Ten Signs a Pastor Is Becoming a Chaplain

In the broadest sense, a chaplain refers to those who are assigned to care and provide ministry for a specific group of people. Military and hospital chaplains, for example, have clearly defined groups who come under their care and ministry.

In local church ministry, we don’t typically use the term “chaplain,” though there are many pastoral roles that are congruent with chaplaincy. In fact, most of the pastoral care and concern for church members are chaplain-like functions.

Without a doubt, pastors should minister to church members. The danger is when pastors do little other than minister to the needs of church members, and the leadership of the church is neither equipping others nor leading the congregation to reach those who do not have a church home. In essence, the pastor is becoming a chaplain. Here are ten warning signs that such a process is likely taking place.

  1. The pastor is not equipping others. Church members expect the pastor to do most of the ministry, and the pastor fulfills those unbiblical expectations.
  2. Pastoral care of members is increasing. As a consequence, the pastor has less time to lead the congregation to reach beyond its walls.
  3. The pastor does not take time to connect with non-members and non-Christians. Simply stated, there is no outwardly focused Great Commission leadership.
  4. The pastor deals with members’ complaints at an increasing rate. Once members get accustomed to the pastor being their on-call chaplain, they are likely to become irritated and frustrated when the pastor is not omnipresent and omniscient for their every need.
  5. The pastor worries more about the next phone call, conversation, or email. Such is the tendency of the pastor-chaplain who knows there will always be complaints about needs not getting met.
  6. The pastor experiences greater family interference time. Many pastor-chaplains are fearful of protecting family time lest they not be highly responsive to church members. Some of these pastors have lost their families as a consequence.
  7. The pastor is reticent to take vacation time or days off. Pastor-chaplains would rather have no time off than worry about what they may miss while they are away from the church.
  8. The pastor is reticent to take new initiatives. There are two reasons for this response. First, the pastor-chaplain does not want to upset the members with change. Second, the pastor-chaplain does not have time for new ideas because of the time demands of members.
  9. The pastor has no vision for the future. The pastor-chaplain is too busy taking care of current member demands. Little time is available for visionary thinking and leadership.
  10. The pastor has lost the joy of ministry. Of course, this unfortunate development should be expected. There is no joy in dealing with unreasonable expectations and constant streams of criticisms, or with a ministry that has no evangelistic fruit.

I pray you pastors will look at these ten items as a checklist for your own ministry. And I pray you church members will look at the list and honestly evaluate your church to see if you have pushed your pastor into full-time chaplaincy.

As always, I value your input on these topics. Let me hear from you.

Posted on September 7, 2015

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Pastors and chaplains are both callings from God and equally important in the lives of believers. I don’t think Dr. Rainer is trying to maximize one or minimize the other. I think he is merely pointing out the differences in the roles – one for leadership of a biblically based local body of believers and the other for the care and nurture of individual believers outside the body dynamic of the local church.

    There is no place for any of us in ministry to arrogantly “think more highly” of ourselves or our ministry and to consider anyone else’s calling and ministry of less importance.

    From reading the blog post and comments from readers, Dr. Rainer, what may be lacking is a clear understanding of the role of the Biblical position of pastor.

    I look forward to your follow-up blog (hopefully Wednesday) concerning how we can prevent/reverse the mission drift in the pastor’s role within the local church. Thank you for challenging and encouraging us in the Kingdom work.

  • Great post. I am in my 4th year serving a church with under 50 worshipers – mostly older, who needed some healing from several previous pastoral leaders. Vision was not on their radar, and I ministered to their need. Now that healing has had some time to take place, I want to help the church move forward, but find them unresponsive. We’ve become comfortable with the chaplaincy-way of doing church. I look forward to any insights you have to help us all “unlearn” some unhelpful practices and incorporate more faithful pastoral leadership, equipping and delegation.

  • I have been a Pastor and now I am a correctional Chaplain. This may sound strange, but I feel that in my role as Chaplain, I have been able to fulfill the duties of a pastor a lot more than when I held the title of Pastor. And when I held the title of Pastor, I felt more like what we think of as Chaplain duties.

  • I was an Army chaplain. Besides having the opportunity to do the rather simple task of equipping fellow soldiers and their families who were Christians, I also got to equip people from a multitude of other faiths and of no faith; some of whom were hardcore partiers, pagans, and atheists. In other words, people who would never even consider darkening a church door. Furthermore, I was previledged to represent the love of Christ to people on the battlefield, in hospitals, and in their homes. Many times I met a family for the first time because I was telling them that their loved one was killed in combat. Then there was also just being a military leader and being held accountable by my commander (who sometimes was a believer and sometimes not) for the spiritual care and fitness of around 950 people and their families, while also being responsible for the training and supervision of others. And I was held accountable by the Army, not some board of elders who thought I was wonderful. So in my humble opinion, I don’t think that most pastors couldn’t handle being a chaplain.

    • You’re right, LA. The chaplaincy metaphor is not perfect nor is it meant to demean the worth of full time chaplains.

      • Chaplaincy is not a metaphor, it’s a calling. And your knowledge of its functions is severely lacking.

      • Army of One says on

        Full time Chaplain? Yes, because the National Guard, and Reserve Chaplain are just “weekend warriors”. Part time with no training, and no expectation from God or commanders. May I suggest that you educate yourself on the role of the chaplain before using it as a metaphor.

      • I was going to make the same point, Army of One. Thanks for saying it.

      • Thank you, Thom. As a full-time chaplain (in Australia), and thus the ‘pastor’ of a school community, I appreciate you acknowledging that the use of the term “chaplain” has limitations, and isn’t intended to address the ministry of those of us in full-time chaplaincy (with, among other things, ample and daily Gospel opportunities!). I pray that your thoughts are beneficial for senior pastors in churches as they evaluate the nature of their ministries.

    • Christopher says on

      Seriously, a board of elders who thinks the pastor is wonderful? In my humble opinion, you have no idea what pastors have to deal with. As I said before, get over yourself.

  • This is something that I’ve been thinking about…

    There is the expectation for the pastor/minister to “visit” the congregation, to call on the sick, and to “be apart of the family”. I believe this is good and reasonable, because the better you know the congregation and their problems/needs the more you can fit your sermon to meet their needs. I think it becomes unreasonable when the congregation has no regard for the time of the pastor with his family as well as his sermon prep (and in smaller congregations: Sunday school prep and other class prep work)… Would love to see a follow up.

  • Thom,

    Thanks for your post. I agree with you about how churches can become internally focused and unhealrhy. However I serve as both as Pastor and a Chaplain. I can say that the chaplaincy allows for much more interaction with the lost. I have said over the last couple of years that Pastors should capture the Chaplaincy approach to one to one ministry to the lost and how Chaplains have to go to places where lots of others can’t. The church in the 21st century would do well to emulate chaplaincy. Thanks again for your post and your blog I am a regular reader of the blog and your books and find both very fruitful!

    • You’re right, Vince. The chaplaincy metaphor is not perfect.

      • Your chaplaincy metaphor is not only “far from perfect”, it betrays a serious lack of understanding of what chaplains do. I suspect several chaplains clicked on this blog post hoping to see a constructive list of ways what we do is different from a congregation-based pastor. Instead, we read a list that discourages people from being chaplains, since what we do just doesn’t quite measure up to a pastor’s job.

        As a volunteer prison chaplain, I recognize very little of the picture you’ve painted of a chaplain’s approach to ministry. Perhaps we need a more realistic list of ways to tell a pastor has become an actual chaplain.

        1. The chaplain is constantly connecting with non-believers and seekers, many of whom have never considered setting foot inside the doors of a church.

        2. The chaplain is actively equipping believers among the prisoners, military personnel, or hospital/nursing home workers who can do more to help people in need than the chaplain will be able to reach.

        3. The chaplain is always learning, always pursuing new initiatives, new ways to address the specific spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of people in unique situations and environments.

        4. The chaplain is always planning for the future, but it’s often the future of the people he or she is ministering to, rather than the future of a program or an organization.

        5. The chaplain, on a regular basis, experiences the lowest of lows but also experiences the greatest of joys in following the mission God has assigned to her or him.

        I could go on, but won’t. I understand your point about church-bound pastors needing to do more than hold the hands of the flock. But you’ve chosen a way to make your point that wholly misrepresents chaplaincy.

      • Your right, TR. See my previous comment.

      • Richard Hoffman says on

        As a Board Certified Chaplain in the Association of Professional Chaplains, I find your post degrading and it insinuates that chaplains are “failed” former pastors.
        1. A chaplain equips folks in crisis to find spiritual resources to manage the crisis.
        2. Chaplains provide pastoral care to the hurting, sick, disabled, wounded, the suicidal, and the dying. It is part of our calling.
        3. Chaplains reach out through the evangelism of presence.
        4. Chaplains are trained in the art of active listening. It’s what we do.
        5, 6, and 7. Chaplains know how to set and maintain boundaries. Chaplains find ways to take care of themselves.
        8. Chaplains tend to be innovative and are willing to push the envelope in order to care better.
        9. Chaplains find ways to lead their institutions in ethics and patient rights.
        10. God would have to hit this chaplain over the head with a 2 x 4 to get him into another kind of ministry.

      • George H. Jowanski says on

        Richard –

        You either did not read Thom’s apology, or you decided to attack him anyway. In the former case, you are negligent and rude. In the latter case, you are a cyber bully. Your credentials do not impress me. Your attitude says far more than any certification.

      • Christopher says on

        Sounds to me like you have an inferiority complex. Seriously, all of you offended chaplains need to get over yourselves. This post is directed at pastors, not chaplains. You might want to look up because the point just flew past you.

      • Chaplain Denise says on

        Two thumbs up!!!

      • William Riley says on

        Thank you TR Robertson! Well said! As a Military Chaplain, I do not appreciate the way “Pastors” are pitted against “Chaplains” by contrast. In fact, the entire opening premise of comparing the work of a Chaplain as limiting in contradistinction to the broad and expansive nature of, I suppose non institutional ministry is not accurate. In the “closed System” of institutional ministry, Chaplains minister to all. We provide for our own, that is those identified by specific faith group affiliation and we provide care and support to all. To imply that Chaplains are something entirely different and incongruent with being pastors or pastoral is not accurate. Let me hasten and respectfully add, that a good many non institutional clergy could stand to be more inclusive and “Chaplain” like in their ministries.

        Wm. Riley

  • Interesting article and the timing is perfect. I’ve been a full time pastor at this particular church for 5yrs. Of those 5yrs I’ve been a part time chaplain for hospice. I’ve recently accepted a position as full-time time in a nursing home and when I saw the title of this article I thought, “oh no…here we go, I’m failing.” But then I read the ten signs, of which I related to zero. Instead what I see happening is that my role of being a Pastor is so intentional and paasionate that I see that role being a bit more prominent in the nursing home instead of being a chaplain. Folks in nursing have Pastors but many Pastors avoid the homes and the people have spiritual needs that should be met under the role of pastoral care rather than that of a chaplain. I appreciate this article and will keep on file reminding myself to keep the roles clearly defined so that the greatest impact is being made for the kingdom of God.
    Thanks again for this good read.

  • Thom,
    First of all, as always, thanks for your post. I am a regular reader to your post.

    While I understand your definitions of a chaplain and how a chaplain-attitude can lead to an inwardly-focused church, I believe there is a new breed of chaplain arising that really does not fit that old definition. I serve as an army national guard chaplain, a church planter, and professor. I have also served as a market-place chaplain, fire chaplain, etc.

    I have found many parallels between the chaplaincy ministry and church planting that I believe would actually HELP church planters and pastors if they took such a view. Chaplains go where others cannot necessarily go. Chaplains are all about going where people are, rather than expecting them to come to the four walls of the church. As a church planter I see myself as a chaplain to my community. In fact, I have formed many evangelistic relationships in my community from my church ministry because of having a “chaplain-like” attitude toward my community.

    Chaplaincy is not just about taking care of people’s needs and only catering to them. It is about meeting people where they are (market place, military base, fire or police station, etc.) and hoping to make them a disciple.

    Let me state again that I think your concepts are right on target as far as what can happen when a pastor caters to his people and becomes inwardly focused with his ministry. All this to say, I believe there is a new breed of chaplain arising and our chaplain numbers are filled with such people. Yes, depending on the chaplain setting, a chaplain might only be able to cater to the needs of his clients (a nursing home, for example). But there are actually many lessons from chaplains that I believe pastors and church planters can learn to enable them to have a more effective ministry.

    Thanks again for the post!

    • I understand, Page. The chaplaincy metaphor has its limitations.

      • Not only does the chaplain metaphor has limitations but it is honestly insulting to professional chaplaincy. I do not disagree with your points in this article but really wish you could find another metaphor, as the previous poster commented, I also feel that my call to chaplaincy is to take faith outside the walls of the church. Furthermore, the vast majority of chaplains want to partner with church clergy as we fully understand that, solo pastors especially, cannot be everywhere at every time.

        I think that this article, while raising important issues about the role of pastoral care in the broader mission and vision of the church, drastically misunderstands what chaplains do and what their role is in the life of faith for Christians from many denominations and walks of life.

      • Reid Moore says on

        Note to all: This blog post has been hijacked by political correctness. This is a commonly used word that has been understood in this context for decades. It is no more demeaning to chaplains than when pastors are warned not to become too much like CEOs.

      • Reid Moore, we are surrounded by rampant political correctness but this is not an example of it. CEO is a term from the business world; chaplains are called by God into a ministerial role. Chaplains are not church pastors but do the work of ministry in a variety of different settings. It’s more “boots on the ground” than some of the pastoral work I do in my office. I do see the insult in saying that pastors are becoming “no more than chaplains” or “merely chaplains.” Chaplain Mike felt it when he lashed out responding to this list on Internet Monk. I think there are points on the list that have merit but the drawing the chaplain metaphor is unfortunate at best. (And if I were a chaplain I would be insulted, too.)

      • Chaplain Denise says on

        Megan, thank you for your response. You are correct. Clark thank you for your support. I served as a Pastor for ten years, and now serve as a hospital chaplain with over 1200 parishioners from all walks of life and every faith tradition.

      • Wayne MacKirdy says on

        As a retired Army Chaplain, as well as a small church pastor, using the “chaplain” metaphor is severely lacking. I probably did more outward facing ministry as a chaplain than I did as a church pastor.

        My first unit as a chaplain had 1500 soldiers + wives and children. Maybe 100 of them came to “church”, but all the soldiers in the unit were members of my “parish”. They were Protestants, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Jews, and atheists. Rather than a couple of counseling appointments a week, I would have a couple Monday morning, and a couple more Monday afternoon. And it would continue that way for four more days of each week, And I was expected to not only be with them on the job, but to travel with them as well. The ministry of the military chaplain is a lot more extensive than that of the church pastor.

        Just wanted to set the record straight.

  • I agree 100%. I still say much of the problem comes from the self-centeredness of modern American Christians. People have forgotten the meaning of self-denial and servanthood. Many an adulterous husband has said to his longsuffering wife, “I have needs and they’re not being met.” Is it any less hurtful when a longsuffering pastor hears these words from a member of his congregation?

  • Absolutely identify with this… But what does one do about it, especially when serving an aging congregation entrenched in this philosophy of what a pastor is supposed to be and do?

    Would LOVE to read follow up post on this. I find myself so consumed and distracted with this that preparing for the 3 sermons per week is difficult.

  • The unfortunate part is the members didn’t mean to cause this, and the pastors never intentionally fell into this trap. Throughout the history of our churches we have set up the proceeding generations to have a certain expectation on their “leaders” to be chaplains instead of leaders. Turning this trend around is difficult. I would like to see an article on the reversal. Thanks.

  • Thank you Thom for the insights. I have seen it happen and can see the congregation sometimes trying to pull the pastors role more to a chaplains role.
    But, how do we stop it? Or how do we go back once we have gone there?
    I have some ideas, but I would love a follow up post if you could.

    • Rob –

      Thank you. If their is sufficient interest on this post, I will indeed write a follow-up.

      • Thank you for this article. I connect with multiple points here. I would like to see a follow up article on redirecting from chaplaincy to vision setting. In my current role based on historical circumstances I defaulted into an existing chaplaincy role. We have had some current upheaval that will allow me and the congregation break out of this pattern. It seems to me the first step in changing this pattern is to make the congregation aware of these patterns and then to take intentional steps to act in opposition to each of these patterns.

      • You are right, Stephen. I’ll follow up later.

      • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says on


        I read this list to my wife and she observed that I do not ‘do’ these 10 things but that my flock often ‘mandates’ these things part of my life and ministry.

        I believe that a follow up is needed and would be much appreciated. There are times that we should shepherd and care for our people during times of family and personal crisis. Yet I have often witnessed relational friction when I refuse to settle in the chaplaincy mode. So for me and others in my situation a healthy application for both ministers and flock would be much appreciated.

    • Lisa Tifft says on

      Thank you for the information. Where is use to go to church, the Reverend that was there is now a chaplain because she was so harsh to me because I got injured on the property. No one at that church wants me there. They kicked me out because they had to pay for my medical bills. I miss it there.

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