After years of being told no, Latter-day Saint woman becomes a barrier-busting military chaplain

“A chaplain is like a spiritual doula,” says Jenna Carson, who is one of a growing number of LDS women seeking the job in a range of settings.

(Karly Leavitt) Jenna Carson, in front of the Idaho Falls Temple, is first active-duty female military chaplain endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One female Air Force chaplain’s advice to another: Know why you’re there

Jenna Carson was a student at Harvard Divinity School when, she said, God called her to become a military chaplain.

Carson was stunned. The daughter of a military veteran, she had long ago concluded that a life in uniform was not for her. And yet, the more the former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thought about it, the more “it just felt right, like everything clicked into place.”

That was in 2015. Seven years and two official church policy changes later, the 31-year-old Carson finally started boot camp this week as she prepares to serve as the first-ever Latter-day Saint active-duty female military chaplain endorsed by church headquarters.

After her nine-week officer training, she will take up her post at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., where she will be responsible for tending to the spiritual needs of unit members and their families, regardless of their faith background.

“A chaplain is like a spiritual doula,” she said, “who is there to help people reconnect with meaning and beliefs that they have and, if they’re interested, in deepening their spiritual beliefs.”

A dream deferred

(Courtesy of Jenna Carson) Jenna Carson, shown at the Old South Church in Boston, became the first Latter-day Saint chaplain in the federal prison system.

At the time Carson felt impressed to become a military chaplain, she had no idea that her church did not grant women the all-important endorsement required by the U.S. Department of Defense. Female Latter-day Saints could obtain endorsements to serve as chaplains in hospitals, education, hospice care and prisons — but not, it turned out, the military.

“I wanted to know why,” she said, “and I didn’t receive a clear answer.”

Carson couldn’t understand it. As she put it, she had “support on the ground,” including from her lay bishop, who soon became her stake president (a regional Latter-day Saint leader), and David Holland, a professor at Harvard Divinity School and the son of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland.

“And most importantly,” she said, “I believed that God was calling me to this.”

This belief kept her going as, for the next couple of years, she continued to petition the director of the church’s Military Relations and Chaplain Services Division, asking him to reconsider her request until eventually he invited her to write directly to the church’s president.

She mailed her letter to Russell M. Nelson in September 2018. That December, she got a phone call; Nelson had given his go-ahead.

“I was so, so thrilled,” she recalled. “It looked like this dream was going to come true.”

The timing couldn’t be better.

“I had just been through a divorce,” she said, “and I really needed to provide for myself financially.”

A second message from the director quickly cut her celebration short. He explained that while her gender was no longer a disqualifier, the fact that she was no longer married was (Carson had been married when she wrote the letter but divorced by the time she received a response).

Devastated, she slowly weighed whether the time had to come “to let it all go.” For a year she distracted herself with yoga and writing classes but, at the end of it, the feeling returned, adamant and persistent, that the time had come to try once more.

Again, she called the director of the church’s Military Relations and Chaplain Services Division. Again, he told her he intended to stick to the guidelines “that the Lord has set.”

But Carson was less confident in the policy’s origins. “I believed,” she said, “that it was tradition and that this was a policy that needed to change.”

In tears, she asked the director if he had prayed about it. He said he hadn’t. Shortly after he called her back and told her he would.

“He was willing to listen to me,” she said. “He cared about me.”

‘We just both bawled’

(Karly Leavitt) Jenna Carson is first active-duty female military chaplain endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It was around this time that the pandemic hit, however, and her request got sidelined.

In the meantime, Carson got to work, first as a hospital chaplain and later as the first Latter-day Saint of either gender to serve in the federal prison system.

“I loved my prison ministry,” she said. “I loved it very much.”

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her future rested elsewhere.

Then, in November 2021, she received yet another call from the church headquarters in Salt Lake City. This time, though, it was another female Latter-day Saint chaplain on the other side of the line.

Tami Harris, who at the time volunteered for the church mentoring other Latter-day Saint women seeking and working in positions of chaplaincy, told Carson that the moment she had been waiting for had finally arrived — single men and women could now be considered for endorsement for active-duty military chaplaincy.

“That was the greatest thing,” Harris said. “We just both bawled. And now I’m bawling telling you.”

Tami Harris, a Latter-day Saint chaplain.

Six months later, Carson received news the Air Force had approved her application. General authority Seventy Jeremy Jaggi set her apart the next month. Her uncle, Greg Carson, a retired Air Force officer, administered the military oath of office that same day.

The experience, she said, confirmed “that this was absolutely the right path,” and that “everything that I’d gone through in my life had led up to this.”

‘Am I going to get in trouble for this?’

Harris, who worked as a chaplain for 32 years in a psychiatric setting with adolescents, always felt confident the day would come when the Utah-based church would endorse women to serve as active-duty military chaplains.

“I just didn’t know,” she said, “it would be this soon.”

Although her own work as a chaplain had never required an endorsement from church headquarters, Harris described its absence as a crack in her confidence through which cold winds of self-doubt would occasionally sweep.

With its emphasis on pastoral care and administrating faith services, chaplaincy in many ways reflects the role of a Latter-day Saint bishop — a role held exclusively by faithful male priesthood holders. What’s more, Harris had no examples of other Latter-day Saint women engaged in the same work. As far as she was aware, she was it.

“In the back of my mind,” she said, “I’m thinking: Am I going to be in trouble for doing this?”

It wasn’t until 2007 when, in a twist of events, her work put her in contact with apostle Jeffrey Holland that she was finally able to put her concerns to rest.

“He was giving a speech at Utah County’s National Day of Prayer celebration, and I was on the committee planning it,” she said. The two hopped on a call to discuss the event. “At the end of our conversation I told him, ‘I don’t know if you know this, but I am a Latter-day Saint.’”

His response, according to Harris: “Oh, Tami, we know, and you’re right where we need you to be.”

A growing group of ‘firsts’

According to Harris, Carson is among an ever-growing number of “firsts” as more and more Latter-day Saint women take up careers as chaplains.

“In 1989, it was just me,” she said, “and, by the early ‘90s, there was a handful.” Today, more than 40 Latter-day Saint women work as chaplains, she said, and “it’s gaining steam.”

This growth is reflected in Harris’ own changing title. Just this week she became the team lead of the church’s Chaplain Services, responsible for overseeing the application and endorsement process. This follows an assignment given a few weeks ago as chair of the brand-new Chaplain Advisory Committee, dedicated to mentoring, advocating for and training Latter-day Saint chaplains.

Remembering those who went before

Among those newcomers Harris cited is Dawn Dimick, the first woman to enroll as a graduate military chaplaincy student at church-owned Brigham Young University.

As someone working to map out the history of Latter-day Saint women in chaplaincy, Dimick is wary of the term “first,” which she fears overlooks the groundwork generations of largely forgotten women have laid to make opportunities like hers and Carson’s possible.

One particular hero of hers is Maud May Babcock, a Latter-day Saint who in the 1940s became the first woman to serve as a chaplain in the Utah Senate. In doing so, she became the first female chaplain in U.S. history to serve in a state Senate.

Dimick also noted that the U.S. Army, the branch of the military she is most familiar with, didn’t allow for female chaplains until 1974.

Instead, Latter-day Saint women — some of whom she’s been able to interview as part of her research — “honored their call to ministry” as so-called religious affairs specialists, a title that was open to women.

“What I’m trying to reclaim,” Dimick said, “is lineage.”

One striking theme to emerge from this work is the sense of spiritual determination and agency these women have exemplified even when their choices were constrained.

“As much as there are challenges that come with being women in systems mostly run by men,” Dimick said, “there are also opportunities for women for a deeper relationship with God and community. That seems to be the shared thread that connects us Latter-day Saint women to one another and to these women in the past.”

Carson echoed this sentiment, saying that more than anything else she hopes that recent policy changes will make it easier for women to “fulfill their personal revelation” from God and “follow their vocation.”