Chaplains on the front lines: Vanderbilt Divinity degree equips VA/military chaplains for mental health care needs

Recognizing the significant suicidality, post-traumatic stress, depression and moral injury endured by active military and veteran populations, Vanderbilt Divinity School has partnered with Integrative Mental Health, a national program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to prepare chaplains for contemporary care challenges.

“With our appropriate focus on the vital contributions of military chaplains on Four Chaplains Day, which pays tribute to four heroic World War II chaplains, this is an excellent time to highlight the innovative doctorate program educating chaplains at the Divinity School,” said C. Melissa Snarr, program director and associate professor of ethics and society.

Vanderbilt’s doctor of ministry in integrative chaplaincy is a six-semester hybrid program with a deep commitment to equip VA and military chaplains, as well as other institutional chaplains, with evidence-based practices of care.

“Military and institutional chaplains are needed more than ever on the front lines of mental health care,” said Snarr, who also holds the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Ethics and Society. “That is why Vanderbilt is at the forefront of innovation in training chaplains to serve within the context of a dramatically changing religious and spiritual landscape. Since military chaplains are required to keep their conversations 100 percent confidential, those on active duty often turn to them first in a crisis.”

Snarr noted that the Navy annually funds seven to eight spaces in the competitive program, while the VA sponsors 15 chaplains. She and Keith G. Meador, director of Integrative Mental Health with the VA and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, began conversations several years ago on how best to extend and transform the VA certificate program into a full-fledged doctoral program.

“We are committed to the formation of chaplains across the theological spectrum,” said Meador, who also holds the Anne Geddes Stahlman Chair in Medical Ethics. “The doctor of ministry program trains them in evidence-based practices to use within pluralistic contexts, while honoring their own diverse theological commitments as they meet the emotional and mental health needs of those who suffer.”

The first three semesters, which are led by Meador and his VA team, focus on empirically proven practices for integrating spiritual and mental health care into chaplaincy. Students then complete three semesters of Divinity School coursework, with an emphasis on theological grounding and spiritual meaning-making related to health and flourishing. Three nearly weeklong “intensives” happen on the Vanderbilt campus, with all other meetings for the degree taking place virtually.

Among the current students is Lt. Chris Terrell, an active-duty Navy chaplain from Pensacola, Florida, who enrolled in the doctor of ministry program in 2020. He was recently redeployed with the USS Leyte Gulf, a guided missile cruiser, and is grateful to be able to work on his research project while being deployed.

“To write for my research is a wonderful blessing, helping me decompress from any stresses I have during my limited free time on the ship,” Terrell said. “As a military chaplain, I often counsel people on a variety of bad experiences, serving more than 300 people on this vessel.”

He is developing a small-group model for what he calls “deconstructing unhelpful Christian theology and at the same time helping those persons reconstruct a more authentic Christian identity.” Terrell is using the tools that come out of acceptance and commitment therapy to help create that small-group space.

“The doctor of ministry program has given me skills that enable me to do more than listen and pray. Listening and prayer are wonderful practices, but it’s so helpful to be able to offer more to those in crisis,” he said.

Also from Pensacola, Florida, is Lt. Cmdr. Laura Palmer, a Navy chaplain who is based in North Carolina. She has begun her fourth semester in the doctoral program.

“Learning alongside chaplains from various settings has fostered insightful conversations and afforded opportunities to further explore and give voice to the ‘whys and hows’ of the care we can provide,” Palmer said. “The focus on collaboration with mental health practitioners—learning their language and utilizing different modalities—dovetails into building spiritual readiness. That is the strength of spirit that enables the warfighter to accomplish the mission with honor. And the opportunity to engage with chaplains from the VA and other contexts has reaffirmed for me the care that is extended through the seasons of a service member’s life.”

For her doctor of ministry project, she wants to explore how spirituality and its neural effects might serve as a protective factor and offer steps toward hope and healing in response to the neurobiological overlaps found in shame and suicidality.

The Divinity School currently enrolls more active military and veterans than all the other nine schools of the university combined, with 19 of the 26 2023 graduating doctor of ministry students (the first graduating class) being military members and veterans. An additional 39 students are expected to graduate this coming May, many of whom are also service members and vets.

Explore Story Topics