Forum on the Military Chaplaincy

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CaptUSMC On December - 5 - 2014

MilitaryLiberty“Why We Have Taken the Position We Have”

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!

Categories: Chaplain Policy, Featured
  • Michael T. Curd, D. Min.

    I endorse, in the strongest possible terms, Chaplain Plummer’s commitment to quality and courageous policy on who is endorsed. I pray all endorsers are doing or will do the same.

  • Liberty Student

    A Liberty Student’s Perspective

    As a Chaplain Candidate and current Liberty Seminary
    student, I appreciate much of what David Plummer said originally and in his
    follow up post here. Admittedly, the Forum is
    not a blog I frequent, but I have friends in the chaplaincy who do and became
    aware of it through a fellow chaplain via social media.

    I appreciated the comment of a Brigade Chaplain below the
    original post. He rightly noticed that
    Plummer had made “sweeping stereotypical generalizations” that did not apply to
    all chaplains holding Liberty Seminary Degrees.
    He also recognized that while Plummer believes Liberty is chosen for
    being easy (a point I would debate), that it is more likely chosen because of
    its affordability. When I chose Liberty
    I had no idea that it was perceived as easy, in fact I heard much to the
    contrary. The price tag, along with a generous
    discount for military members, is what drew me to Liberty, along with their
    excellence in providing distance learning – a field in which Liberty is a
    pioneer.

    There is more that could be said. In my recent graduating class of ChBOLC, many
    of the leading students were either enrolled in or holding degrees from
    Liberty. Several of our student class
    leaders were examples of this, and our seminary was never an issue. If you had asked the cadre to guess who the
    Liberty people were – I think they would have shrugged.

    Additionally, Plummer seemed to suggest that evangelizing
    those who are unaffiliated was unacceptable for military chaplains. This is simply not the case. Chaplains are free to evangelize, but must
    not proselytize those who are practicing other faiths. They must also provide religious support to
    all Soldiers. So far, Liberty has taught
    me nothing to contradict that.

    Obviously, I’m not part of Plummer’s denomination, but if
    I were I would probably qualify as an exception. I hold another seminary degree (ATS
    accredited but the degree is not the MDiv), have over ten years full time
    ministry experience, currently hold a 4.0 GPA, am prior service enlisted, and
    graduated ChBOLC as a distinguished military graduate. This being stated, I must ask myself, if this
    were not the case, would I feel enough pride in my Liberty degree to seek
    appointment?

    This leads to several areas I believe the seminary should
    consider.

    First, the issue of the 2.0 GPA – I see no reason, other
    than the loss of revenue – for Liberty to not raise this standard. I’m sure there are students out there who
    would struggle – but this is where the seminary can step in and help. On the other hand, it is, after all a
    graduate degree. Not everyone is able to
    complete it. It’s supposed to be
    hard. (Of course, it stands to reason
    that if endorsers are opposed to lower GPA’s they could set a higher standard
    for their applicants. Plummer’s point is
    actually moot in that sense.)

    Second, the issue of students who cannot write – This has
    been obvious to me, with graduate students incapable of excellent high school
    writing. Poor grammar, syntax, and the
    apparent inability to utilize spell check are all too common. It’s to the point that I have to read through
    the discussion boards to determine who even follows the prompt well enough to
    respond to their posts. This is not to
    suggest that all students are deficient.
    There are some who have mastered the English language, and express
    themselves with such excellence that my learning is greatly enhanced, and I am
    challenged to respond in kind.

    In conclusion, I believe God has done marvelous things
    through Liberty University and the legacy of Dr. Falwell. It is amazing to see the success of the
    school as it continues to stay well in the black despite a national economy
    that has struggled in recent years. I
    visit the campus and see bright young people who will make a difference in the
    future. At the same time, the business
    model must not defeat the need to require excellence, and if degrees are given
    that are not truly earned, this doesn’t well represent our school or our King –
    Jesus Christ. I hope this isn’t the
    case. Many Army leaders share Plummer’s
    perspective. I wish that both they and
    Mr. Plummer would judge individual chaplains on their merits. I also hope that Liberty will take steps to
    raise the bar of excellence, for we serve an excellent God. He deserves our
    very best.

    Hopefully,

    Liberty Student

  • Mike Smith

    You just can’t get the level of exposure and the quality of knowledge that you get from a traditional classroom environment. Liberty University is known for its online degrees–even its online Mdiv program. How can a graduate from Mdiv be prepared for ministry without any human interaction? I think Liberty University needs to re-focus its mission, goal and more importantly its education curriculum.

    • Damion

      I’ve seen it on the other side too. People that have been sheltered in the classroom of seminary and gaining no real ministry experience. For me distance education worked because it allowed me to practice real ministry in the real world while studying. I’ve been to both the regular classes as well as the online classes, so I have experience on both sides, and the distance model worked a lot better for my training in ministry.

    • Tom

      Quite easy. Human interaction does not exist solely in the classroom. In fact, the classroom exists of like-minded individuals pursuing the same goal in a religious setting. It can also be argued that remaining disconnected from society for four years in an academic institution causes one to lose touch with those to whom you desire to minister to. Residential seminary is fine for those who have the time, money and resources to do so (and supporting family), and may best prepare someone to serve within an equally religious setting (church, religious education, etc), but I believe it is better to live and learn within the very environment to which you are called. I was teaching combat skills, use of deadly force, law of armed conflict to Air Force enlisted and officers to prepare for deployment while attending on line seminary and serving as a chaplain candidate. I lived and worked in the very field I was ministering (though I was an Air Force civilian and in Army National Guard). My point is that, sorry to say, no seminary can really prepare anyone to understand the military environment, especially after three or four years of sitting in classes. I have spend 37 years in the military environment (son of an Army Chaplain) and have met many great chaplains, but also many who just cannot and do not relate to soldiers, irrespective of what seminary they attend. People are only really concerned with whether or not someone really cares. Shalom.

    • gjt3rd

      Hi there Mike. Trying to read white letters on a light grey background makes me wonder if this site is legit. I saw your comment by highlighting it with my cursor. I have earn a degree online. The socialization is a challenge for introverts like myself. Solution? I learned to socialize without the crutch of a brick and mortar classroom.The question was: “How can a graduate from Mdiv be prepared for ministry without any human interaction?” Of all people, a Mdiv should be able to survive isolation.

  • Tom

    Based on this narrative, it is apparent that the real issue lies within the endorsing agencies who are entrusted to screen and validate acceptable and trustworthy applicants for military ministry, therefore not necessarily a problem with the quality ( or lack thereof) of Liberty’s education. I would also argue that GPA, 72 vs 90 credit degrees or academic success (or failure) bears no true weight on ministerial ability or effectiveness, especially within the military community. Credentials only matter to governing bodies…not to recipients of genuine pastoral care. Diversity in educational systems does not guarantee true diversity in ministry. Every Christian Seminary is still fundamentally CHRISTIAN in it’s teaching. Therefore if diversity is truly desired, then allow it at all levels (academic and others) and trust endorsers to ensure the support those who are truly capable and competent to work and function in the military culture. I would strongly encourage CPE and the candidate program to discern ministerial competence rather than academics. CPE is closest to actual discipleship that one can attain within a professional setting.
    I am a Liberty M.Div graduate serving as a Clinical Chaplain in a state psychiatric hospital, allowed to go even beyond what military Chaplains are able to do within a clinical setting. The only people interested in the source of my credentials are Human Resources who see the transcripts to validate educational requirements for state employment. I provide pastoral care, counseling, bereavement, memorials, baptisms, and serve on interdisciplinary and crisis teams to patients and staff who see what I do, how I do it, and not in least bit interested in what seminary I attended or any other credential. I am recognized by our CEO, doctors and staff as a qualified professional. Liberty allowed me to achieve that goal relative to the military life I already served (active/reserve, enlisted/officer, and National Guard Chaplain Candidate).

    Please focus on the endorsing agencies, not the learning institutions. Shalom.

    Tom

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