How to Become a Military Chaplain
Chaplains have been present throughout military history to support the emotional and spiritual well-being of the troops. Even in the 21st century, all of the service branches recognize that beyond just beans, bullets, and band-aids, servicemembers and their families require sustenance of a less tangible nature, regardless of their specific religious beliefs. That's why chaplains are still around in all of the service branches (except the Marine Corps, which is served by Navy chaplains.)
But the way the chaplain program works might seem pretty peculiar to those who think in terms of the local minister, priest, rabbi, et cetera — spiritual leaders in the civilian community who often cater to one specific flock. Although GoArmy.com maintains that "each chaplain ministers according to the tenets of his or her distinctive faith community," every branch also insists on an atmosphere of plurality and tolerance.
That's not just open-mindedness. It's practicality: There are no restrictions on one's religious beliefs in order to join the military, and there's also no way serve such a diverse population by employing chaplains for each and every religion represented at every base and installation around the globe. Instead, chaplains are asked to "adapt and overcome" by serving all soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines (and their families) with a spirit of tolerance and religious pluralism. In fact, the Air Force website lists "understand all major theologies" as a chaplain career task. (Sounds like a tall order.)
Chaplains serve as commissioned officers. That means a bachelor's degree is the minimum requirement for entry. In addition, chaplains need a graduate degree that included at least 72 semester hours of work, although the Army allows applicants who are still pursuing completion of this degree.
The graduate degree must be centered on theology or related studies such as "pastoral counseling, social work, religious administration, and similar disciplines when one-half of the earned graduate credits include topics in general religion, world religions, the practice of religion, theology, religious philosophy, religious ethics, and/or the foundational writings from the applicant’s religious tradition," according to Department of Defense Instruction 1304.28 (PDF.)
But in addition to their education, potential chaplains need what you might call "credentials" — proof that they can practice as a leader in their chosen faith. The Department of Defense (DoD) has a system set up for this, allowing religious organizations to apply as "ecclesiastical endorsing organizations" that can then certify aspiring chaplains of their religion.
The current list of approved organizations is published on the DoD Personnel and Readiness website, and although it's heavy on what you might call (in America) "mainstream" Christian churches, here are a few of the other religious groups currently able to endorse chaplains:
- American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council
- Buddhist Churches of America
- Central Conference of American Rabbis (chaired, interestingly, by a retired admiral)
- Islamic Society of North America
- Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations
- Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox)
- United States General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists
Those who wish to be chaplains but find themselves underrepresented in the list of endorsing organizations may still have hope if their church or other organization wants to apply to the DoD. In fact, first-time ecclesiastical endorsers need to submit their application while simultaneously endorsing their first potential chaplain, and that chaplain's acceptance depends on approval of the organization as well as all of his or her other qualifications.
In general, DoD Instruction 1304.28 stipulates that a "church" can only qualify to endorse chaplains if they are recognized as a tax-exempt church by the IRS and agree that their chaplains must serve "in a pluralistic environment . . . and who shall support directly and indirectly the free exercise of religion by all members of the Military Services, their family members, and other persons authorized to be served by the military chaplaincies."
In other words, you probably can't start a church capable of endorsing military chaplains if you intend to call it the "Church of Do Things My Way or Die." Keep in mind, too, that if you apply as a chaplain for a faith group such as Jewish Orthodox or Islam, you may face some hurdles regarding the military's strict grooming standards.
But recent exceptions have been made for faith groups such as the Sikhs, as I've discussed in my article Is My Religion Compatible with a Military Career?. Exceptions are also being made for rabbis. The key word, though, is an exception: There is still no blanket regulation allowing alternate grooming standards on religious grounds.
Chaplains aren't just religious consultants but are fully-fledged members of the US military. So, like all officers, chaplains must complete a basic sort of "boot camp" to get them up to snuff on what's expected of anyone wearing the time-honored uniform of an Army, Naval, or Air Force officer. But chaplains are bound by laws of war as non-combatants, so treating them like entry-level infantry or surface warfare officers would be a bit over-the-top.
The Army sets aside a specific Chaplain Officer leadership course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. At three months, it clocks in as the longest of all the service branches' chaplain training, but it specifically covers "noncombatant common core skills, Army writing and chaplaincy-specific training" (GoArmy.com, emphasis mine.)
Navy chaplains also head to Fort Jackson, but attend the Navy Chaplaincy School and Center's seven-week Professional Naval Chaplaincy Basic Leadership Course, "designed to challenge the mind, the body, and the soul . . . to bring a grounded awareness . . . so students are prepared as they enter into their ministry settings."
Air Force chaplains get the shortest track through a five-week officer course that includes "physical conditioning five days a week, leadership training and classroom studies."