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OpinionPeople and Leadership

Professionalising Army Welfare: Fewer Padres, More Professionals

Our people are being failed by a system which uses Padres as an excuse not to employ welfare professionals.  Whether due to a religious barrier that means some of our people find Padres unapproachable, or by the lack of formal qualifications or ongoing training.  This nettle needs grasping and we must take a serious look at professionalising and modernising our welfare system.  This article will set out the need for change and offer some options which could be explored to provide better support to our people.  It is is designed in part to be provocative and start debate.  There will be other and better options for how we can modernise and improve our welfare support and we should all welcome the discussion.

I have a problem with the way the Army uses Padres.  Not with all Padres.  Indeed some are excellent.  Equally I am not a fanatical secularist who believes all religion should be stripped out of our lives.  My daughter is christened, I was confirmed at Sandhurst and I enjoy my own time in church.

There are ongoing discussions about how we can best structure welfare support at unit level.  It is likely that we will lose some first line welfare support; either the Welfare Warrant Officer, or the Welfare Officer, possibly being replaced by someone from the Army Welfare Service or another form of permanent welfare role.  There are valid reasons for this.  Having someone in place who doesn’t post in and out every few years will be of benefit (this has not been the case with AWS so far but has been used as part of the justification for this change option).  A form of permanent welfare support who knows the local NHS/charity and other support networks would be a great improvement.  Some units have this with Civil Servants in the welfare teams already, but not all do.

Additionally, someone who is employed by an external agency rather than coming under the military chain of command should mean that they focus on welfare and not on whether the Commanding Officer (CO) or higher perceive that they are doing a good job.  Sadly, if we are honest with ourselves, I am sure we have all seen times when people put their own career or how they think their Chain of Command (CoC) will react above serving their people.  This is an issue.  But part of this issue is a system which supports this by having most of our welfare teams linked to our annual reporting system – where their careers are subject to their annual reports.  Reform here is separate to this article, but should be seriously considered.

Having said that, the welfare system reforms do not appear to be touching a central part of the Army’s welfare system: Padres.

A Lack of Qualifications

Padres are employed to be part of the welfare support system.  They are “qualified” (and those quotation marks are there for a reason) by virtue of being an ordained minister or an authorised/qualified religious leader with 3 years of pastoral experience.1  They need not to have undertaken any further training in therapy, psychology, mediation, conflict resolution or counselling.  They need not have studied or even been exposed to scenarios around alcohol issues, financial issues, family/relationship issues or drug/substance abuse issues.  They may never have come into contact with people who have eating disorders or mental health problems.  That the Army can accept those shortcomings and still employ them as welfare support, and as Professionally Qualified Officers (PQO) starting on £54,379 a year,2 is baffling.  They are an 18th Century historical nuance that the 21st Century British Army should remove and replace.  Do we think Padres are suitable for the British Army in the 21st Century? Should they be classified as PQOs? …or even Commissioned Officers at all?

Padres Are Needed as they’re Independent from the Chain of Command!

This is an easy myth to bust: they are not independent from the chain of command.  Annual reports for Unit Padres are written by their Commanding Officer.  The myth that a Padre is entirely independent from their chain of command is, sadly, pervasive and simply untrue.  For those that are curious, take a look at JSP 757 Part 2: Guidance for Army Personnel, p. 159-161 where this is set out.  If Padres were truly independent then COs would not be their first reporting officer, and Padre careers would not partly depend on the view of their CO.

The Religious Barrier

Apart from a lack of professional qualifications and ongoing professional development outside of faith-based courses, the next issue with Padres is the religious barrier.  There are many of our service people and their families who see a Padre as a predominantly religious individual.  There should be no surprise in this.  Padres often wear religious markings such as the cross on their collar.  They are seen most often leading religious ceremonies – and making non-religious ceremonies, such as Remembrance, religious ones.

UK society is becoming less religious.  The 2021 UK Census3 showed a decrease in the population identifying as Christian (from 59.3% in 2011 down to 46.2% in 2021).  “No religion” has risen to 37.2% (from 25% in 2011).  Where in the past perhaps Padres were connected to lots of our service personnel due to a common religious foundation, today this is much less likely to be the case.  Instead, what used to be a common foundation is increasingly likely to be a barrier.

Sadly we have seen, and many people will know of instances, where our people feel they cannot speak to a Padre about their issues due to differences in belief (non-Christian or atheist service personnel for example).  Some associate religious individuals with negative connotations and do not see a Padre as someone they can speak to.  Even the best individual Padres will struggle to overcome these barriers, and some Padres won’t even attempt to.

Options for Change

Removing all Padres may be a step that is too drastic for the Army, although given the number of Padres in the British Army the money that would be available to invest in professional welfare services should not be sniffed at.  In 2020 there were 30 Captains, 80 Majors, 20 Lt Cols and 10 Colonels4 – and this is exclusive to Regular Padres.

A halfway house is to recruit no more Regular Padres, allow those who are already in the Army to run out their Commissions, and allow Reservists to continue being Padres.  If a local priest or religious leader wishes to integrate with the Armed Forces in a formal way, they could be a Specialist Reservist.  They could join their local Reserve Unit and serve their community as uniformed non-combatant Reservists (or as a volunteer and not formally join the Armed Forces).

There are also moves afoot to push for non-religious Padres to be recruited.  It is unknown if these individuals will be professionals or accredited in other areas or not.  But we need to be bolder than tweaking the Chaplaincy.

A New Way

Whether current Regular Padres are de-commissioned, or allowed to serve out their current contract, there would eventually be none of them left and the salaries of those numbered above could be invested in welfare professionals.  Some places in the Army already have professionally qualified individuals as part of their welfare teams and are seen as a significant asset.  The Army Foundation College has a Behavioural Development Officer5 who is an expert in cognitive behavioural studies, is qualified in counselling and specialises in the military environment.  They bring a vast array of professional knowledge that is incredibly valuable both in specific cases and also to just educate both the junior soldiers and permanent staff about psychology and behaviour.

The Army could employ therapists, mediators, experts in counselling on substance abuse, family/relationship breakdown and finance, or other areas that we know are the most commonly faced.  From knowing the numbers of Padres at each rank we can calculate the salary pot that would be available.

Assuming no change to the number of Padres in 2020, and using 2023 pay scales centre band, this would be £10,824,0006 (this figure is only the pay scales.  Include pension, housing, training and the other costs associated with the RAChD and the figure rises substantially, but this article will focus on this clear evidence backed figure).  Imagine how much good could be done with over £10 million a year to be spent on professionally qualified personnel to support the welfare of our people, who remain in post at bases rather than move, and to work alongside the uniformed Welfare Officers and Welfare Warrant Officers.

There are other options we could look at too.  Apps such as BetterHelp which allow you to contact a therapist online from your own device, with or without video, could be an option.  There may even be something in offering veterans who have been identified as being suited to the option to retrain in resettlement as a counsellor/therapist.  They could then be a specialist military professional as part of a company such as BetterHelp should a soldier wish to speak to someone who understands the military context alongside the issues.  A therapist who is accessible via an app from anywhere in the world, who understands the military having served, and is now professionally qualified to help our current serving personnel.

An app-based option would remove issues when people assign to another part of the UK, or the world, and lose access to someone they had built up a trusting relationship with.  Some of that £10.8 million yearly salary cost could potentially fund either a bespoke Defence option, or simply subscribe to something like BetterHelp.  This would require the Army to accept a form of welfare support outside of its direct control, although of course it may be suitable for the external agencies to dial into Unit welfare meetings to ensure the CoC are as best informed as they can be whilst maintaining confidentiality.  If internally developed it may be as simple as our soldiers maintaining access to someone they trust even if they have been assigned away to a different location.

We Need to Take this Seriously

Welfare is everyone’s responsibility.  From an individual having the self-awareness to realise that something is wrong, and getting help, to peers noticing the same thing and taking action.  Leaders at all levels need to know themselves and their people, and responsibility for this feeds up through all ranks.  It is important that at Unit level the Commanding Officer sits on meetings to discuss the welfare of their people with advice from across the entire support system.  We already acknowledge that we need specialists alongside the CoC to ensure we serve our people best, whether they be medical professionals, physical training professionals or individuals from welfare organisations such as AWS.

There will be other options that are much better for our people that I haven’t thought of.  There will be ideas in this article that won’t work.  Welfare needs to be much wider than just mental health and there is not going to be an app-based way to provide much of the welfare support that our people need.  But the central idea that we need to look at other ways to provide welfare services to our people, beyond continuing to employ religious leaders as a major part of our welfare support capability, is something we as a 21st Century Army must consider.

I am not asking anyone to give up their religion.  The majority of our people practise that outside of work as a private matter already, just like their other life choices.  But it is time to professionalise our welfare system.  And that must surely mean fewer Padres and investing those resources elsewhere to better serve our people.


Feature image credit: NAM

Will Hearnshaw

Will is interested in people, processes and outcomes as well as the interaction of all three. He enjoys learning through debate and sees articles as part of that ongoing process.


  1. Chaplain (mod.uk) British Army Website, Apply to be a Chaplain
  2. Armed Forces Pay Review Board Report 2023, P. 113 for Chaplain pay spine
  3. UK Census 2021 Data on Religion . Religion, England and Wales – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
  4. Padre Numbers per rank and per Service, 20210202 FOI2021 00560 Hearnshaw reply OSP.pdf (whatdotheyknow.com)
  5. Answers in Parliament about AFC(H) Welfare Services. Army Foundation College: Mental Health Services: 9 Nov 2018: Hansard Written Answers – TheyWorkForYou
  6. Calculated using: 30 Captains at 69k, 80 Majors at 75k, 20 Lt Cols at 85k and 9 Colonels at 104k and one Col at 118k.

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