Career Management and the Army Chaplain Corps

Army, Chaplaincy

Chaplain Corps, you can do better.

My entire career, any branch officer could pick up the phone and call branch, have a conversation with the branch manager, see what is open and advocate for what they want. It has seemed fairly straight forward for them and they always look a little confused when I try to explain our system for assignments.

So, as I understand it, after 10 years of active service, here’s how it goes.

We fill out a “dream sheet.” This is an online form that allows us to input our salient data, offers three choices for both continental US assignments and overseas (including Alaska and Hawaii) assignments as well. Then, in a single box, we are allowed (using only 200 characters including spaces and punctuation) to write out any other considerations for our assignments. It is here, in 200 characters, we need to be able to articulate where we want to go, what we want to do, and why we would be good for that path in a career.

This information is taken to a “personnel conference,” prayed over and assignments made. I have been told that our personnel managers are there to advocate for us (there is a list of about 30 items – needs of the Army at the forefront) that are taken in consideration in order to make the best choice.

If it seems convoluted and over-complicated, I think that it is. Where I am stationed, there are three lines of authority between myself and the personnel manager. I have to trust that my messages are getting through. In 2015. Really?

In the flat-earth information age we live in, it seems archaic that we (chaplains) need highly paid personnel managers to “advocate” for us at a central conference.

I do not disparage their work, I’m sure they are actively engaged with making moves that make sense for the Corps.

The problem is, as I see it, is that the process is shrouded in unnecessary mystery and does not allow for personal control of one’s career. I would like more control in the process. I would like more of a say in where I go and what my career looks like.

I offer the following as an alternative to bring the system into a more modern way:

Apply_Hand1. Make it a transparent process. Publish the slots that are coming up. Describe them. Highlight needs of the Army and what would be a good career move.

2. Own that there are tiered slots. There are slots that are “good career moves” only its not clear what those are only that the Corps seems to value combat arms and special forces above all. I don’t care if a slot is “good or bad” for my career, I just want to Corps to own it. Let me decide if I want to have quality of life vs. a good career move.

3. On that note, make those top tier slots application based. Give the senior chaplain the power to “hire” their own team. Let chaplains apply for the jobs they want to have. Obviously there will be jobs that people won’t want. Needs of the Army always reigns supreme. But give chaplains more of a voice in their careers.

4. Let chaplains choose their career paths. If a chaplain wants to stay somewhere, let them. Even if it hurts their chance a promotion, let them knowledgeably choose want they want to do. Let chaplains work in the fields they are most gifted in.

5. Every move is three years. If a chaplain wants to stay beyond that, they have to apply to do so. If the senior chaplain wants them to, let them stay. After 1 year time on station, let them apply for a different job. There is no guarantee that they would get it but they could apply. Too much movement is bad for a career and too less would also be so but let the chaplain choose.

6. Finally, allow a seamless transition between reserve and active component. There really is no reason a chaplain could not take three years, go back to civilian ministry, and then apply for a job back in the active component. It is institutional arrogance that says that this would not work. In fact, I believe that if the Army mandated that say, every 8 years, a chaplain needed to return to civilian ministry, we would have better, more pastoral, chaplains. Chaplains hanging on for that magical 20 year retirement is not good for the Corps.

In short, let chaplains manage their own careers. I believe we’d be a better Corps for it and hold on to talent.

The “good ole’ boy” system needs to go.

The Chaplain Corps is a remarkably white, male, conservative, protestant Corps which does not resemble the rest of the Army. Perhaps opening up career management to the individual chaplain would go a long way toward correcting the problem I wrote about here. 

8 thoughts on “Career Management and the Army Chaplain Corps

  1. Jonathan, good recommendations and I appreciate and applaud transparency. If anyone asks me (which the Chief never does) I would advocate a couple of your ideas. Here are a couple of friction points:
    1) Your reference to other branches is an apples to oranges comparison. We are the only branch with one-to-one moves. The army does not allow for excess assignments. So the personnel moves are a large dominio set where one moves (especially in critical places) leads to another moves.
    2) Chaplains cannot be placed in “branch immaterial” (like the CG aide) where you can wait for a position to open. We cannot be placed in a officer pool like S3 shop to wait for stabilization before PCS.
    3) Manning: the AC is manned against positions. We have the number of people (by grade) according to position. Thus any chaplain at school cannot be in the force. This adds to the domino confusion. Again, the other branches can manager their people in the “schools acct.” against the pools of people in larger organizations.
    4) The accessions process and US Code prohibits jumping from AC to RC and back. The qualifications for USAR chaplains is different than AC. Once you are on the AC rolls you are there until REFRAD or separation. If you are RC and want to come to AC it requires a new accessions, like starting over. This is an Army-wide issue. Congress will need to pass laws to allow the back-n-forth idea (good as it may be) to go forward.
    5) Finally, I like the idea of more choice. The problem is knowledge. A CPT chaplain does not know what will be successful in our “up or out system”. Some good BN chaplains (3 out of 10 in the last board) were told to leave AC service. If given too much freedom without knowledge they could be their own worst enemy to success.
    I believe God is bigger than all of these challenges. He helps us make decisions on personnel moves but there are flaws in the process. Thank you for the input and I pray progress will be made in the future.

    1. Very helpful. What I see here are the ramifications of buracracy that have built over the years. The question we need to ask is: 1. Can the rules be changed? If we make the rules then we (the Corps) can change them. If it is outside of our control (congress) what are we doing let them know we need to modernize the system?
      2. If there is a lack of knowledge on the part of the Jr. Chaplain, it is the responsibility of the Corps to teach. Which goes to my point of owning which assignments are good for a career (competitive, application based) and which are not.

      1. Success? That is a difficult goal to define for that young chaplain. Most senior chaplains define success with the line “this is what I did” and not an objective model. The people on promotions boards that are not chaplains have another (similarly personal story) idea of what is successful. Add to this mix the complexity of specialization, like CPE training, and you add or subtract opportunities based on that certification. Does the young chaplain appreciate the decision and don’t assume the advice they receive from others will be accurate.
        Maybe we will get to a point where an objective glide path to success in the Corps can be defined, but that mental calculus is too much for my feeble mind.

  2. Also, since we’re dreaming here, I don’t think we (chaplain corps) needs an up or out system. I think this breeds careerism rather than good pastors and what we need in the Army is the latter. Perhaps what we need is a more robust accountability method that allows a chaplain to be sent back to the reserve system for more pastoral experice (or get fired, sometimes a person is not a good fit for the Army). This would allow pastors to settle into the ministry in a military context without having to constantly be concerned with “massaging OERs and whatnot. #daydream 🙂

    1. Dream on! We are up or out in the Army. Most of your suggestions are severely controlled by the Army HR process. While the Chief “owns” some functions it cannot be done in a vacuum.

      1. On an aside or the stereotype of RC chaplains and ministry. My personal (non scientific) survey of the RC chaplains, USAR & NG, I train less than 50% are in Vocational ministry in the civilian work.

  3. What I hear is that the system, as it exists right now, would not work the way I describe. What I would say to that is that maybe the system needs to be overhauled. Other branches and the Army itself is re-looking the personnel system to evaluate if there are better ways of doing it. I think we need to do the same.

    To the aside, a very interesting observation. I wonder if part of that rests in that it is very difficult (and maybe even not worth the effort) to manage a successful civilian career and a military one. Good pastors make great chaplains and vice versa. Perhaps if we made the institutional effort focusing on getting the best people, we could create a system where it would be more possible to do both. I’d wager we’d get better chaplains altogether.

    In the growing civilian/military divide, the Chaplain Corps is uniquely able to provide a bridge that other branches/professions cannot. We, with our power voice, could be a bridge between the military culture and civilian. I think the current model (as we move toward 3rd, 4th, and 5th generation military officers etc.) does not bode well for the future.

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