The Unit Chaplain: Roles and Responsibilities

As religious leaders of the military, chaplains are responsible for tending to the religious and moral well-being of service members and their families. The chaplain's responsibilities include everything from performing religious rites and conducting worship services to providing confidential counseling and advising commanders on religious, spiritual and moral matters. Unit Ministry Teams in the Army; Religious Ministry Teams in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard; and Religious Support Teams in the Air Force refer to teams consisting of at least one chaplain and at least one chaplain assistant (in the Army and Air Force) or religious program specialist (in the Navy and Marine Corps). Chaplains are commissioned officers, and chaplain assistants and religious program specialists are enlisted personnel.

The chaplain teams' primary obligations are to service members and their family members. These obligations include the following:

  • Conducting worship and administering sacraments - Chaplain teams are responsible to their commanders to ensure service members and their families have the opportunity to worship as they choose. This means that chaplains conduct worship services and administer sacraments consistent with their own faith and also facilitate accommodations for persons of other faiths. For example, a Protestant chaplain cannot perform a Mass for Roman Catholics, but can locate a Roman Catholic chaplain to administer the sacrament.
  • Performing other religious ceremonies and services - Chaplains also perform religious rites and ceremonies such as baptisms, funerals or memorial services and may perform marriages.
  • Counseling for service members and their families - While chaplains are not generally licensed counselors, they are prepared to help people with various life challenges — including issues related to work, combat stress, deployment, marriage, family, substance abuse, grief and finances. However, some of them do have professional training in these areas. These type of short term counseling situations fall under the requirement of "pastoral care." Chaplains may refer individuals to other counseling sources for long-term counseling or therapy. All such communications with a chaplain, chaplain assistant or religious program specialist are known as "privileged communications." These communications cannot be disclosed to anyone else without the written consent of the person receiving counseling.
  • Conducting visitation with service members - Chaplain Corps members are involved in military units. Wherever they connect with military members, chaplain teams offer comfort, religious support and pastoral care. Chaplain teams elevate the resilience of military members and their loved ones in demanding environments.
  • Advising commanders on religious and moral matters - Chaplain Corps members serve as advisors to commanders on matters of religion, morality and integrity, which may include the following:
    • Meeting the religious needs of assigned personnel
    • Assessing the spiritual and moral climate of the command
    • Planning and programming related to the moral quality of leadership, the care of people, religious education and related funding issues associated with religious programming within the commander's area of responsibility
    • Overseeing the planning and maintenance of religious facilities
    • Publicizing religious program activities
  • Developing religious education programs and religious youth activities - The chaplain provides religious instruction and is responsible to the commander for religious education programs such as Sunday school classes and youth programs. They also train lay leaders who conduct religious education programs. Lay leaders are trained volunteers appointed by the installation chaplain in the Army and Air Force and by the commanding officer in Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard commands. Lay leaders help to meet the needs of a particular religious faith group when military chaplains of that faith group are not available. Lay leaders are most often used in the Navy and Marine Corps at sea and in expeditionary settings. All lay leaders operate with the written approval of their faith group and under the supervision of the respective service's chaplaincy.
  • Conducting seminars and retreats - Chaplains conduct seminars and retreats for the religious, moral and social development of service members and their families. Seminar topics may include a wide range of topics such as:
    • Marriage/relationship enrichment
    • Parenting skills
    • Religious leadership training
    • Service member transition from combat operation
    • Anger management
    • Religious formation for youth and adults
  • Instructing chaplains and chaplain assistants - Your senior chaplain plans, conducts, assesses, monitors and supports the training of all subordinate chaplains, as well as chaplain assistants or religious program specialists.
  • Accompanying service members into combat - Chaplains go wherever military members are to include accompanying service members into combat situations. The chaplain is a noncombatant and carries no weapon. The chaplain assistant or religious program specialist is a combatant and ensures force protection for the chaplain in hostile environments.
  • Providing combat stress intervention - The chaplain team forms an important component of the commander's program for operational stress control. This team provides immediate support to leaders in fulfilling their stress identification and intervention responsibilities. The team also helps train leaders in the chain of command to recognize stress symptoms and trains others in basic counseling skills to enable service members to communicate their stress. Chaplains work very closely with military medical personnel in training and treatment related to this important issue.

Contact your installation chapel to learn more about chaplains and the services they provide. You can find contact information by checking your installation website or by visiting MilitaryINSTALLATIONS and looking under the program/service "Chapels." 


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