3 surprising ways chaplains can be a holistic resource for your military wellness even if you don’t consider yourself religious

Chaplains are a free resource available to Service Members and their families to assist with any number of dilemmas. Maybe you’re facing an ethical concern regarding your mental health or relationships and aren’t sure where to turn to for help. Or you’re struggling with stress management because you’re managing things at home alone during your spouse’s deployment. Or you’re enduring some trouble in your relationship in part due to your service. Perhaps you’re single and finding few resources not oriented toward families. Your chaplain and the Religious Support Team are here to help you through any problem—even if you just need to vent. The team is made up of the chaplain and the Religious Affairs Specialist (U.S. Army), or Religious Affairs Airman (U.S. Air Force), or Religious Programs Specialist (U.S. Navy).

  1. What you share with the Religious Support Team is kept confidential.

Chaplains don’t keep records, and they’re bound to keep confidential anything you discuss together.

It’s safe to share information with chaplains because they have what’s called “privileged communication” status. This means (by both law and practice) conversations with chaplains about personal worries and religious needs are private conversations. Chaplains hold what you tell them “in confidence.” So, you can speak with a military chaplain or a chaplain’s assistant about any personal matter or religious practice without fear they’ll tell others—like your command. Legally, chaplains and chaplain assistants cannot share what you tell them without your specific permission.

While you might not be religious or spiritual, having access to a trusted resource who provides privileged communication can help you navigate life during tough times.

There’s only one conversation with a chaplain that’s exempt from the privileged communication status: If you do what’s called a “mandatory interview for conscientious objectors,” you must meet with a chaplain for an interview. This is for Service Members who think they can no longer serve due to religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. Before the interview, your chaplain is required legally to explain your conversation isn’t privileged, which means it can be shared with others. Outside of this one instance, the chaplain cannot and will not disclose your conversation to anyone or even mention you spoke.

It’s up to commanders to ensure chaplains have the office space needed to guarantee confidentiality when talking with unit personnel. In addition to having access to a chaplain, you have the right to space in which you can hold a private and privileged conversation with them. This privacy is unique to chaplains, while behavioral-health and other professionals are legally required to disclose certain concerns without your permission.

  1. The Religious Support Team can guide you to the right resources.

Chaplains and their staff are trained to provide triage counseling and help point Service Members in the direction of spiritual resources that would be helpful to them. This makes the Religious Support Team a great resource for all Service Members to talk to, even if they have no religious background. Many members of the military community don’t know that this valuable resource is available to individual Service Members and leaders. Chaplains are trained and ready to discuss a wide variety of topics and concerns, so you have access to both a subject-matter expert and a confidential consultant in the same person. For Service Members who need mental-health resources, chaplains offer both a point of entry and a specialized skill set to address existential and moral concerns. This is especially true when stigma associated with seeking mental-health support serves as a barrier. Over 30% of U.S. active-duty personnel in need of counseling sought the services of chaplains or clergy, and most used those services in addition to other provided services. No matter your concern or need, your chaplain has your six.

  1. The Religious Support Team can help you enhance your leadership.

As a leader, when you see changes in behavior from one of your subordinates, peers, or even superiors, it’s important to connect them with the Religious Support Team. Perhaps the issues you’re noticing might not be something the person is comfortable directly speaking with you about. Great leaders have the humility to know they can’t solve every problem themselves but are able to get those they lead the resources they need.

However, the connection to the Religious Support Team breaks down if you give the blanket “go talk to the chaplain” line. The key aspect of leaders connecting their Service Members to the chaplain is the trust built between the leader and the Chaplain’s Office. Regardless if the leader is religious or spiritual, knowing that the chaplain is a valuable resource to those they lead requires the connection between the leader and the Chaplain’s Office. When you trust your leader, and your leader trusts the Chaplain’s Office, then the connection the leader makes between you and the Chaplain’s Office will be much stronger.

There’s a lot to be said about the personal connection or the “warm handoff” too. Physically walking with the Service Member to the Chaplain’s Office or meeting them at a neutral location can greatly enhance the strength of the connection.

Bottom line

While you might not be religious or spiritual, having access to a trusted resource who provides privileged communication can help you navigate life during tough times. As a leader, understanding what the Chaplain’s Office offers can be invaluable in assisting your Service Members to build and maintain their military operational readiness.

Learn more about the different branch policies:

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction. (2011). Chairman's Total Force Fitness Framework. Retrieved May 11, 2021 from http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Library/Instructions/3405_01.pdf?ver=2016-02-05-175032-517.

Kazman, J. B., Gutierrez, I. A., Schuler, E. R., Alders, E. A., Myatt, C. A., Jeffery, D. D., . . . Deuster, P. A. (2020). Who sees the chaplain? Characteristics and correlates of behavioral health care-seeking in the military. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, 1–12. doi:10.1080/08854726.2020.1723193