Staff Perspective: Preparing Spiritual Leaders to Provide Culturally-Informed Care

Staff Perspective: Preparing Spiritual Leaders to Provide Culturally-Informed Care

Jenna Ermold, Ph.D.

While most of our CDP blogs focus on some aspect of military behavioral health to include understanding, evaluating and treating various psychological wounds of war and reintegration challenges, we don’t often consider and discuss the spiritual conflicts that arise for many of our military-connected clients. These spiritual wounds and needs can have a significant impact and often caring for those needs goes beyond the skillset of a behavioral health provider. A referral or concurrent care addressing both behavioral and spiritual health needs might be the best course of action. But what happens if those individuals providing spiritual care have little or no experience working with military members and their families? How can religious leaders in the community better prepare themselves to serve those who have served in a culturally competent manner?

The latest online course in the CDP’s Military Culture series that was recently released addresses just this issue. In the course “Military Culture and Spiritual Health”, a panel of expert chaplains with DoD and VA backgrounds discuss how military culture can influence military-connected congregation members and the importance of providing culturally-informed spiritual care.

The panel kicks off establishing how cultural awareness is a critical component for spiritual leaders working with Service members, Veterans and their families. “I think most people, most anybody in the caring professions, have to have some cultural awareness to care for those that come to them for help. Religious leaders are no exception to that rule. In fact, it's very critical in a sense that without that awareness or appreciation or sensitivity to some of the distinctions about military service and the kind of stressors, life stressors, that can be involved in that, just the whole distinct nature of serving and life in the military both for family members and for the Service members, I think they miss out on many opportunities if they don't develop some sense of that,” remarks Chaplain Cantrell, Associate Director of Chaplaincy, VA Mental Health and Chaplaincy in the Department of Veterans Affairs and Navy Reserve Chaplain serving on Joint Staff. Chaplain David Smith, U.S. Army Retired, and currently serving as Coordinator, Soul Care Initiative, JustPeace, follows up, “An interesting statistic is that less than 1% of our American population have served in the military post-9/11, and if you add the immediate family members to that, it may be about 5% of our population has an understanding about the military and military culture. Why is that important? In order to understand the military culture, it will benefit the spiritual leader as well as the faith community [to understand] how a Veteran relates to other people, how a Veteran may operate under stress, how a Veteran may look at a challenge that they're experiencing. Because of that, it comes down to what are the unique characteristics that a military Veteran has because of their service? … These characteristics, if you understand that part of the culture, I think helps the faith community to see the strengths within the Veteran and the Veteran family that brings to that community and that faith community.”

The panel also discusses common challenges and opportunities when working with military families and identifies work areas where spiritual leaders can provide support. Specific suggestions to support Service members and families during the deployment cycle are reviewed as well as the more commonly seen issues around separation from the military and reintegration, “there's been a shift… in the most common pastoral concerns in a faith community setting, where now it's about adjusting to civilian life… ‘How am I going to support my family now that I'm out of the military? What am I going to do now? I joined the military right out of high school, and I've served there for 10 years, and that's all I know. How do I start over again?’ I think in the community, if clergy are prepared for those kinds of conversations, they can make a huge contribution to caring for these families.” says Chaplain Smith.

Another issue discussed is the concept of moral injury and the role of the spiritual leader in helping a Service member or Veteran heal from moral wounds. “They have to figure out what is it that they value so much? What is it that is so important to them that was violated so they can begin to see that the reason it is so painful and is causing so much suffering is precisely because they held something else so dear and important and valuable. We are the ones that are best positioned, I think, in many ways, to have those kinds of conversations about meaning and purpose and values and perhaps, in some cases, in the language of virtues about what is it that is causing you such angst. Perhaps, there's an element of something really good there of great value in the healing process to recognize that it's precisely because of something you cared about so much that's been offended that you are suffering.”

The panel members bestow great advice to their fellow spiritual leaders when working with military-connected congregation members. Chaplain Michael McCoy, National Director Chaplain Service, Dept. of Veterans Affairs, emphasizes the importance of looking at strengths, “It's important that clergy and congregations understand the fact that these men and women have great skills… They come back with all kinds of new skills that can help our society to be a much better place to live in.” Chaplain Smith introduces the notion of radical hospitality and its importance in establishing trust when working with military-connected families, “I think if we practice radical hospitality, which means that we listen with our heart and not our ears, that we become accepting of our people and listen to their story and not put judgment and our own internal agenda in their story and accept them for who they are, then I think that's when a relationship can occur and trust develop.”

Chaplain Cantrell speaks to how members of a congregation might be best-positioned to provide spiritual support, “I think that sometimes we put a lot of pressure on the religious leaders to be the all-aware, all-knowing, all-encompassing provider, and the truth of the matter is I think if they're really living out their role completely, their congregations, all of their faithful that are gathered together in that community should be part of the eyes and the ears and the hands to reach out. Frankly, many Service members aren't quite ready spiritually to sit down with that pastor or imam or rabbi when they come back, because frankly, even though they may care for them, admire them, respect them, and honor them, it's kind of a moral authority. There's a representation of an office that they may not be prepared to disclose what their burden is because of the fear of being judged, the fear of being considered differently as a result of that. No fault of the clergy, but it's just a dynamic. Oftentimes, they'll go to the members of the community before they go to the pastor.”

The course is filled with rich discussion and meaningful examples of the cultural nuances of tending to the spiritual needs of military families. Each Chaplain provides personal experiences and examples that enrich the training and are relevant to any Spiritual leaders or students as well as behavioral health providers. “I think the faith community has an opportunity to look at a challenge, but at the same point a rewarding experience in developing relationships with Vets and the Veteran families. I think there are some great capabilities and assets the faith community has at its disposal... These assets, I think, can become critical components on what we offer the Veteran, the Veteran community, in their journey towards healing and spiritual well-being and restoration,” encourages Chaplain Smith.

If you are interested in learning more about this training click here or for resources within or about the other courses in the Military Culture Series, visit

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.​

Jenna Ermold, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist working as the Assistant Director of Online Programs for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.