Falling Seed: Lessons on grace from a U.S. Navy command chaplain

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“Grace is the catalyst for change. … Judgment is a catalyst for fear and anger,” Cmdr. Bruce Crouterfield said during a Sept. 17 webinar titled “On the Side of Grace” provided by Dallas Baptist University.

Crouterfield, with more than 32 years with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, is the base command chaplain for Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

The webinar was a follow-up to a previous discussion featuring Crouterfield and Master Sgt. John Rudd, a Marine explosive ordnance disposal team leader, on the topic of a leader’s relationship with self.



Both webinars were hosted by Lt. Trevor Carpenter, a graduate of DBU and a U.S. Navy chaplain embedded with Marines. Carpenter explained that while many people associate military strength with “technology or machinery,” the Marine Corps understands strength is in people and therefore shapes strong people—physically, mentally and spiritually.

Spiritual strength requires a grace-based relationship with God and oneself.

Grace versus performance

The tendency among many is to base their relationship with self and others on performance. Identity then becomes linked to success or failure—external circumstances. Then, when a person fails, that person must succeed to feel worthy again, Crouterfield said.



A performance-based person will tend to go from failure to judgment, which can be internally and externally directed. This leads to anger, self-loathing and depression, he explained.

The person whose relationship with self is based on grace, however, is not tossed back and forth by external circumstances, but is held steady.

A grace-based relationship with oneself and others is rooted in a grace-based relationship with God, Crouterfield said. God’s grace is not earned through performance, but is an unconditional gift.


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When a person’s identity is shaped by this kind of grace, he or she is able to care better for themselves and others.

A grace-based skill

For those in the caring professions, a grace-based relationship to self is essential for themselves and for those in their care. Listening is a grace-based skill Crouterfield named as the most important for caring professionals.

“When people feel heard, they feel cared for,” Crouterfield said. He then outlined a set of basic listening skills that open the door to change and transformation.



1. “Follow the material presented.”

“Pick up the bread crumbs the speaker is laying down. Stay on topic,” he said.

The speaker, not the listener, drives the conversation; so, the listener should not change the subject. Listeners change the subject out of fear or anxiety about what is being heard, or when they let their own “stuff get in the way.”

2. “Avoid the fix-it reflex.”

Don’t assume the speaker wants the listener to fix the presenting issue. Trying to fix the speaker’s issue makes the speaker feel inadequate, small, angry; it becomes a roadblock, Crouterfield said. The speaker wants to figure out the solution on his or her own.



Crouterfield referred to Proverbs 20:5—“Counsel is like deep water in the heart, but a man of understanding draws it up.” The speaker’s process for finding the solution is to externalize—to “look at”—the problem by talking about it.

The listeners’ job is “to walk into their deep water with them until they bump into [their heart’s counsel] and they can draw it up on their own,” he said. When a person draws up his or her own counsel, that person feels empowered and more resilient. It also enables the speaker to be more independent than dependent on the listener.

3. Probe emotions.

Listen for emotion, and ask what is behind it. When people articulate their emotions, Crouterfield said, their brain chemistry changes as serotonin and dopamine released in the brain’s pre-frontal cortex offsets cortisol, the hormone related to stress and the fight or flight response.

4. Probe relationships.

When a relationship is mentioned, ask, “How is your relationship with (that person)?”

“It’s in the context of relationships that we are hurt. … It’s also in the context of relationships that we are healed,” Crouterfield said.

5. Probe life experiences.

When an experience is mentioned, ask, “What was that like for you?”

Crouterfield told a story about a soldier who mentioned attending his father’s funeral. Rather than assuming this was a sad occasion, Crouterfield asked, “What was that like for you?” The soldier described being angry his father died before he could confront him as a grown man about being sexually abused by him as a boy.

The place of your story

There is value to the listener’s story, but not in sharing that story while listening to someone else. The value in the listener’s story is that it allows the listener to empathize with the speaker.

“Because you have some life experiences that might be common with that person, you can feel what they feel, and they know when you’re feeling what they’re feeling. They sense that you’re understanding them,” Crouterfield said.

“You don’t have to tell your story. You just have to allow yourself to go inwardly to that place to feel what they feel, and when they sense that, they feel cared for, and they have an experience of grace with you. They feel understood; they feel heard; they feel cared for.”

Leading toward change

To lead someone toward change, “avoid trying to recreate others into your image,” which is a “fix-it reflex,” Crouterfield said. Avoiding this tendency requires self-awareness.

It’s also “knowing to ask the right questions:” “How is your relationship with you right now, and what is that relationship based on?” “How’s that working out?”

When a person doesn’t have self-awareness enough to see why he or she is seeking help, pointedly asking what the person’s purpose is can help the listener know how to respond. In Crouterfield’s case, sometimes a soldier wants his help getting out of the Marine Corps—to effect a change in the soldier’s circumstances.

“The answer to life’s problems is not changing your circumstances. You’re just going to bring your problems with you no matter where you go,” he said.

Self-awareness means understanding “the road to maturity … is not by changing your circumstances; it’s trying to get above them.” Following up with, “What does that mean to you,” moves the conversation to a different level, Crouterfield said.

Spectrum of leadership

Leaders do find themselves in situations requiring a different approach than listening. For these situations, Crouterfield describes a spectrum from driving leadership to caring leadership.

At one pole, driving leadership—what many associate with drill instructors in Marine boot camp basic—pushes people to do what they don’t want to do, stretching people to go further than they would otherwise. At the other pole, caring leadership nurtures, mentors and builds people up.

The informed leader knows how to move between these poles, finding “the sweet spot” of leadership called for in a given situation.

Ultimately, the leader worth following is the leader who cares for people.


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