Endorser David Plummer
I write today to respond to some of the comments on the blog of the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy. Until recent contact from one of The Coalition of Spirit-filled Churches’ own chaplains (who happens to be a graduate of Liberty University’s 93-hour M.Div. program), I was unaware of these comments, criticisms, and questions.
First, a general observation: I find it extraordinarily interesting that there are Liberty University alum commenters on this blog. I had no idea that these chaplains apparently spend a good deal of time reading from the Forum’s website.
I think some background and context might be helpful in my response. Currently, probably 20% of this endorsing agency’s endorsees hold a Liberty University degree. Liberty University is not accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, but is accredited regionally. As such, it does qualify to meet DoD absolute minimum academic requirements for consideration for a chaplaincy commission. And that, for years, has been acceptable to us as an endorsing agency. But then something happened. Beginning early this year, what began as a trickle of Liberty University 72-hour degree holders and /or seekers turned into a steady stream and ultimately a faucet wide-open gushing of Liberty applicants for our endorsing credentials. (We were unaware and puzzled that so many Charismatic Christians had such an interest in a clearly non- Charismatic seminary.) As we began processing these applications, one, then two, trends began to emerge. Then, three and four patterns painfully followed.
First, these applicants’ verbal abilities and written command of proper English grammar was embarrassingly poor. We actually advised several of these domestically-born citizens to take college level English to be considered adequate as a communicator.
The second trend was and is a very prideful — even haughty — attitude. Some of these prospective applicants for endorsement articulated that now that they have their M.Div. degree, they are “entitled” to an endorsement and are “entitled” to a chaplaincy billet. As an endorsing body, we just do not see it that way. Every year we attend the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF) where the Chiefs of Chaplains of the three service branches make impassioned pleas for endorsing bodies to only endorse the best and brightest of their denomination’s clergy. Their focus, rightly, is on accessioning high-quality chaplains who are there to serve — not there simply to seek a commission with good compensation and retirement programs because they are “entitled” to such a commission.
Third, despite the fact that Liberty University’s 72-hour M.Div. is with a chaplaincy specialization, we were finding that most of these degree-holders had a profound deficiency and understanding that the military chaplaincy exists to serve the constitutionally-mandated religious needs of DoD personnel. The military chaplaincy exists “to perform or provide for the free exercise of religion” for DoD personnel and their families. It became clear over time during expanded conversations that several of the applicants were giving “lip-service” to the notions of pluralism, no proselytization, and to performing or providing pastoral care to all with genuine dignity and respect for all — even those with whom they greatly disagreed. Some clearly looked to the military chaplaincy as a fertile ground to minister exclusively to their general faith community while on the government’s payroll [and possibly evangelize personnel who were not yet in a church]. And while I certainly cannot say that such notions were instilled in these Liberty University alumni by the seminary, I can say that such anti-chaplain-like beliefs and intended professional practices obviously were not addressed by the seminary in any ministry/spirituality sensing and discerning process for folks choosing to specialize in chaplaincy. In my own seminary of origin — and I suspect most seminaries around the country — we met a minimum of two years in small groups for such a discernment process, rooted in community.
The fourth trend we have noted is that 72-hour chaplaincy M.Div. degree-holders just are not faring well on boards, as I have told chaplaincy and chaplain candidate prospects. The military chaplaincy is downsizing from the build-up years of the War On Terrorism. Why hire someone with a skinny M.Div. when you can hire someone for the same salary who has a 90 to 100 hours M.Div.? Additionally, as has been well-publicized, estimates are that between 10 and 20 percent of all military chaplains now hold a Liberty University degree. Liberty is but one seminary out of over two hundred in North America. How is it that 0.5% of the seminaries in North America have produced 10 to 20 percent of all military chaplains? Sooner or later someone at DoD is going to want to see a bit more academic diversity in the chaplaincy. Maybe we are already seeing that! And last, while the joke goes, “Question: What do you call the person who graduates medical school with the lowest GPA? Answer: ‘Doctor,’” the same is not quite true for chaplains. And considering that Liberty University will graduate a chaplaincy program M.Div. student with a 2.0 GPA, well, enough said….
Now some caveats: I am quite sure that Liberty’s chaplaincy tracks have produced some great military chaplains – both the 72-hour program and the 93-hour one. But folks who look for short-cuts and the easy way into the military chaplaincy seek-out Liberty, for it has such a reputation. And in my experience, short-cut-seekers usually do not make good chaplains. Additionally, our decision to no longer automatically accept for processing these 72-hour M.Div. degree-holders’ applications [as of 12 October 2014] does not mean we will neither review nor ever again endorse such a graduate. But we now expect that the 72-hour M.Div.- degreed endorsement-seeker have something special going for them. For instance, if they have an additional graduate degree, or several units of clinical pastoral education, or if they are proficient in several languages, etc., we certainly would be glad to consider them for exceptions to our policy. But such high-quality applicants with something unusual to offer the chaplaincy is not what we have been seeing this year. Ultimately, we ask ourselves, “Is this potential endorsee someone we would want our own family members to be served by for their spiritual needs?” If the answer is “no,” we must pass on them. The Chiefs have asked endorsers only for our best and brightest. We owe them and DoD personnel nothing less!