—is proactive and impeccable.  He should review his work so he submits only a pristine product.  He must provide information before it’s requested and never miss a deadline.  If he truly finds himself with spare time, rather than diving out of the squadron at the first opportunity, he should ask “What more can I do?”  He should improve the processes that he oversees.  If he doesn’t have enough to do, he should ask for more responsibility.  His constant hard work (and initiative to ask for more) and quality products will show the commander and the squadron that he’s not only contributing greatly to the squadron, but that he’s doing a good job of it.  The ultimate goal is to give those who would criticize no means to do so (Titus 2:6-8).  With such a display of effort, other pilots will be astonished to see that his work is unimpeachable and he still has the ability to dedicate time to family and God.  If they can find fault in the Christian’s work, they can connect his professional shortcomings to his Christianity—an obvious detriment to his witness.  A Christian should leave no doubt as to the strength of his work ethic.

The above priorities are intended to make a Christian fighter pilot remember what is truly important in his life.  Ultimately, a balance of all priorities—God, family, and job—is required.

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