Transitioning to military chaplaincy

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

For Chaplain Jonathan E. Shaw, director of ethical development for the US Army War College, military chaplaincy runs in the family: It was his father’s 40-year calling. For his part, Shaw enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps first, and then entered seminary in 1979. After graduation five years later, he served as a reserve-duty chaplain until 1988. After that, he went to active-duty chaplaincy — a role he has held for the past 25 years.

When it comes to the ins and outs of this unique, demanding — and highly rewarding — ministry role, Shaw is a consummate authority.

A day in the life
Given his rank as a colonel in the U.S. Army, Shaw’s day isn’t “typical” for a military chaplain anymore. However, looking back on his career, he can paint a good picture of how that looks.

“For chaplains, the day begins at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m., with physical training, which they do with the soldiers for about an hour,” he says. “Then, they often meet at headquarters with various commanders and staff to plan religious support.”

Next, military chaplains visit soldiers in the field and other duty areas. “They’re invited — and expected — to be alongside soldiers,” Shaw emphasizes. “It’s a ‘ministry of presence.’ It means preaching, teaching, counseling and praying.”

In a wartime situation, it might also include praying before “going outside the wire,” he points out.
Across all branches of the military, Shaw says the commonalities in the chaplaincy role are two-fold: “They bring God to those in uniform by preaching, teaching, praying and counseling, and they advise commanders on how religion and morals matter in operations.”

The non-negotiables
Aside from these daily duties, there are other prerequisites for military chaplaincy posts, beginning with age restrictions. According to Shaw, for the active-duty Army chaplaincy, a candidate must be 41 or younger.

For reserve-duty chaplains, the age limit is 44, with some exceptions for prior military service. He notes that age restrictions can change, so checking with a chaplain recruiter is important. (Visit

A proven ministry background, as well as significant levels of education, is also required. As Shaw points out, the U.S. Department of Defense requires all military chaplains to have at least two years of parish ministry. “Also, they must have a bachelor’s degree, seminary experience, and often a master of divinity degree.”

Finally, the ministry professional must gain an ecclesiastical endorsement from a Department of Defense-recognized religious organization — for example, from a specific church denomination, mosque or synagogue. Each chaplain represents a specific faith in supporting service members. Together, chaplains form a team that makes sure each service member can be strong according to his or her faith. Each chaplain is expected to bring ministry with integrity and sensitivity.

Dr_Jim_FlynnTo this end, institutions such as Virginia Beach, VA-based Regent University offer master of divinity and doctor of ministry degrees with a military chaplaincy concentration. Dr. James Flynn is associate professor of practical theology and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, School of Divinity, at Regent. He was also a pastor for 30 years.

Flynn says the master-level degree Regent offers, which requires 72 credit hours, is a well-tailored option for prospective military chaplains. “They get theological training, as well as training for counseling, spiritual formation classes,” he says. “That’s because such a broad theological base is required by the military of its chaplains.”

Another area of focus for Regent’s master- and doctor-level military chaplaincy students is ethics. “That’s a big focus in our doctoral program, especially,” Flynn says. “There are lots of battlefield-related questions related to ethics these days, including the use of drone fleets. So, the military is looking for specialized ethics competencies in its chaplains.”

Preferred traits and skills
For his part, Flynn is most familiar with the nuances of Navy chaplaincy, given Regent’s close proximity to a naval base. In this branch of service, he says chaplains must be mobile, as six- to nine-month deployments are common. A chaplain must also be able to handle the weariness that often comes along with this service, he adds.

“Also, some [chaplains] are right in theater,” Flynn continues. “And when they’re not, they’re ministering to families, mediating, doing any kind of ministering you can imagine.”

A military chaplain also needs to stay fit mentally and spiritually. “It’s always a dual profession: uniformed officer and clergy,” Shaw explains.

Regarding personality, Flynn says the military chaplains Regent has educated are some of the calmest, coolest and most collected individuals he has ever met. “They’re very well-respected among their troops and colleagues,” he says. “They carry themselves with gravitas. That’s key because they need to be able to be catalysts for peace, and they must be willing to give and give — especially if a troop’s theology doesn’t align with his or her own.”

This last sentiment is one Shaw echoes, based on his experience. “A military chaplain is expected to be comfortable working in a pluralistic environment — one which represents numerous faiths,” he explains. “You’ve got to be energetically motivated to work together in this role. It requires cooperation without compromise.”

Even so, Shaw says one single competency reigns supreme over all others: a track record as a good pastor. “It’s the No. 1 most important qualification; I can’t stress this enough,” he says. “Military chaplaincy isn’t for pastors who are ‘running away.’


Spotlight on Veterans Affairs (VA) chaplaincy

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Michael_J_PollittChaplaincy posts can vary widely depending on whether he or she is in an active-duty or in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Chaplain Michael Pollitt, national director of the National Chaplain Service for the Department of Veterans Affairs, is quite familiar with the differences.

Pollitt says he became familiar with VA operations from an early age. “I always thought of the VA as a magical place that gave my father back to me,” he says. His father was wounded in combat, captured, and kept in a prisoner of war camp. “After his trips to the VA hospital, he came back to us a new person. I always had a great love for the VA.”

Yet, before joining the Department of Veterans Affairs, Pollitt was an Army chaplain. At a conference, he heard a psychiatrist speak on the topic of addiction and spirituality. “I was very taken by it,” he recalls — so much that he went on to study addiction in graduate school. After that, Pollitt spent five years as a chaplain/addiction specialist at John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

Having served as both an active-duty chaplain and a VA chaplain, Pollitt says both roles deal with the same event — military service. Beyond that, however, “they run in two different directions.”

One key difference is the people to whom he ministers as a VA chaplain. “Military chaplains deal with, for the most part, younger, healthier patients, whereas VA chaplains’ patients range from early adulthood to the elderly,” he explains. “As a VA chaplain, I once had a 105-year-old patient, as well as a Bataan Death March survivor.”

According to Pollitt, the ongoing psychiatric and hospice responsibilities are greater in a VA chaplaincy role versus active-duty. There’s also probably more interaction with Intensive Care Unit, or ICU, patients, he says. “VA chaplains are very involved in the dying process in our VA hospitals.”

Physical considerations
Another chaplain who has held both active-duty and VA roles is John Zinck of the Southern Arizona VA Healthcare System (SAVAHCS) in Tucson, AZ. Zinck joined the National Guard as a chaplain in the 1970’s, after graduating from seminary.

John-ZinckFollowing Desert Storm cutbacks in the early 90’s, he began to look for his next opportunity. Zinck connected with a chaplain at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix and began working there part-time, which grew into full-time. “Through that experience, I became interested in veterans, in particular,” he recalls.

Three years later, Zinck reconnected with a former troop, who told him about a VA chaplain opportunity in Tucson. More than 20 years later, he still works there, along with several other chaplains — two full-time, one part-time, and a few on contract.

Having seen both sides of the coin, the biggest difference, for Zinck, is that he’s no longer so prone to relocation. “In Tucson, I built a ministry and have stayed with it for 20-plus years,” he says. “As a battalion chaplain, I was subject to moving, and I did — to Germany and to Texas and Southwest Asia. A battalion chaplain goes where his or her troops go.”

Aside from needing to be mobile, Zinck says active-duty chaplaincy lends itself well to younger ministers because they have to keep up, physically, with their troops.

When not deployed, battalion chaplains serve military families also, Zinck adds. On the other end of the spectrum, VA chaplains minister to veterans of all ages, as well as to VA medical patients. “So, as a VA chaplain, the ministry is geared towards patients versus families or troops.”

A day in the life of a VA chaplain
As a VA staff chaplain in Detroit, Pollitt says that his typical day would start with making rounds to the new admissions, and then leading 12-step classes. Mid-morning, he would visit with about 25 patients and write progress notes. Then, he would often provide care for homeless veterans, primarily by providing clean clothes — socks and underwear. “About 52 percent of our addicts and alcoholics were homeless,” he shares.

By late morning, Pollitt was performing spiritual assessments with new patients and entering that information into the computer. After lunch, he would normally do intake work with the psychiatrist, followed by an occasional “code blue” call, which often would involve immediate issues with patients and families.

After that, he would host relapse-insight classes and one-on-one counseling. He would also chair the veteran house meeting on the chemical dependency unit.

For Zinck, no two days are the same. Every week, he and the other full-time chaplains run spiritual support groups for substance abuse. He also does routine visits in wards, as well as performs spiritual assessments.

“I’m involved in the hospice team; I do those rounds on Tuesdays,” he adds. “I work with veterans and spouses in bereavement groups. I lead religious services twice a week. I serve on the ethics advisory committee and Institutional Review Board, which is research-focused.”

Consistent or not, one thing is clear: VA chaplains stay very busy providing varied ministry offerings — and plenty of them.


VA chaplaincy FAQs

For pastors who think a VA chaplaincy role seems like a good fit, the first step in the job-seeking process is to determine their eligibility. Both Pollitt and Zinck say that prior military chaplaincy experience isn’t a prerequisite.

“About half of all VA chaplains have prior military service,” Pollitt says.

“A good chaplain is a good chaplain. Military service is a plus, but ministry ability is equally important.” Zinck agrees. “Having military experience has helped me, but only half of my staff are veterans,” he says. “They’re a good mix of hospital and military backgrounds.”

Beyond this first level of scrutiny, a pastor will have lots of questions. Here, Chaplain Pollitt and Chaplain Zinck answer all of them.

For a VA chaplain, does the service area vary depending on his or her assignment? Likewise, does the number of people he or she serves also vary?

Chaplain Pollitt: There are different kinds of VA hospitals, so a lot depends on where you’re assigned. In a psychiatric unit, for instance, the ratio of chaplains to patients might be 1:40; in hospice, 1:15; and in ICU, 1:12.

Chaplain Zinck: It can vary. If a chaplain has special gifts in certain areas (primary care and specialties within it — mental health, for example), that’s a leg up. Most have military backgrounds or hospital experience and develop a specialty once they take on the VA chaplaincy role. My own specialties are hospice and elderly care.

Are VA chaplains involved in emergency first-response efforts?

Chaplain Pollitt: I’m not, but many VA chaplains are. They attend training to do so and have annual training to remain current in their skills.

Chaplain Zinck: The VA has the largest number of medical personnel, so they’re often called to disaster areas. In Oklahoma City, for example, chaplains and individual medical personnel were deployed. Today, disaster respondents have evolved to deployment of whole teams of medical personnel and chaplains to set up a whole system or shelter. There were many nursing home/hospital evacuees, post-Katrina, for example. A system/shelter was set up in Rustin, LA, for hospital care during Hurricane Gustov, and in Texas for Hurricane Ike. During Hurricane Katrina, a shelter was set up here in Tucson. That’s as close to the military chaplain experience as it gets in my role. It’s very rewarding.

How much competition exists for VA chaplaincy posts, right now?

Chaplain Pollitt: Sequestration hasn’t hit the VA directly, but the climate has. So, there’s a great deal of interest in VA chaplaincy right now. Last year, there were 3,500 applications for 41 full-time VA chaplain positions.

Chaplain Zinck: With the economy the way it is, there’s a lot of competition. But, the right person gets the right job, at the right time. With persistence and patience, it’ll come.

What skills, qualifications or personal traits set a civilian candidate apart?

Chaplain Pollitt: Varied experience is critical — medical and chaplaincy, most of all. Also, candidates who are board-certified with an organization like the Association of Professional Chaplains, and other certifications, are given a good look during the application screening process. Specialty training is another plus; my own background in drug addiction treatment really helped me. Elder care and PTSD treatment experience are highly sought-after at the moment in VA.

Chaplain Zinck: A candidate must have a M.Div degree to be considered, as well as an ecclesiastical endorsement. At the GS11 level, they need two to three years of parish experience. At this level, they spend more time meeting immediate spiritual needs. At the GS12 level, they need three years of parish experience. At this level, they’re considered more of a clinical chaplain.

Are VA chaplains denomination-specific?

Chaplain Pollitt: Most aren’t, but some are.
If an announcement is denomination-specific, it will state that in the announcement. Usually, a position is open to all denominations.

Chaplain Zinck: Yes. But, although I still represent my faith group, my role is about providing what my vets need. If our beliefs don’t match up, it’s my responsibility to see that he or she is provided for.

Are certain denominations in high demand?

Chaplain Pollitt: There’s always a great need for Roman Catholic chaplains. Also, the VA added its first two full-time Muslim chaplains in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in 2012.

Chaplain Zinck: Catholic priests are in high demand, worldwide. It’s tough for them to get an ecclesiastical endorsement to pursue military chaplaincy because of that shortage.

Is there a training period for new VA chaplains?

Chaplain Pollitt: All first-year government employees have a one-year probation. During the first few months, they are required to attend the Chaplain Basic Orientation Course here at the National Chaplain Training Center in Hampton, VA. Chaplains may also attend leadership training for new and aspiring chief chaplains and a management course for sitting chief chaplains. We also have a long list of specialty classes — such as hospice/Palliative Care, working with women vets, military sexual trauma, addiction, and PTSD and many others.

Chaplain Zinck: If a candidate is endorsed by his or her denomination, and meets and the criteria, that’s about all the advance training required other than Clinical Pastoral Education. There’s a two-week intro-to-VA chaplaincy course, plus a probation period of one year.

What’s the long-term career outlook for a VA chaplain?

Chaplain Pollitt: As with all federal positions, as long as a chaplain is healthy and able to serve, he or she should have a long-term career.

Chaplain Zinck: Once they’re past their probation period, they could easily have a long career. Once they’re working for a facility, chances are good that they could stay indefinitely. There are many 10- to 15-year chaplains on my staff.

Where should a pastor start the “job search”?

Chaplain Pollitt: Go to and  type in “chaplain.” It’s that simple. All of the uploading instructions are there on the site. It used to be that candidates would send a big envelope of documents, but it became automated two years ago. There are 152 VA hospitals across the country, with chaplain positions in all of them. Be sure to submit all documents and information in a timely and accurate manner.

Chaplain Zinck: Visit; all applications are funneled through that website. The National Chaplains Center scores them. Also, a list of qualifications is available at Or, you can go down to the local VA and ask the same questions being asked here.

Beyond that, how would they “enlist”?

Chaplain Pollitt: Basically, that’s it. [See above] The only thing that expires is the denominational endorsement. That can be no older than 12 months. If it’s 12 months and one day, it has expired and new endorsement is needed.

Chaplain Zinck: Once they’re qualified, they can request their name be sent out for a candidate position. After that, it’s up to the process.

Any other advice for pastors considering a career transition to VA chaplaincy?

Chaplain Pollitt: You  need a minimum of two units of clinical pastoral education. But, to be competitive, you really need more than that. The wildcard is that the VA offers clinical pastoral education. Take a residency (4 units of CPE) at a VA medical center, if possible, because graduates of the VA CPE programs receive a one-year special consideration for a VA Chaplaincy job. It’s still very competitive, but it’s an excellent way to be considered.

Specialty certifications — hospice, for example — are also key.

Take time with the application.

If possible, have current hospital or healthcare experience. The longer the time away from hospital chaplaincy, the less relevant it is.
VA chaplaincy is great work, and very rewarding. I leave more satisfied at the end of the day than when I arrived.

Chaplain Zinck: Learn to fill out a federal job application. Be patient. Be persistent. Be comfortable working in a pluralistic setting.

You’ve got to be comfortable working with peers from different faiths — and also the unchurched, as many patients will be. Be prepared for resistance, sometimes anger towards God and/or religion.

Also, look at what you’re doing in your own church with your own veterans. They’re the same people we’re ministering to. Lots of pastors call, wanting to know how they can do something for the vets we care for, but a lot of them aren’t aware of what they can do for the vets in their own congregations.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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