Meet your leadership: Wing Chaplain, Lt. Col. John Shipman

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Shipman
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The 39th Air Base Wing units are led by hand-picked commanders here and at geographically-separated groups and squadrons across the region. This series of features gives an inside look at those leaders and their leadership style. This feature highlights the Wing Chaplain, Lt. Col. John Shipman.

Question: Why did you decide to join the Air Force and why do you continue to serve?

Answer: I joined the Air Force in 1982. I was farming with my father after graduating from high school and the work was very difficult with little pay. My father served 20 years in the military before moving to the farm, and three of my brothers were serving in the Air Force at that time.  So, I thought the Air Force might be a better way of life.  I wanted a college education, and more opportunities than a life on the farm would provide.  I served for nine and a half years as a proud enlisted service member, starting out as an airman basic. During that time I was selected for senior airman below the zone and promoted to staff sergeant in four years. I finished my degree in business management in six years and was selected as one of the 12 outstanding airmen at Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Mich. From there I was selected to attend officer training school during my eighth year. I was very active in the church and served in a variety of leadership roles throughout my life. I felt called to serve as a Pastor, so I left the Air Force in 1991 to attend seminary. During my time outside the Air Force, I served as a chaplain at the Ohio State University Hospital and two congregations in Michigan.  In each ministry setting, I celebrated the time and people with whom I served.  The reason I decided to join the Air Force again is I felt that God had called me to serve in the capacity as a chaplain.    

Question: What is one of your proudest achievements in your military career? 

Answer:  My proudest accomplishment in my military career happened at Lajes Field, Azores.  I was asked to lead a delegation of U.S. and Portuguese officers and non-commissioned officers to help a school near the base.  I toured the school and it was in need of repair, updated materials and a way to keep cows off the property.  My team and I met with the school leadership drafted plan that we would fix up the school property, repair the fence to keep cows out, provide computers, pencils and paper and sporting equipment.  

After giving my analysis of how best to help, the principal thanked me and then he held up a small box of milk.  In his broken English he said, "The children in our school receive this box of milk during the day.  This is all the nourishment they receive.   The things that you said you could provide are wonderful but the best thing you can provide is food."  

I told him, "We will [provide] all the things stated and the chapel at Lajes Field will provide the food for every student each day."

The team visited the school each week with food and we had a special work day to fix the school and the playground equipment. The American school presented a basketball hoop and soccer balls before a potluck meal event where the American and Portuguese came together in community. The vision, pride, care and effort are still a point of celebration in my life.

Question: Is there a leader from your career that influenced you the most? If so, who, and how did they affect the way you lead?

Answer: There are many leaders who influenced my life, but five in particular. As an enlisted person Chief Master Sgt. John Veers, Chief Master Sgt. Bud Marthaler and Staff Sgt. Mark Ellis. As an officer Chaplain, Col. Gary Bomberger and Col. 'Dirt' Winston. 

Veers, Marthaler and Ellis were dynamic leaders who always acted with integrity. They mentored young Airman Shipman, inspiring me to accomplish great things. They saw my potential and they guided my career, helped me to win several quarterly awards, selected me to be a B-52 flying technician and chose me to be the lead technician on the bomb competition team.  They were always ready to share their vision for service with an expectation for excellence in everything on and off duty.  The affect they had on my leadership style, is the total Airmen vision. They led by example and they reinforced the premise that every facet of a person's life will affect the whole.

Bomberger's influence was immediate upon his arrival to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. He established a work environment focused on the Air Force core values. He came into a situation where there was discord, anger, jealousy and a leadership vacuum. His selfless nature, strength of character, open door policy, patience and care were refreshing in a very challenging time. He continues to be a mentor to me today, sharing wisdom and insight on how to lead and love people. Chaplain Bomberger's servant leadership model is what I aspire to within my life.  

Winston was a C-130 Hercules pilot and the wing commander at Lajes Field when I met him. He invited the chapel team to his office, as we sat down in his office, he turned to face us and he hung up the phone. He greeted me and then did something I had never seen before.  He said, "Chaplains, I want to pray for you."  And then he did.  Winston was part of my congregation and a true patriot; always fighting for his troops, always willing to take time out of his day to help others.

We too continue our relationship and I am proud to call him my friend. His strength of character and his faithful approach to his calling as a leader in the Air Force are a source of inspiration to me every day I serve.

Question: Leaders often face a significant challenge or watershed moment early on in their careers that influence their formation as leaders. Did you have any moments like these that helped shape you into the leader you are today?

Answer: While serving at Vandenberg AFB the chapel leadership was at an impasse.   The wing commander came to me and said, "John, I want you to draft a letter on both of your leaders. Please highlight their strengths and weaknesses and what is the problem in the chapel."  I spoke with several leaders that I knew concerning this request.  Each one said the same thing, "You are in a bad spot."   After hearing this message three times I went to my wing chaplain and explained the request.   He didn't blink an eye.   He said, "Thank you for your loyalty; write the letter."   His response reflected a vision of respect and professionalism toward his leadership even when his position/program was in question.    

Question: What is your personal mission statement? 

Answer: I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.   ~William Penn

Question: What values and ethics are the most important to you, and what do you expect from your Airmen? 

Answer: Integrity is the primary ethical vision for me.  I can deal with all types of situations but I struggle the most with the people who promote false information or the degradation of another person.  I expect my Airmen to embody the Air Force core values and to act with compassion when dealing with and counseling others.  If my team is above reproach then they will attract Airmen, civilians, and family members to the services the Chapel provides and in and through this process we will be a stronger more resilient community.

Question: What is your strategic vision for your organization?

Answer: My strategic vision incorporates five words that begin with V.   Each V is important for the success of the chapel community that I lead.

Vision - People without vision perish.  The vision I have for ministry is also influenced by wing leadership, peers, commanders and subordinates.  This vision is always cemented in scripture and the Air Force core values outwardly focused on care for those with whom I serve.

Visible - Chaplains and chaplain assistants need to be seen outside of the chapel.  The management principle put into play is management by walking around. I have transformed this principle into the ministry of presence by being in each squadron, group and wing, wherever and whenever possible.

Valuable - The Air Force needs leaders.  Within the chaplaincy that means primarily a chaplain, sometimes a counselor and sometimes an officer running a day of caring event incorporating wing assets to meet the need.  A short story that highlights this is this.  On a deployment, I arrived at the half way point, during a time of struggle and the commander asked what we could do to enhance morale.   I told him that the unit needed an award program.  He agreed but nothing happened.  The next week I said, "Sir I have a better idea, I should run an award program for you." He agreed and this program improved morale and met a valuable need of the commander and the troops serving under his leadership.

Viable - This concept focuses on the need for self-care and unit care which are vital to every organization.  Airmen in all walks of life have tendencies to work themselves hard and at times 'burn out.'  Chaplains and chaplain assistants are no different.  So each chaplain is assigned a day off that is carved out in stone. I also implement team building events and monthly mentoring sessions to guide the team forward to ensure my team is viable in meeting the demands of the 39th ABW.

Victory - If my chapel team follows these principles then they will be able to have victory in their lives and help others to have victory in their own.  Victory happens when a chaplain or chaplain assistant stands with a person in crisis and leads him or her to a better place where hope is clearly evident:

When you arrange five Vs they form a star.  And a star represents a light in the darkness, a guide when lost, a place to ask for a wish to be answered.  A star represents hope in the world of someone struggling to find answers.  

Question: What are your leadership goals as a commander while here at Incirlik?

Answer: My leadership goals are to serve and inspire our ministry team so as to enhance every work center and agency on Incirlik.  To establish a mission connection that will allow the chapel to be a celebrated partner that responds quickly to meet each need or crisis.  

Question: What are some of your expectations for the Airmen you lead, and why?

Answer: The expectations I have for the Airmen I lead are that they embrace the Air Force core values and that the chaplains serve in accordance with their individual endorsing agency guidelines

Question: What are your mission expectations from the units you lead?

Answer:  The mission expectations are dynamic as we serve two geographically separated units and support three other sites.   My mission expectations are to support the first amendment rights for all U.S. military members, care for those in need, care for the care givers, advise and empower commanders with accurate and timely information.  

Question: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Answer: I am so proud of my family and my extended family.   I have been married to my wife 30 years and we have five children. Three of the five are adopted.  As a chaplain, I have never been stationed in one place for more than two years.  I am the youngest of six sons and my father and all of my brothers served 20 or more years within the U. S. Air Force.  In two generations we have over 150 years of service to our nation within one branch of the armed services.  All of my family is retired from the Air Force and making a life in other service related endeavors ensuring the world's a better place.