To ‘perform or provide’: Military chaplains from BYU

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Lt. D. Ryan Williams arrives at his office at Camp Pendleton at 7:30 a.m. and starts his first counseling sessions for the day. The rest of the day he balances between meetings, getting to know the marines on base and even more personal and family counseling.

About once a month, Williams will strap on a backpack and join the grueling hikes that are typical for physical training of marines. Just as frequently, Williams will have a rotation to preach a sermon at the regimental chapel on base.

Although this sounds like the typical lifestyle of a military chaplain, this particular chaplain is somewhat unique. While the majority of chaplains in the military are Christians of other denominations, Williams is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is also a recent graduate of BYU’s chaplaincy program.

BYU Chaplain graduate students meet with their teachers and discuss the scriptures. (Photo by Elliott Miller)

Through this education, he is considered a local expert on matters pertaining to the LDS faith, and yet he is also expected to have a broad range of understanding of all other faiths.

“It opened my eyes to a pluralistic approach,” Williams said of his education at BYU. “Basically, my core beliefs about other faiths and approaches to religion were blown wide open. My own faith was strengthened, but I also saw countless truths woven throughout several other faith paths that taught me much about and expanded my own faith.”

This diverse religious understanding is one of the main goals of the program, as well as training LDS chaplains to have a deep knowledge of the LDS faith.

Allen Blake Boatright, one of the teachers of BYU’s chaplaincy program who has served all over the world as a chaplain himself, said that deep LDS knowledge is what the military asked members of the chaplain program faculty to send them.

“Send us your best qualified Latter-day Saints candidates that are steeped in LDS culture,” Boatright said. “So that has been our goal, to have someone founded in LDS doctrine.”

Williams has fulfilled this goal, but he is actually one of the first to complete this requirement from BYU, as BYU’s chaplaincy program has only been running since 2008. Since then, only three or four come through each year, including four candidates who graduated this past summer, according to Richard Bennett, associate dean of Religious Education over BYU’s chaplaincy program.

This relatively small output is intentional.

“We never expect it to be a large number, because the military will choose the number of chaplains based on the ratio of the number of Latter-day Saints there are to the overall population,” Bennett said. “So we will never be producing large numbers, but we will always be producing some.”

Although there are LDS chaplain candidates at other schools to fulfill this small need, there are many reasons why a chaplain’s education at BYU is advantageous. Despite being educated by LDS professors on the doctrines of the Church, chaplain candidates receive diverse training throughout campus. BYU’s chaplaincy program has training from other schools outside the School of Religion integrated into the program.

“We also have at the moment 24 semester hours of different kinds of counseling: marriage and family therapy and clinical psychology because chaplains do a fair measure of counseling,” Boatright said. “Although our goal is not to prepare them to be a clinician, it is to prepare them to be a generalist. We teach spiritual principles (we are allowed to do that) — that is why we have the class on pastoral counseling as opposed to just counseling.”

Chaplain candidates from BYU also get real clinical experience as they directly interact with hospital patients at places like St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. This is another advantage of the program, according to Williams.

“Perhaps the best thing I did to complete my preparations was to take five units of clinical pastoral education,” Williams said. Williams completed one unit as part of the BYU program and four in a residency at St. Mark’s Hospital over the two years following graduation.

“Clinical pastoral education was extremely formative and important to my development as a listening and compassion-giving chaplain,” Williams said.

For this kind of education, and by virtue of their unique faith, there is demand for LDS chaplains in the military, as the military recognizes that there are many members of the Church within its ranks.

Despite this demand, LDS chaplains must go through the same rigorous training that other chaplains of other faiths must go through. The process requires two endorsements: a religious educational endorsement from an accredited university and an endorsement from the chaplain candidate’s church. For LDS chaplain candidates, the Church has appointed a military endorser at church headquarters.

“The whole idea behind the chaplains program came from the Church itself,” Bennett said. “We’re just taking our orders from on high, but we were given full freedom to organize it the way that we felt best.”

It is this support from the Church that has helped the program prosper in just a few short years. This also happened in part because of the faculty who helped lay a solid foundation for the program. In this way, BYU’s program also has the advantage of two retired military chaplains as teachers for the program who bring in significant chaplain experience that they can relate to their students. Boatright is one of these teachers, as well as Vance Theodore, who also brings experience from the battlefield.

“I’ve been up a hundred times, and I’ve never had a soldier not ask for prayer,” Theodore said. “They always ask for prayer.”

Theodore also sums up the role of the chaplain in a simple phrase, “We either perform or provide,” meaning that they either perform the ordinances that they are ordained to perform, or they provide the means for soldiers to receive the spiritual direction they are looking for.

Associate Dean Bennett describes this as a role beyond that of what some might think of as a military social worker. “Chaplains have got to be more than a counselor,” he said. “They are a voice for religious care. That means family help and all kinds of things. They are the spiritual guides on the battlefield.”

The program at BYU teaches this in a two-year program. Ray Huntington, the graduate coordinator for BYU’s chaplaincy program, described the intense course load for completing the military requirements in this two-year span.

“As far as I know, I think we are the only program in the country that requires 85 credits that are done in two years. Most of the divinity schools that are preparing chaplains require 90 hours, but they get three years to do it,” Huntington said.

Although it is rigorous at roughly 42 credit hours per year, this gives chaplain candidates the chance to graduate earlier and move on to the next stage in their commissioning process. The military commissions around 80 percent of those who graduate from BYU.

To help those who are still aiming to be part of this 80 percent, Williams gave some important advice.

“Trust the calling you have hopefully felt to become a military chaplain,” Williams said. “If you have the backing of the Lord, you will be just fine.”

Williams’ final advice can really be applied to all BYU students: “Take advantage of every learning opportunity you can — it pays off in the long run.”

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