Why Male Clergy Need to Understand Moral Injury in Women

In the United States, most clergy are male. Approximately 95% of U.S. Army chaplains are men (U.S. Army, 2014) and only 12% of churches have a woman in the senior leadership role (Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2006). There are many women in institutional ministry (e.g. prison and hospital chaplaincy), but for most women who experience a potentially moral injurious event, their formal religious leader will be a man.
Blog | Why Male Clergy Need to Understand Moral Injury in Women | Moral Injury Support Network for ServiceWomen, Inc.

What is Moral Injury?

Moral injury, as it is currently defined, refers to the inner conflict a person feels when his or her sense of moral rightness is violated (Currier, Holland, Drescher, & Foy, 2015a; Currier, McCormick, & Drescher, 2015b; Nash, Carper, Mills, Au, Goldsmith, & Litz, 2013). Moral injury is commonly spoke about in reference to killing in combat, but there are other ways that moral injury can occur. Nash et al. (2013) found that witnessing others’ immoral acts, failing to do something that one feels is right, and experiencing betrayal can all lead to moral injury.

Moral Injury in Women

Much of the research conducted on moral injury has focused on men. Dr. Daniel Roberts of Roberts Research and Consulting and Joann Kovacich, Ph.D. of the University of Phoenix are conducting a study of moral injury in women. They plan to administer 20 or more in-depth interviews with women who served in the Armed Forces. The purpose of the study is to generate a theory of moral injury in women veterans. So far, eight participants have provided over 10 hours of qualitative data.

Preliminary results suggest that military sexual trauma (MST) may be a common context in which moral injury occurs in women. Women also talked about moral injurious events (MIEs) that included witnessing atrocities, betrayal by leaders, being disrespected by subordinates and superior officers, lack of support, and killing in combat. Some of these MIEs were also found by Nash et al. (2013), but MST, disrespect, and lack of support were common themes among women that might not occur as regularly with men.

Women described military experiences that run counter to military ideals. Participants were raped by their commanders, treated with disdain by co-workers, openly disrespected by subordinates, and bullied by leaders. Despite their pain, half of the women stayed in the military and completed full careers. The other half left after a few years and for some of them, their moral injurious experience was a significant factor. For those who stayed in the service, helping other women was a motivator.

What Male Clergy Should Do

Male clergy should be open to the idea that for women, moral injury might entail a different set of circumstances than for men. MST is a common theme among women and the Department of Defense estimates that female service members are seven times more likely to experience sexual assault than men (Department of Defense [DoD], 2018). Gender harassment, disrespect, and bullying were also common themes among participants. Women are four times more likely to experience a hostile work environment related to their gender than men (DoD, 2017).

Male chaplains should examine their own perspectives on equality for women in the military. The role of women in the armed forces continues to be debated in Christian circles. Some denominations reject the notion that women should be allowed to serve in combat jobs (The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, 2017). As more and more women pour into fields that were previously closed to them, harassment from those who are against such integration could increase. Regardless of how a chaplain feels about combat integration, he or she should be able to provide compassionate care. Understanding one’s own bias related to equality can help prevent weak support if one is inclined towards a more conservative view of women in the military.

Roberts Research and Consulting (RRC) is a company that specializes in education, research, and advocacy in military chaplaincy and soldier care. RRC’s research focus is on pastoral support to female service members. Women are an underserved population when it comes to spiritual leadership and support. By conducting studies with female service members as the primary population, RRC is able to develop theories and practices that will enhance the lives of women in the military.


Currier, J. M., Holland, J. M., Drescher, K., & Foy, D. (2015a). Initial psychometric evaluation of the Moral Injury Questionnaire-Military Version. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 22(1), 54-63. doi:10.1002/cpp.1886

Currier, J. M., McCormick, W., & Drescher, K. D. (2015b). How do morally injurious events occur? A qualitative analysis of perspectives of veterans with PTSD. Traumatology, 21(2), 106-116. doi:10.1037/trm0000027

Department of Defense. (2017). 2016 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members. Retrieved from https://www.sapr.mil/public/docs/reports/FY16_Annual/Annex_1_2016_WGRA_Report.pdf.

Department of Defense. (2018). Appendix B: Statistical Data on Sexual Assault. Retrieved from https://sapr.mil/public/docs/reports/FY17_Annual/Appendix_B_Statistical_Data_on_Sexual_Assault.pdf.

Hartford Institute for Religion Research. (2006). “A quick question: What percentage of pastors are female?” Retrieved from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/quick_question3.html.

The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. (2017). Women and Military Service: A Lutheran Perspective. Retrieved from https://blogs.lcms.org/2018/ctcr-report-women-and-military-service-a-lutheran-perspective/.

Nash, W. P., Carper, T. L. M., Mills, M. A., Au, T., Goldsmith, A., & Litz, B. (2013). Psychometric evaluation of the Moral Injury Events Scale. Military Medicine, 178(6), 646-652. doi:10.7205/MILMED-D-13-00017

Roberts, D. L., Kovacich, J., & Rivers, M. (2017). The Comprehensive female soldier support model: A Delphi study. Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy. doi:10.1080/08854726.2017.1312817

Roberts, D. L., & Kovacich, J. (2019). Military Male Chaplains’ Pastoral Support and Female Soldiers: A Descriptive Case Study. Submitted for publication.

United States Army. (2014). “Women in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.” Retrieved from http://www.army.mil/ article/122458/Women_in_the_U_S__Army_Chaplain_Corps/. 

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