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LDS chaplains: shepherding those in uniform and beyond

As a U.S. Air Force chaplain, Lt. Col. Kleet Barclay, is sometimes assigned to visit military families and inform them that their son, daughter, parent or spouse has died.

It’s likely the most essential, heart-wrenching military duty Barclay ever performs. During each death notification, the lifelong Latter-day Saint relies upon his 20-plus years of chaplaincy and his extensive academic training to provide comfort at a time of extreme grief.

But mostly Barclay relies upon prayer.

No two death notifications are alike, he said. Each has unique circumstances and prompts unique reactions. And each demands different words of counsel and spiritual guidance. That’s when prayer becomes the chaplain’s most trusted friend and resource.

“You need to have the faith that God will guide you through it,” he said.

Barclay is one of 102 Church-endorsed military chaplains serving in the U.S. Army, Air Force or Navy. The Church also endorses another 122 non-military chaplains serving in a variety of locales — including hospitals, police and fire departments, universities, prisons and non-governmental organizations such as the Boy Scouts and private relief organizations.

The job requirements and duties of each assignment may vary, but a Church-sponsored chaplain’s basic charge is the same: to serve people of all faiths by helping them meet their spiritual needs, especially during difficult times.

“We feel a partnership with God — and we all pray to be in the right place and the right time to help someone in need,” said Navy Lt. Ryan Williams, an LDS chaplain.

A century of service

The Church has been in the chaplain business for over 100 years. Three Mormons functioned as American military chaplains during World War I. Several more served during World War II.

“Initially, we only had chaplains during wartime,” said Frank Clawson, director of the Church’s military relations and chaplain services.

But by the early 1960s, Church leaders recognized the importance of having LDS-sponsored chaplains serving during peace times. There were thousands of Mormons in uniform. They needed spiritual representation and direction.

Elder Boyd K. Packer, then an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, met with U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson and appealed for full-time service for Church-endorsed chaplains.

His request was approved.

“That really opened up the gate for us to have Church-endorsed military chaplains,” said Clawson.

Mormon chaplains have enjoyed a place in the ranks of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy ever since. (The U.S. Marine Corps and the Coast Guard are served by Navy chaplains.)

Presently, there are no Church-endorsed chaplains serving in militaries of countries outside of the United States.

Clawson credits past Church leaders such as Elder Packer, Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin and Elder Marion D. Hanks — along with LDS businessman J.W. “Bill” Marriott — as playing pivotal roles in establishing a constant presence of Mormon chaplains in the U.S. armed forces.

A demanding profession

LDS military chaplains provide vital priesthood leadership to Mormon men and women in uniform while simultaneously serving people of all faiths. Wherever stationed or deployed, they work to ensure that individuals enjoy religious freedom and worship opportunities.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines they serve may be Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or of another faith. No matter. Their doors are open to help any and all realize individual spiritual needs.

The effort and devotion of past generations of LDS chaplains have opened doors of opportunities and acceptance for their present-day colleagues, said Barclay.

“There is a greater sense of pluralism and acceptance of distinctive faith groups in the chaplaincy than there was in the past,” he said. “Today’s LDS chaplains are often able to be in distinctive positions and do things that were unthinkable for LDS chaplains decades ago.”

Chaplains are often assigned to a permanent base, a military hospital or at a service academy. But wherever men and women in uniform are deployed, they can almost always find a chaplain — including combat deployments.

Williams’ many assignments have included leading Christian services at sea while onboard the USNS Mercy. Meanwhile, Barclay will never forget presiding over an Easter Sunday service on the aviation flight line at Tallil, Iraq, or offering one-on-one counseling to homesick airmen in snowy Bagram, Afghanistan.

“We’re there as a companion to each and everyone,” said Williams.

Becoming a Church-endorsed military chaplain isn’t easy. First, chaplain candidates must meet the age, physical, mental and character requirements of the various military branches.

Education requirements include a master’s degree in theology or related studies, plus two years of postgraduate ministry experience. LDS chaplain candidates can satisfy this by completing a master’s degree in religious studies at Brigham Young University with an emphasis in chaplain ministry.

And second, an LDS chaplain must receive and maintain a formal Church endorsement that includes holding a current temple recommend, completing annual worthiness interviews with the bishop and stake president, completing a psychological personality evaluation, serving faithfully in Church callings and completing a General Authority interview.

Once commissioned as officers in their respective branches, LDS military chaplains can serve on active duty or in the Reserves or National Guard.

Perhaps the most challenging element facing LDS chaplains is time spent away from family. Deployments mean missing holidays, family gatherings, school functions and sporting events.

Williams said he’s become nimble at using video conferencing, social media and email to stay in touch with his wife, Nicki, and their children.

“You have to be purposeful in communicating with your loved ones,” he said, adding it’s sobering to see how much his youngsters grow during each of his deployments.

And as with all military families, change is a constant. Wives and children of LDS chaplains learn to adjust to new homes, new schools and new wards.

“You’re never in any one place for too long,” said Barclay.

Still, there is joy serving God and country.

“I love being a chaplain,” said Williams. “I don’t like the separations, but that comes with the call.”

Non-military chaplains: servants of faith and comfort

Whether they wear a uniform or civilian clothes, LDS chaplains often say they answered both a professional and spiritual call to their respective ministry.

Several years ago, Debra Hampton was enjoying a career in sales and marketing when she learned about the chaplain program at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City.

“I’ve always had an interest in theology and psychology,” she said. And as a Latter-day Saint, she knew the rewards and worth of one-on-one service.

So she set aside her business ambitions, earned a Master of Divinity degree, secured a Church endorsement and began working full-time as an interfaith chaplain. She now serves as the hospital chaplain at Salt Lake Regional Medical Center.

Hampton works alongside surgeons and medical specialists trained to heal and save lives. It’s her job to offer spiritual healing for both patients and their families.

Like her military counterparts, she’s flexible. On a typical day she may help one patient contact their priest or rabbi, arrange for priesthood holders to bless an LDS patient and then meet with grieving family members for an end-of-life discussion.

“It’s important for a patient and their loved ones, during difficult times, to have access to someone who can bring hope, faith and comfort,” she said.

Again, the Lord’s guidance is her most precious resource.

“I’m always praying,” she said. “I pray to always be open and accepting of any circumstance that comes my way.”

Some circumstances are defined by grief — others by joy. Reuniting families who have been estranged from a patient, for example, is among the many happy highlights of Hampton’s job.

More information on becoming an LDS chaplain is found at the Military Relations page at LDS.org.

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