Improving Military Chaplain Education

I have been thinking lately about how the Army educates chaplains.

It starts with the eight-week Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course (CHBOLC), which is designed to both introduce chaplains to the military and help them adapt their civilian skills and experience to the military. Later, active duty chaplains attend the twenty-week Chaplain Captain Career Course (C4–it’s only two weeks for Reserve Components). Majors do Intermediate Level Education, the Command and General Staff Course, which is the first school they attend with officers of other branches. In residence, it is a 44-week long course. The branch-specific component of ILE is the two-week Operational Religious Support Leadership Course. Further on, there is a course for Lieutenant Colonels (Initial Strategic Religious Support Leadership Course) and one for Colonels (Senior Strategic Religious Support Leadership Course). Chaplains can attend the ten-month Army War College (again, with officers of other branches).

After CHBOLC, chaplain-specific education consists of one twenty week course (if active duty) and three two-week courses. In a career, that means a senior chaplain will have had 88 weeks of non-chaplain training and 34 weeks of chaplain training (only 16 weeks for Reserve Component chaplains). That is an imbalance that must be corrected.

I’ve seen CHBOLC (or CHOBC, as it was known when I took it at Fort Monmouth in 1986 and 1990) swing back and forth. When I took it, the chaplaincy was first and foremost. We were treated as professional religious leaders from start to finish. This was especially true when I did the second phase. In 1986, our classroom instruction took place in a large auditorium with red chairs we called The Big Red Bedroom. We did some time in the field at Fort Dix, and we did PT. In 1990, the classroom instructional method had shifted to small groups. Since those days, more emphasis has been placed on military skills. The field experience is longer and more intense, as is the initial military training. It has more of a “basic training feel,” I am told.

But as the pendulum swung from the pastoral to the military, I have heard more questions, especially from Adventists and Jews, on whether the US Army Chaplain Center and School is modeling appropriate Religious Accommodation. It varies from commandant to commandant, and from course manager to course manager. I expect that chaplains will be treated as chaplains; that the school will model tolerance, and respect, and grant religious accommodation proactively. Chaplains should never be humiliated for practicing their faith.

At the same time, the school, along with the rest of the Army, is struggling with the fact that it can’t assume a consistent level of theological education or pastoral experience. The bar was lowered ten years ago, and the Armed Forces Chaplain Board decided to accept a 72 hours Master of Divinity; Liberty University is the best known example of a seminary that responded to this by creating a 72 hours Distance Learning Master of Divinity especially for military chaplaincy. The AFCB also dropped the requirement that seminaries be accredited by the Association of Theological schools. And the branches, to meet demand for chaplains, increasingly waived the requirement of at least two years pastoral experience. With the drop in standards and experience, the quality of chaplains declined—something that is discussed whenever two or more supervisory chaplains get together.

In the Reserve and Guard, fewer chaplains are engaged in full-time civilian ministry. They have no pastoral experience, a DL degree, and only do ministry one weekend a month. They meet the minimum standard, but I wonder, how effective can they be?

Now let’s follow these minimal chaplains through their careers. If they are Guard and Reserve, C4 is a two-week course (with some online preparation). They do the two-week ORSLC. The Army thinks this is enough for them to take their place as supervisory field grade chaplains. They are required to do the same Intermediate Level Education as officers of all other branches (for Guard and Reserve, it can be done entirely online, meaning they will never sit in a class with other officers).

The consequences of this should be clear. We are growing a Chaplain Corps with minimal pastoral experience, with inferior theological education, and with minimal education in their role as chaplains or as chaplain supervisors. And yet the demands placed upon chaplains are greater than ever. They need to excel in pastoral care and crisis intervention, caring for soldiers and their families suffering the effects of multiple deployments. They need to do suicide intervention and postvention. They need to do marriage preparation and counseling. They need to plan Religious Support, lead a multifaith team, and understand other religions in the AO—with no requirement that they have even a single standard course in World Religions. They need to be supervisory pastors, helping junior chaplains with burnout and compassion fatigue and moral injury. They need expertise in moral and ethical reflection, to advise commanders on topics like Military Sexual Trauma and the ethical conduct of war.

The demands get greater, but our expectations for their civilian training are reduced, as are the requirements and opportunities for professional military education. Now, there are lots of courses offered by the Army that can help the chaplain, but these are optional (and funds are restricted for Guard and Reserve Chaplains). Active duty chaplains can be selected for advanced civilian education in ethics, Clinical Pastoral Education, Marriage and Family Therapy, and World Religions—but these are not available to the Guard and Reserve.

We need to rethink chaplain education. Raise the bar on education and experience. Revision Intermediate Level Education, and turn it around. Reduce the common core to a two-week course, with the bulk being a chaplain specific course on the special skills and knowledge needed to be supervisory chaplains, as well as advisors to senior military leaders. Give them training as executive coaches and spiritual directors. Educate them in World Religions to be able to do quality external advisement, and in Ethics to be able to do quality internal advisement. Educate them in Religious Liberty history and law, to give them the capability to fight for religious accommodation.

The problem, acknowledged by a friend who is a retired chaplain and endorser, is that “We all know senior chaplains who either were or have been focusing on being line officers, and profoundly are lacking in pastoral skills and leadership.” And he asked in return, “If they had been allowed to spend that time developing some branch-specific advanced skills, just imagine how much an improvement we would see in the chaplaincy!”

This problem will get more pronounced as the post 9-11 group of Chaplains matures.

But there’s a risk for the military. Pastors who have significant congregational experience, with solid theological education, and continuing education that challenges them and stretches them, are more likely to be independent thinkers, and critics of the military status quo. If we successfully recruit more mainline and liberal chaplains (as we must), this will prove even more true.

Chaplains with less of a pastoral identity, a more utilitarian education, with military education that focuses on common core, might fit into the system better–but at what cost to the chaplaincy? It needs to be a “burr under the saddle.” It needs to have a “prophetic voice.” We need chaplains who are in the system but not of it, who have the pastoral identity and the moral courage to aggressively advocate for service members and who can have strong relationships with their commanders and fellow staff officers so that they are listened to and respected when they must challenge and confront command issues.

For chaplains to do this, our education must confront difficult issues. We must deal honestly with ethical failures of the military such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, torture, and drone warfare. We must discuss the case stories of chaplains who stood up to power. I’ve never heard the name of CH (MG) Kermit Johnson mentioned at the chaplain school—I’ve only recently become acquainted with his writings, detailing his opposition to Reagan’s Central America and nuclear weapons policies. These are the stories we need to hear, and discuss. We need to talk about CH (CPT) James Yee and CH (CPT) Chris Antal and others who suffered consequences from confronting the status quo. We need to hear the stories of chaplains who have suffered from pressure brought about through rapid changes in military and US policy on sexual preference and gender identity.

Instead, we spend hours debating whether we can pray “In Jesus’ name” (and, in one course, I witnessed the instructor berate a fellow major for doing just that in a group of Christians). We learn how to be instructors of canned programs. We learn how to say public prayers that won’t offend. We learn how to be good staff officers.

But will we be good pastors? Will we be able to pastor senior leaders? And will we be able to train and mentor other chaplains to be pastors to all?