On the Corner

What I learned being a Sergeant-Major

by Robert Docter, Editor-In-Chief – 

I felt very honored when Captain Bob Tobin asked me to be the sergeant-major of the Hollywood Tabernacle Corps 39 years ago, but had only a superficial understanding of what the position was all about. The Orders and Regulations for Local Officers listed some responsibilities, but they seemed to describe the head usher position more than anything I had seen in my predecessors, Harold Gooding and J. K. Wood.

I started to explore perceptions of the job from more experienced people and learned that the position had significance in the life of the corps, and that it was a lot more than head usher.

They reported the CSM was the “leading layman”—the “head deacon”—“the person in charge of open air meetings”—a “go-to” person when the officer is away. When I was installed, my image of the job was that the sergeant-major was the person who gave the announcements.

I learned quickly that it concerns “all of the above” and then some.

The first thing I came to know abruptly was that I wasn’t “in charge.”

This was a hard lesson for me. I think, now, that I’ve almost learned it. Through the years a succession of corps officers, divisional secretaries, and divisional commanders—and most of all, fellow soldiers, have drummed it into me.

Fortunately, I’ve had the joy of working with wonderful officers and very understanding soldiers—all of whom kindly reminded me of the dimensions of my role.
As Bob Tobin got his farewell orders after six or eight years in the corps I realized the person in charge could move on—disappear—not be there tomorrow.

What did this mean? If I’m not in charge—and the officer changes over time—what does this do to my role? What will hold us together?
Fear set in.
I felt very lonely.
Then it hit me. I’m not alone.
We got God—and we got each other.

I concluded quickly that one of my jobs was to maintain what Tobin and his predecessors had established while I was growing up. This concerned the strong attachment to the corps evident in my fellow soldiers. I recognized that I needed to be a helping partner in the process. In later years I conceptualized this as working with the officer and others to build a strong, positive level of cohesiveness. I sensed that we had to stick together without being exclusive, insular or difficult to join. That definitely included the corps officer, but was strong enough to operate autonomously.

Somehow I figured out that, as much as possible, people needed to relate to each other warmly, to be genuine—real, and to find pleasure and joy in being together. They needed a common purpose and a considerable measure of pride—an esprit de corps that provided a sense of identity that caused the members to feel unique—a little different. I believed that each of the members of the corps needed to come to mean a great deal to one another—and to me.

Three essential factors I’ve come to believe are essential in leaders—building cohesiveness, developing autonomy, and affirming identity. I didn’t have these words in mind when Tobin left, but I certainly felt what they meant.

Then we got our new officers—George and Joy Church—neither of whom has ever been described as hesitant, backward, insecure or incompetent. Brilliant officers who got the feel of the place—sensed the direction of the group—got to know the people—became acquainted with how it functioned —and then, fit in as pastors.
I soon learned I could “let George do it.” He took the lead, and I was the helper—the ever present, visible face of leadership when he left—six years later. I had some great training in CSMing.

No two sets of corps officers are the same. Brilliant observation. Many followed—some for shorter stays and others longer. Each couple brought their own strengths. My job was to maximize the strengths and fill in the blanks.

No group of people are without some level of conflict. Different people bring their own meaning to events. It’s important to know that cohesiveness often emerges from conflict. Whether people grow together or splinter depends on what the leader does. I learned that I must never take sides in particular issues within the corps. I certainly have expressed my opinion on policy issues—but I’ve avoided becoming identified with any personalities. Sometimes I saw the conflict as a communications issue and worked as “go-between” to facilitate a meeting-of-the-minds—primarily, simply to make sure those involved understood where the other was coming from. In these occasions I saw myself as a member of a team that included the corps officers. I’m not in charge.

I’ve learned the value of diplomacy and negotiation. I learned how important it is never to diminish someone. I’ve learned how to seek forgiveness from others and to be graceful when others seek forgiveness from me.
I’ve learned how important it is to maintain regular communication with the officer—to meet with him or them on a regular basis—always to spend even a few moments with them prior to a meeting—and always include prayer.

Speaking of prayer—I’ve learned it’s impossible to stay mad at or isolated from someone when you pray for them regularly.

I’ve learned not to be in too much of a hurry when I’m talking to someone —“hi and good-by” might work in some ways, but it doesn’t build relationships.

Building relationships is what the group is all about. The sergeant-major is a helper in the process.

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