The U.S. military requires chaplain candidates to earn graduate degrees that include at least 36 hours of course work in religious study.
In the past, such a rule posed an uneasy challenge for Church members in uniform hoping to become an Army, Navy or Air Force chaplain. Without a traditional "divinity" school of their own to attend, LDS candidates often enrolled in a graduate school operated by another religion to satisfy "religious study" requirements.
Now LDS candidates have another option. Since last summer, seven LDS chaplain candidates have been enrolled in Brigham Young University's masters of religious education program. They are participating in graduate courses generally populated by seminary and institute teachers.
The Church-owned school has not been able to accommodate all chaplain candidates in the competitive program, "but it's a beginning," said Frank Clawson, director of the Church's military relations office that oversees the endorsement of LDS chaplains.
"We're excited about what we're seeing," added Roger Keller, a BYU professor of Church history and world religion and director of the school's chaplain program.
BYU's graduate religious education courses offer chaplain candidates an LDS-themed curriculum they could find nowhere else.
"It helps them become grounded in our LDS doctrine and theology," Brother Clawson said.
Beyond the traditional graduate religion courses, the chaplain candidates at BYU also enroll in several courses specific to military chaplaincy. The candidates also spend dozens of hours serving in area hospitals and care facilities working with people in need of spiritual support.
Graduates of the program will not simply serve LDS service personnel; they will be assigned to minister to all who fall under the Protestant umbrella. They also work to ensure religious freedom to all around them. Additionally, chaplains provide religious worship services and spiritual support to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of all faiths.
The mission of the BYU program, said Brother Keller, is to move LDS chaplains "in to the military with a solid theological foundation, practical skills and strong LDS roots."
As part of their curriculum, chaplain candidates at BYU practice delivering nondenominational Christian sermons. Brother Keller — a convert and a former Presbyterian minister — sits in on the practice sermons and offers criticism and counsel. The future chaplains also take classes in world religion and general Christian theology to be best prepared to serve their future charges.
Brother Clawson said there are some 36,000 Church members serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Sixty-five are serving as chaplains — with just more than half on active duty. They are military officers and not paid by the Church, although the Church must endorse them.
"We would like to increase the number of LDS chaplains to 100 or so in the next few years," he said.
The Church's military relations office is also hoping to place chaplains in militaries outside the United States in the future.
An ideal military chaplain "is a people person," said Brother Keller. They must also be flexible. While in uniform, they may be assigned to U.S. military bases or in combat zones anywhere in the world.
"They may be serving a group of soldiers in the deserts of Iraq or preaching in a post chapel in front of [military] families," said Brother Keller.