Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Should Military Chaplains Meet Civilian Chaplaincy Certification Requirements?

Most times I take a position on an issue when I write an article for Celestial Lands. This time, I am torn. I know the reasons that I chose to complete at least the base educational requirements for becoming a Board Certified Chaplain by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC) prior to reporting to my first assignment as a military chaplain. Many of those reasons have to do with my own goals for professional competence and preparedness before moving into this ministry. It is my hope that, by September, I will have completed 5 units of Clinical Pastoral Education (a CPE internship and a CPE residency) and I hope to have received “Associate Chaplain” status from the APC. In my first two years of service as a military chaplain, I hope to complete the requirements for full board certification from APC.

And none of that is required for me to become a military chaplain. Military Chaplaincy requires a religious studies, divinity, or theology degree from an accredited school of at least 72 hours, an endorsement from a recognized chaplain endorsing body (often a denomination, but not always), a passed National Security background investigation, and that the candidate pass the physical and intellectual requirements for military service. There are some other screening requirements, (such as not having bankruptcies, age, etc.), but there is nothing about having completed any particular civilian training in the practice of chaplaincy as a ministry.

The most common answer to that is that you are supposed to learn such practice in seminary… and if anyone can actually justify that the practice of chaplaincy ministry is taught at a seminary I would be surprised. There is a reason that, in the civilian world, a long-standing educational program (CPE), separate from seminary or theology school exists. There is a reason why the largest Chaplain Association, the APC, requires CPE as a part of its certification process. I have attended a seminary in which almost half of the student body is preparing for some kind of chaplaincy or community ministry, and that school did very little for me in the way of the practice of chaplaincy ministry. Not a negative on the school… for they understand that an academic environment is not the right place to learn chaplaincy… for that you need a clinical setting.

As if someone prepared to be a medical doctor without ever stepping into a hospital.

Yet, I know that not all denominations or faith communities that provide military chaplains agree with some of the philosophies and ethics of the Association of Professional Chaplains or Clinical Pastoral Education. In my conversations with members of those faith traditions, three specific objections are commonly raised… that CPE and APC position on evangelism/proselytization is contrary to the evangelical mission of their faith. Second, many feel that the amount of self-realization/self-discovery that CPE requires is not necessary for their understanding of the practice and role of ministry. I have also heard a few of my colleagues object to their being responsible to an organization outside of their denomination for their practice as a chaplain.

It will not be at all surprising that I disagree with each of these objections… and yet I want to respect the different faith traditions and values that are behind them. On the evangelism/proselytization issue, the military chaplaincy is required by the constitution and by federal law to be a pluralistic ministry. I personally have an issue with the current military policy that military chaplains can “evangelize the unchurched” primarily because I have yet to find a decent definition of what is meant by “unchurched”. CPE teaches one how to conduct authentic ministry in a pluralistic setting, and APE ethics requirements prohibit proselytization as a practice of chaplaincy ministry. In my opinion, abiding by APC standards would be very close (if not the same) to abiding by my interpretation of the constitution on this issue. Many of my colleagues disagree with that interpretation.

On the issue of self-discovery not being a necessary requirement for a practice of chaplaincy ministry, I can only say that I could not move into this ministry without it. Personally, this is the reason why I chose to do a CPE residency when nothing required me to do so. Every time I see or hear a story about a chaplain “burning out” in combat or having a “crisis of faith”, I wonder whether that chaplain has had any CPE training. I think of it as beginning a practice of preventative maintenance for chaplaincy… not only will CPE help you learn the rough places in your spirit, life, and soul… but it will give you a handle on how to work with them, how to smooth them, and how they affect how you are as a person and a minister. I’m not saying that chaplains with some CPE never burn out or have crises of faith, but I am saying that they have at least been exposed to the tools to recognize the signs of these early, and have an idea how to walk through them… because they have done so in a controlled environment prior to going into a deployment.

On the third issue of to whom we are responsible, each military chaplain already agreed to be responsible to someone and something outside of their denomination, when they took their oath to the people of the United States and to the U.S. Constitution. Now, I have had a few of my colleagues say that they did not really feel bound by that oath, because their allegiance to their faith tradition was paramount and they just said what they had to say to be allowed into the military to proselytize, but I think those individuals are the exception, not the rule. If you took the oath in good faith, you have already broadened your responsibility… and have chosen to balance between multiple poles of responsibility.

As I said, my opinion on whether military chaplains should take CPE and abide by APC standards is clear… and I am not claiming that as my point of tension. My point of tension on this issue is whether agreeing to and abiding by such standards should be a requirement of serving as a military chaplain. Must military chaplains meet the same levels of standards as required by most civilians operating in the same field? My tension lies in the difference between “should” and “must”.

For many years I’ve been trying to cope with my son’s ADHD using non-medication methods. We worked with the psychologist, but the result was insignificant. After five years of struggling, I decided to give him Adderall. He takes 10 mg daily. My son’s behavior changed a lot. He is not hyperactive, and his cognitive functions improved greatly.

There is a precedent for the “must” among the other two branches of Professional Degree Officers. Military Medical Doctors are required to pass the same medical certification requirements (including boards) that their civilian counterparts are required to pass. Judge Advocate General (JAG officers, or military lawyers) are required to pass the BAR exams. A military doctor and a military lawyer are qualified to enter into the civilian branches of their field when they leave the military. That is not true of military chaplains in large degree. Most civilian chaplain positions, (at least in medical fields) require some form of APC (or its Roman Catholic Equivalent) certification for serving as a chaplain.

And yet… many of the most common faith traditions among the military chaplaincy as it exists today have deep theological and philosophical objections to the requirements of such certification.

So, I don’t know… I just don’t know.

Yours in faith,


8 Thoughts on “Should Military Chaplains Meet Civilian Chaplaincy Certification Requirements?

  1. Total layman talking here, but it seems like the two most common complaints (the lack of evangelism and the degree to which self-examination is necessary) could be satisfied by the CPE/APC coming up with a special “Military Chaplain Certification” that didn’t require those things, or required less, but still included everything else.


  2. CC,

    I thought of that… but then what would APC be saying about how seriously it takes the values behind it’s current ethical stances? APC would probably be more willing to compromise on format and structrue than on ethics… specifically around prosletization.

    I think a more likely solution would be for those faith traditions that have reservations with the APC model to develop their own Chaplaincy certification program.

    Thanks for the idea!

    Yours in Faith,


  3. David,

    The Army also requires a chaplain to have at lest 2 years of professional experience, as verified by the chaplain’s faith endorser.

    I will say that the level of preparedness for the military chaplaincy will vary from tradition to tradition, and that CPE is now something that the Army is looking to try and provide for all chaplains (albeit, a very difficult and expensive proposition).

    The self-knowing and introspection that come with CPE is a value that is noticed throughout the Corps – but not in so many faith traditions. I went to one of the most conservative evangelical/baptist seminaries and was discouraged from CPE because it was not structured and guided by denominational leaders.

    It was more important to know Calvin than self 😉


  4. Michael,

    Welcome to Celestial Lands!

    I did not include the two year requirement, because every time I turn around the Army is waiving that for someone. I have seen multiple waivers for that in the last few years. It is also, as you said, verified by the endorser… and what each endorser defines as that “expeirence” varies widely.

    You are right, and I hope I was clear that there are some widely divergent views on CPE… and my tension on this issue rests in trying to respect that not everyone has the opinion of CPE that I do. I grew up Southern Baptist, so I keep a somewhat close on on my “tradition of origin”.

    As I said, I think the concern you bring up could be addressed by developing a CPE equivalent program that is overseen by Baptists or more conservative/evangelical Christians. I’ve heard rumors of such an effort, but have not personally encountered it in any way.

    If that were done, then my only issue would rest around developing something similar to the APC standards of ethics.

    I am leery of two organizations doing similar things… but I doubt that either CPE or the more conservative denominations would be willing to make the compromises necessary for there to be one program.

    Yours in faith,


  5. Donald Wilton on Monday March 1, 2010 at 14:17 +0000 said:

    I hear the Unitarian talking when you say that you favor taking the courses. I also understand that the conservative denominations fear the certification because they fail to muster the courage to defend the job according to its guidelines. The chaplaincy is not a job to preach your narrow view but provide comfort to the volunteers who provide a service. I think that your choice to certify yourself is both a good career move, and the kind of choice that a Unitarian would make. I agree that it is a good idea to come up with certification of the chaplains, but I have to wonder how much the conservative faith traditions will oppose any attempt to get them to fulfill their obligations outside of their narrow interests.

  6. There actually is a CPE program for Conservative Christians now. The organization is called the Association of Professional Conservative Chaplains. They are nationwide with a national center based out of Orlando, FL. http://www.apcchaplains.org

  7. Do they aim to be able to pass the board certification standards of the Association of Professional Chaplains?

  8. Hi David,

    I read their standards on the about us page and they are almost identical to APC. I did speak with one of the gentleman and they said that “they are Southern Baptists trained by both ACPE and CPSP.” The history page is very interesting as well. Apparently they are starting centers in 8 different universities next year and have centers in either 17 or 27 states, don’t remember what he said. He, Jason McKinney, said that they want to be similar to NACC and NAJC in that they are not multi-faith but specific to Conservative or Southern Baptist beliefs. What are your thoughts on this? Oh, they also said that they will allow any faith group to participate but will make it clear that the original teachings of CPE came from a Christian perspective.

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