ELCA federal chaplains are endorsed by the church and employed by the U.S. government to serve in its agencies — the U.S. military, Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers and federal correctional institutions. ELCA federal chaplains go to places many people will never experience. They provide a ministry of presence in settings that sometimes may be dangerous, remote or isolating, to share the gospel and bring messages of hope, healing and forgiveness.
The largest number of ELCA federal chaplains serve in the military, comprising the Army, Navy (including Coast Guard and Marine Corps) and Air Force. Chaplains are commissioned and go through officer training but serve as noncombatants. They also typically work across ranks, ministering and providing counsel to service members at all levels. Some chaplains serve on active duty whereas others serve in the reserves or National Guard, splitting their ministry between the military and a congregation.
Chaplains who serve in VA medical centers provide spiritual and religious care to veterans recovering from illness, injury and trauma. Due to the wide scope of care provided by VA medical centers, chaplains minister to veterans in a range of contexts (from treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder to intensive or palliative care) and to those in hospice care as they approach the end of life. Chaplains in VA medical centers serve not only veterans but also their families — and often the medical staff who care for them.
In federal correctional institutions, chaplains work in highly restricted environments to share the freeing message of the gospel with people who are isolated from their support networks and may be yearning for reconciliation. They work to provide spaces and coordinate leadership for different religious services, which might include helping inmates gather for worship within the security restrictions of the facility. Within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, chaplaincy falls under reentry services, meaning it’s viewed as a program that facilitates inmates’ positive reentry into society.
After being accessed and commissioned as a federal chaplain or after being hired in domestic-civilian position, chaplains are expected to continue in professional military education (PME), progress in clinical pastoral education training, and hone their skills as Board Certified Chaplains, ACPE (Association for Clinical Pastoral Education) supervisors, or clinically certified chaplains. Most chaplain positions require such continuing education as a requirement for employment or promotion.
Lifelong learning as an autodidact is the standard of care and the expectation of the ELCA. The cost for such continuing education is ordinarily incorporated into the operational budgets of institutions where our chaplains serve. If a memorandum of record from the senior director of ELCA chaplaincies with an explicit statement of requirement for ongoing endorsement will help chaplains to impress this priority upon supervisors or military commanders, the ELCA chaplaincy senior director is glad to communicate the expectation on behalf of the chaplain.
Photo by Will Nunnally