In a message on its official Facebook page, SWC said, “This is a tremendous breakthrough, and will enhance our standing with professional chaplains organizations such as COMISS [The Network on Ministry in Specialized Settings, formerly known as the Coalition on Ministry in Specialized Settings] and [Association of Professional Chaplains], as well as strengthen our position as we move forward in our endeavors to secure status as an EEO for military chaplains.”
Rev. David L. Oringderff, Executive Director of Sacred Well Congregation, said that due to his military background, most of his work and advocacy for religious freedom has been with the DoD and VA. He explained, “I represented Earth-Centered Spiritualities at the US Air Force Academy conferences on Religious Respect in 2010 and 2012, and was a keynote at the dedication of the USAFA Falcon Circle Cadet Chapel on 3 May 2011.”
Rev. Oringderff has been working toward the goal of a Pagan Military Chaplain since 1997. “For a non-mainstream organization to gain access to the inner circles, it takes a lot of work.” He added that his efforts are far from done, but securing EEO status within the VA is major milestone.
The Difference between Ecclesiastical Endorsing Organization and a Pagan Military Chaplain
Every department and bureau in the federal government that has professional chaplains has its own EEO system and approval process. Most of those processes are modeled on the DoD system. However, just because an organization is granted EEO by one federal agency, does not mean they are granted it by any other agency.
At the federal level, the EEO must be a religious organization that holds a Letter of Determination from the IRS recognizing it as a 501(c)3 Section 170b1Ai Church or Association of Churches. Even though all churches are tax exempt, this determination letter is something a religious organization needs in order to apply for EEO status, which would allow them to endorse chaplains to serve with federal agencies and departments.A chaplain is different than an ordained minister of a particular faith, denomination or sect. Chaplains must be capable of and agree to provide spiritual care for every person under their supervision. Currently there are no military or VA chaplains who carry an endorsement from a Wiccan, Pagan or Earth-Centered spiritual organization.
The Sacred Well Congregation has been endorsing chaplains for hospitals, first-responders, and correctional institutions, and Lay-Leaders for military groups for several years. They are now formally approved to endorse chaplains for the Department of Veterans Affairs, but they have not yet received that status for military forces.
However, Sacred Well’s new EEO status means that the way is open for a Pagan chaplain to be hired by the VA and for that chaplain to begin ministering to veterans while they are patients in VA hospitals or using other VA services.
Rev. Oringderff estimates it will be still be three to four years before we see a Pagan military chaplain — someone who ministers to active cuty and reserve military members, as well as their dependents living on military bases while deployed.
The First VA Pagan chaplain?
Now that the VA has approved SWC to be an endorsing agency, this opens the door to the VA hiring a Pagan chaplain. And, Rev. (David) Oliver Kling may be the VA’s first Pagan Chaplain hire.
Rev. Kling’s background describes his religion as a syncretistic path that combines Wiccan, Druid, and Gnostic strands of Christianity. He graduated from Wright State University with a degree in Philosophy and another in Religious Studies. His graduate work is in Black Church and African Diaspora Studies and he has completed four units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, WV.
Currently, Rev. Kling is a professional hospice chaplain in Northeast Ohio. Like Rev. Oringderff, he has a military background. “I’m a veteran of the US Navy and a Gulf War veteran so working with veterans would be an honor for me,” said Rev. Kling.
Rev. King is on the SWC Board of Deacons, chair of the Ministry, Advocacy, and Leadership Department at Cherry Hill Seminary, and was rated “fully qualified” for a VA chaplaincy position vacancy.
The process for gaining employment with the VA is difficult and highly competitive. Rev. Kling said that he has applied at over 10 different VA hospitals for employment. Each application is vetted to ensure the candidate is qualified and points are assigned to this process.
“All of my applications were rejected but one. The rejections were vague and unclear, ‘Missing documentation,’ etc. Oddly, all the applications were the same. One was sufficiently vetted and I was awarded a score. Now that Sacred Well Congregation is a recognized VA endorser it will make this process easier since we are now on the list.”
VA chaplain positions traditionally go to retired military chaplains as their applications are awarded more points, but Re. Kling says he will continue to apply to available openings.
Rev. Kling added that having Sacred Well Congregation on the list of endorsers is a huge milestone for him as a professional chaplain. “Now, no matter where I choose to seek employment as a chaplain I can point to that endorser list when anyone looks at my resume and says, ‘I’ve never heard of Sacred Well Congregation.’ I can direct them to the VA endorser list. That list has weight.”
Kling also said that when he goes for board certification as a chaplain to any of the certification organizations having SWC on that list makes the process easier because the VA has already vetted SWC as an organization.
Rev. Kling hopes the Pagan community understands how important SWC being on the EEO list is for other Pagans who wish to be chaplains. “It is not just about the VA. It opens doors in other avenues because it lets other would be employers know that Sacred Well Congregation has been vetted by the VA as an ecclesiastical organization. In my application process it wasn’t just me that was being vetted, it was also Sacred Well Congregation.”