BYU training military chaplains for exclusive career field

Dr. Vance Theodore has replicas of chaplain uniforms from 3 different wars displayed on a wall in his office. Theodore served in the military as a chaplain for over 25 years. (Jessilyn Gale)
Dr. Vance Theodore has replicas of chaplain uniforms from 3 different wars displayed on a wall in his office. Theodore served in the military as a chaplain for over 25 years. (Jessilyn Gale)

There is a way to devote one’s life to serving one’s country and protecting freedom without ever having to go to a battlefield. Military chaplains serve all soldiers and their families through religious and emotional support.

The military chaplaincy program at BYU is designed for young men who feel called and have the desire to serve in the armed forces.

Vance Theodore and Blake Boatright are in charge of the program. They are both retired army chaplains with more than 25 years of experience. In 2008, Theodore retired from the army and became interested in training chaplains himself.

Theodore earned his Ph.D at Kansas State and received religious training in Berkeley, California, at the Pacific School of Religion. Boatright earned his certificate at Harvard in religious studies and education, according to Theodore.

Military chaplaincy is a graduate program with an emphasis in religious studies. It focuses on religious courses, pastoral counseling, graduate work and marriage and family in order to prepare candidates to provide for the specific needs of soldiers and their families, according to Theodore.

The BYU chaplaincy program has a “world-class faculty to teach LDS chaplain candidates,” he said.

Entering the graduate program is similar to other graduate programs. Students apply and seek approval through an accessioning board.

“The board picks the best qualified,” Theodore said. “We try to be very selective.”

The reason for the exclusivity is because of the small career field. People enter the program with the sole intention of becoming military chaplains. There are currently only seven students in the program, with three students accepted a year.

Military chaplain candidate Brandon Schlecht has been in the program for a year now. He transferred from Amridge University, where he was earning a Master’s of Divinity degree.

When asked about his reason for wanting to become a military chaplain, his answer was simple.

“God told me,” he said.

Schlecht also said the BYU military chaplaincy program is “arguably one of the nation’s best military chaplain programs.”

The program was established by Roger Keller, a religion professor, in 2010. Keller started this program to provide “an opportunity for young LDS chaplain candidates to be trained in their own school of thought,” Theodore said.

It is the duty of a chaplain to ensure that service members have the right to exercise their freedom of religion, as stated in the First Amendment, according to Theodore.

“They’re there to minister to the men and women in armed forces and their families,” he said.

James Hummel, another candidate, is new to the program this semester. He described beginning the program as “a wave coming on to you and trying to find your way to the surface.”

Hummel has always had a desire to help people, and for him, the best way to do that is through the gospel. This is why he made the decision to become a military chaplain.

The training for military chaplaincy enables them to both “perform and provide,” according to Theodore. If they do not have the proper resources to serve individuals who come to them, they will lead them to a resource that can fulfill their needs.

“(Our) mission is to train graduate students and to prepare them to minister in a pluralistic environment, that is to say, provide military ministry any time, any place and for anyone,” Theodore said. “Chaplains go where the service members deploy, in war and in peace.”

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