FORT CAVAZOS, Texas — Being in the Army was always in Chaplain (Maj.) Christian Groenendal’s plan. He said he knew what his calling was since he was a child.
“Joining the Army was something I wanted to do, since I was a little kid,” Groenendal shared. “Initially, I pursued a ROTC scholarship. So, I did ROTC and in my sophomore year, I was at airborne school in ROTC and I met the airborne school chaplain.
“And I didn’t know the Army had chaplains,” he continued. “And so, I was like, ‘Well, what do you do?’ And he says, ‘Well, every Monday, I jump with the group to give them hope that they can do it. I lead a Bible study on Wednesday. And, I do counseling for Soldiers when they need it.’ I (replied), ‘Well you have the best job in the Army!’ And he agreed.”
Groenendal said he always knew deep down that he had two callings in life, but hadn’t realized they could coincide.
“I always thought that ministry would come later on in my life,” he explained. “I thought I’d be a pastor when I was older. All the pastors that I saw were old men, and so I thought I’d go take over the world in the Army and then someday become a pastor. And so that really was God; (he) kind of changed my heart, my trajectory to say, ‘You can do both. You can be an officer and be in the Army, and you can be a chaplain and serve me.’”
This changed the career and life path that Groenendal had set for himself. He then began to pursue becoming a chaplain, going from undergraduate to seminary, followed by a few years at a church and then coming on active duty as a chaplain.
He, along with five others, recently took a next step in their career progression, graduating as family life chaplains July 28 at the Chaplain Family Life Training Center here.
“Today we recognize these six chaplains who have completed a family life qualification course,” Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Covey, Chaplain Family Life Training Center director, said as he opened the ceremony. “We’re very, very proud of them for a whole lot of reasons but uniquely we’re proud of this class because they are the first cohort we’ve ever had in which every single one of these students has already taken the National Marriage and Family Therapy exam. It’s never happened before.”
The role of a family life chaplain is to provide pastoral care and counsel to help strengthen and develop Soldiers’ familial and interpersonal relationships, as well as serve as mentors and counselors to other chaplains across the force.
“I love EBH (Embedded Behavioral Health), I personally use EBH myself,” Groenendal explained. “And so, the relationships that we have as chaplains with them is really, really strong. And I appreciate that kind of collaborative, being able to work together. I think that they appreciate that we can slow down, and kind of go longer term with Soldiers. … We can spend 12 months with a Soldier working on a particular issue.
“(Another thing) that’s also different about us and the program we went through is all of our training is specifically focused on relationships, in marriage and family relationships and broad terms,” he continued. “A lot of psychotherapy is focused on an individual problem, where we specialize on couples and families that come in and how do we help them develop healthy relationships. So many people’s behavior, mental health is intertwined with their relationship help.”
For the last 18 months, each chaplain worked to complete the rigorous graduate program at the Central Texas campus of Texas A&M University. The program traditionally takes 36 months, yet they did it in significantly less time.
Each chaplain completed more than 500 hours of counseling to individuals, to married couples and to families. They also each received more than 100 hours of training in evidence-based counseling models.
Additionally, each chaplain received more than 100 hours of supervision, meaning that their counseling sessions were observed and watched carefully by their supervisors. They in turn sat with the chaplains and gave them feedback.
“Soldiers (also) know that now in a family life chaplain, they’re getting someone who has been clinically trained to be a therapist,” Groenendal shared, “but also operates from a position of being okay talking about God and being okay talking about their spiritual life, whether that’s the same as mine or whether it’s different than mine.”
The ceremony was a joyful one, the culmination of 18 months of hard work.
“And so, today, we celebrate their accomplishments,” Covey expressed. “And we send them throughout the footprint of the Army to be channeled the blessing, as the old hymn says, so they can train other chaplains to be better pastoral counselors. We’re proud of them.”
Groenendal will serve as the U.S. Army Garrison-Fort Riley Garrison Family Life Chaplain, Fort Riley, Kansas.
The biggest thing he wants Soldiers to know is that the family life chaplains are there for them and are meant to be utilized.
“When you go to see the family life chaplain that’s on your base, … (I just want for) Soldiers just to know that they’re getting highly skilled and competent therapists slash pastoral counselor that really wants to integrate both their spiritual life and their mental health,” Groenendal said. “And that’s what we try to do.”