What is a Military Chaplain?
Serving as a military chaplain is a little bit different than working as a chaplain in other areas. Generally, chaplain is the term used for those who provide religious services and counsel in areas such as hospitals, prisons, police stations, and universities. However, while that is what a military chaplain does on a regular basis, they also have a few extra duties. These chaplains are more than just ordained ministers, too—they’re formal commissioned military staff officers in the United States Chaplain Corps. The Corps is broken down into three branches: the Army, the Navy (which includes the Marines, Merchant Marines, and Coast Guards), and the Air Force.
In addition to providing religious services and rites to military personnel on base, on ship, or on active duty in other countries, military chaplains may also need to serve as advisors to the executive officers of their unit. They will provide advice on issues related to religion, ethics, and morals. Military chaplains are often active within their own church communities and leadership structure, especially in areas where war, religion, and peace are discussed.
Military Chaplain Duties and Qualities
While an officer in the Chaplain Corps, military chaplains are considered non-combatants. This means that they may not participate in hostilities, combat, or any direct mission where combat may occur. In fact, the U.S. prohibits chaplains from carrying weapons in the field, although they may participate in marksman courses and competitions. Chaplains enjoy special status as outlined by the Geneva Conventions—if captured, they must immediately be returned to their home country unless they elect to stay and minister to other prisoners. They are never to be considered a prisoner of war. Even those who elect to stay and minister to prisoners must be treated well and with respect.
Those who serve as military chaplains are under the supervision of the chaplain general or the chief of chaplains. Each of the three branches of the military has a chaplain general. These three serve on the Armed Forces Chaplain Board, which discusses issues that affect all chaplains in the U.S. military. However, they each individually report to the staff officer of their particular branch of service (for example, the Chaplain General of the Air Force would report directly to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force).
Military chaplains normally wear the uniform of their branch of service, except when they are performing religious ceremonies or services. They are given a rank that is based on promotion selection and their years of service, and they generally wear an insignia that identifies both the fact that they are a chaplain and what religion they are a part of.
Steps to Become a Military Chaplain
To become a military chaplain, you must meet all of the requirements to be ordained and be recognized as a chaplain. This includes earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree, completing all certification requirements, and meeting all the requirements of the U.S. military. Listed below is a summary of the steps required to become a military chaplain:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a closely related field such as religion, divinity, counseling, psychology or theology./li>
- Complete a master’s degree in religion or theological studies.
- Must be a U.S. citizen if applying for active duty or the National Guard.
- Become ordained- You must have ecclesiastical endorsement from your faith group.
- Become certified- Certification entails that you are qualified intellectually, morally, emotionally and spiritually to complete your duties.
- Apply and be accepted to the U.S. Chaplain Corps.
- Meet all requirements necessary to join the corps, including specific fitness, health, age, and fitness requirements.
- Must have two years of full-time professional experience, which has been verified by your endorsing agency.
To become a chaplain in the military, you must first become an ordained minister within your faith group. Ordination requirements vary from church to church, but the basic tenents involve demonstrating that you have the intellectual, moral, spiritual and emotional qualifications to serve. A formal training program is almost always part of the ordination process- for some, this is a bachelor’s degree; other churches do not require a degree but have their own educational courses. After meeting the education and training requirements of your faith group, most candidates will enter into a review process, sometimes called an "endorsement" or "certification" process, whereby members of the clergy validate that you meet all minimum requirements.
Remember- The U.S. Chaplain Corp requires a bachelors degree and a graduate degree to serve as an active duty chaplain. If your faith group does not have these educational requirements for ordination, you will still need to meet the minimum standards of the U.S. military before applying.
Education Requirements for Military Chaplains
Becoming a military chaplain involves meeting strict educational requirements. All candidates must earn a bachelor’s degree in religion or a closely related field, and a graduate degree in religion or theology. Religious studies involve an examination of the scripture, learning about other religions and belief systems, and examining the history of the church. You may also take courses in communication, counseling, and leadership, especially if your program offers a focus on Ministry.
Important: As a military chaplain, you will encounter military personnel, families and civilians who are members of other denominations or faith groups, so you must be sensitive to religious pluralism and be able to provide for the free exercise of religion. Understanding religious diversity and the concept that different belief systems have the ability to co-exist is an important part of religious studies.
If you plan on becoming a military chaplain, you may want to augment your undergraduate degree with courses in psychology, especially grief counseling and traumatic therapy. You may also want to take history courses or a course that examines the military. These courses aren’t required, of course, but they can be helpful.
Because the military does require chaplains to meet certain physical and health conditions, you may want to take more than the required physical education courses, or sign up for one of the university’s sports teams in order to begin conditioning your body to meet these requirements.
Earning a Master's Degree
To become a certified chaplain, and in some cases, to become an ordained minister, you will need to hold a master’s degree. Generally, this is a Master’s of Divinity or Theology, but some universities offer other graduate degrees in Religion. These programs offer more advanced studies in religion, including in-depth studies of the Bible and church history. Again, some of these programs, especially those that are aimed at preparing students for church leadership, will go into psychology, communication and counseling.
The university from which you receive your undergraduate and graduate degree must be accredited. This means that an independent third party accrediting body has completed the process of reviewing the university and its program for quality assurance and quality improvement. Both federal and state governments regard accreditation as a reliable endorsement of academic quality.
Important: Don't make the mistake of earning credit hours from a program without accreditation. The learnings you take from the program may have some value to you, but they will not be acknowledged by most employers.
The best resource to check on university or program accreditation is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). For graduate degrees, most of the religious programs and seminaries are accredited by one of the following: the Association of Theological Schools, the Transnational Association for Christian Colleges and Schools, or the Association for Biblical Higher Education.
Master's Program Objectives and Goals
These degrees focus on teaching people how to enter the ministry and how to lead a church. As a military chaplain, you will have the same training that other ministers have. That means you’ll meet the program goals of having strong leadership skills, being able to communicate effectively, and having a strong working knowledge of the church and the scriptures. You will also know how to effectively counsel and comfort members of your congregation, knowledge that will come in handy as a military chaplain.
Earning Practical Experience
Military chaplains often do not have any practical experience as a military chaplain before applying for the Chaplain Corps. However, they must be endorsed by their church, and that generally means having served in some position in their community for several years. In addition to this experience, becoming a certified chaplain does require working with an experienced chaplain for several years. This provides you with practical training under a supervising chaplain and prepares you for the certification exams.
Certification and Endorsement
Many chaplains are certified by the Association for Professional Chaplains (APC). This isn’t always necessary, however, but it is highly recommended. The APC is the largest professional organizations for chaplains in the U.S., and being certified by the APC can open many doors. Certification requires completing a master’s degree, being ordained, and completing several units from the Clinical Pastoral Education program (some of which may be waived if your bachelor’s degree came from a CHEA-accredited university). Your church must also formally endorse you for certification.
Before you can apply to be a military chaplain, you usually need to have the endorsement of a religious organization. Generally, this is the church you are a part of. Note that some religious that do not have an established hierarchy in place that makes decisions regarding appointments may not need an endorsement. Rabbis, for example, may apply without permission or endorsement by any organization.
Meeting Additional Requirements
In addition to meeting all religious, education and endorsement requirements, chaplains need to be fit and in good health. The requirements may not be as strict as those laid out for personnel who will see combat, but military chaplains may serve in areas where combat could occur at any time. As such, they need to be in good physical health and shape. Those who are not may not be accepted into the Chaplain Corps or may be stationed on military bases in the U.S. rather than abroad.
Military Chaplain Jobs & Job Description
Military chaplains are responsible for managing the religious and pastoral care of military members and their families, regardless of which religion members identify with and regardless of where they are deployed to. While jobs do vary between venues, most military chaplains are comfortable performing the following duties:
- Facilitate and officiate at religious services and ceremonies
- Officiate at special functions
- Advise the Commanding Officer about religious accommodations issues, acting as the subject matter expert
- Consult on ethical dilemmas
- Counsel individuals and groups about spiritual and moral issues
- Attends to the morale of the unit; helping individuals process loss, regret, and stress
- Liaise with civilian faith groups
- Refer individuals to social workers, psychologists, or medical personnel as required
- Advocate on behalf of an individual to their commanding officer
- Provide counseling and care after significant life events
- Notify a member's next-of-kin after death and as directed
- Apply knowledge of military administration where beneficial
- Offer crisis pastoral counseling to individuals
- Coordinate pastoral volunteer services
- Visit with military families as appropriate
- Help individuals explore questions related to spirituality, religion, vocation and life purpose
- Offer spiritual formation and discernment programs and individual counseling
- Offer prayers
- Support unit parades
- Lead services to promote and encourage spiritual growth and exploration
- Curate and maintain worship materials
- Requisition new worship materials
- Provide pastoral services and support for marriages, funerals and baptisms
- Use volunteers to assist in the chaplaincy work when necessary and appropriate