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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    I am glad see the final post and appreciate the thought. Please scroll to the bottom to see it.
    Back to the topic: It seems there is a significant misunderstanding or disconnect about the ministry of chaplains and the character of those who engage in this ministry beyond Thom Rainer’s article (see Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, pp 123 and 125; Harrington, Bonem, and Furr, Leading Congregational Change, p 13, and Michael Anthony, The Effective Church Board, p135). All present an understanding of chaplains as those who only comfort rather than lead, evangelize, or challenge. Please refer to The Chaplains Commission, NAMB (namb.net/chaplaincy) for a wealth of info about who chaplains are and what they do. Chaplain ministry should include all aspects of pastoral ministry as well as speaking prophetically and pastorally to organizations (military, corrections, health care, corporate, and others) and its members. Chaplains are endorsed missionaries to special populations that are beyond the reach of the local civilian pastor. As the Infantry School motto says, “Follow Me” and that is the invitation and challenge of the chaplain. “For God and Country!”

  • Thom Rainer says on

    To All:

    Thanks for your comments. I have offended some of you by using the chaplain as a metaphor. I apologize.

    I will not be doing a follow-up post on this topic until I come up with different language that will convey the same meaning to pastors and church members.

    Thanks for understanding.

    • Larry R. Moreau says on

      How about the term caretaker instead of chaplain? Would that be less offensive? Your article is on target — describes an inward focused congregation.

    • so many have went out of their way to be insulted and have totally missed your point which I thought was very clear. folks, take a deep breath and look at what thom is saying and not look for insults. why would you even think he was intentionally , or accidentally, insulting you? has pc so taken Christians over that we lose the love for one another that we are to have?

    • Dr. Rainer,

      I appreciate your thoughtful and gracious response here. Thank you for being humble. I’m grateful for your thoughts above, and agree with your perspective that many churches are too inwardly focused (and pastors often encourage that mindset, or at least don’t work against it).

      Being an Evangelical chaplain (both in a hospital and the Army Reserve) is a rather lonely ministry position. It is a field dominated by mainline folks (which makes sense, given the ease with which a universalist can minister in an ecumenical environment compared to someone with a biblical worldview). It is also a ministry roll that many Evangelicals don’t appreciate, understand, or recognize as worthwhile and God-honoring.

      I think a lot of the pushback was generated because Evangelical chaplains feel like second-class citizens much of the time. In my case, I am not supported by my denomination the same way that pastors are (we have one part-time chaplain coordinator who oversees several hundred chaplains), and am the only Evangelical ministering in my hospital (on a spiritual care staff of 14 chaplains). Ours can be a lonely ministry.

      I seek out relationships with other like minded folks because I desperately need the support, but it is something I have to be intentional about as it is not built in or organic to the role.

      I believe it’s an incredibly fruitful ministry though, when one recognizes the opportunities and boundaries given by working for a secular institution. I submit to the authority of that institution by not proselytizing, but at the same time, can run with opportunities presented when patients, soldiers or staff ask about my beliefs, come to my services, or receive counseling from me. It is a mission field, in that I can love, care for, and often share Christ with people who would never otherwise visit a church.

      There is a tension that is challenging: between the rules of the institution I serve, and the demands of my faith and denomination. Navigating that tension requires constant prayer and trust In God’s provision, grace and sovereignty in providing opportunities to share and helping me know when and how to engage them. It also gives me opportunities to speak about morals and ethics in a hospital that is often not grounded well in that area (not being affiliated with any faith group).

      I am so grateful for good pastors, and appreciate the differences in their ministry versus mine. I rejoice when people I minister to know Christ and are well shepherded. My hope is that as a chaplain, I am a resource for pastors who can’t get to see a parishioner in the hospital.

      Active Duty military Chaplains are stand-ins for pastors with their soldiers/sailors/airmen when those folks can’t attend a church regularly. There is much common ground (a sort of continuum with some chaplains acting more like a pastor, and some pastors being more like a chaplain).

      From a credentialing standpoint, I have the same ordination requirements pastors do, plus substantial certification requirements (in my case board certification and five units of clinical pastoral education). Neither board certification nor clinical pastoral education is particularly friendly to Evangelicals. That is not to brag, but hopefully to help people understand that we have much in common, and that chaplains aren’t failed pastors, but legitimate, competent ministers of the Gospel.

      There is a huge need for more Evangelical chaplains. I would not trust many chaplains to minister well to parishioners if I was a pastor because so few of us overall (especially in settings outside the military) actually believe the Bible. Discouraging people from pursuing that sort of ministry makes that problem worse.

      Rather than take sides, call names, or accuse one another of political correctness or over-sensitivity. I would hope chaplains and pastors could work together as co-laborers in Christ.

      Grace and peace.

  • Mark Worrell says on

    Sir, I am not sure what this article is intended to say but chaplains have a lot of the same tendencies. I am not endorsed by NAMB but have an extremely high respect for every fellow chaplain that is. I’m not sure if it’s the title of the post, the definition of chaplain, or the concept portrayed but this comes across very harsh towards men of God who serve in the trenches, by the bedside, and alongside firefighters and police.

  • In some ways I wish pastors would be more like chaplains and/or teach lay people how to perform pastoral care. Most people of the younger generation never saw a pastor care (except for their grandparents’ generation), be nonjudgemental, and help everyone regardless of belief. I wished that I could have seen the love that is supposed to be shown instead of fearing questions that I really did not want to answer when in close physical proximity to pastors. I always wished most seminary students would have to spend time with nuns in hospitals where they went to make rounds through the units, ER, and then to the waiting rooms to sit with and pray with the family. Much can be learned from a nun about showing the love of God.

  • Chaplain B says on

    I don’t think there is a clear understanding of what a chaplain is. Here are 10 signs your pastor is becoming a military chaplain:

    1. He gets physically fit, 2. He gets rid of extra stuff (because he’ll be moving soon), 3. He gets extra sharp on knowing his theology, 4. He studies up on current events, 5. He reads lots of counseling books, 6. He reads lots of leadership books, 7. He reads lots of history books, 8. He prays more, 9. He is always filling out paperwork, 10. He looks happy all the time

    • Knowing men who have served, add 1) he learns how to talk to men blown apart with maybe half an hour of life left. 2) he learns the words of extreme unction aka the last rites. 3) he has small ampules of oil and wine, and some wafers in his fatigues so he can offer holy communion and anointing on the battlefield. 4) he learns how to hear confession in cases of dying declarations and give some reassurance of pardon and absolution.

  • John Willingham says on

    Good grief! I’ve hear the term “chaplain” used as Thom describes for years. Some of the responses seem like political correctness gone amuck. I guess if he talks about pastors becoming like CEOs, we should expect an avalanche of petty criticisms from business men and women. I bet Thom is reticent to do any follow up posts for fear that more PC police will get him.

  • The antidote: black to the future with Richard Baxter and his seminal work, The Reformed Pastor, which defined the exemplary role of the pastor in training heads of household to read, study, and share Scripture for their families and wirkers.All congregant heads if household considered prophets, priests and kings in their respective familial domains under King Jesus. Just an idea to develop after reading most of the goid comments. Great insight on what we’ve allowed to happen and weaken the bride of Christ.
    Verlin Anderson

  • I appreciate the graciousness in which you handle yourself Dr. Rainer. A good example is hard to find these days. Praying for you and your ministry.

  • I had a denominational official once take that analogy in another direction. In a church where the decline had gone too far, he spoke of appointing a pastor who would serve somewhat as a “hospice chaplain” and take the church through the dying process, leading it to leave a legacy for a new congregation who would take over the building. This sort of “chaplain” may become more appropriate in the years to come.

  • It’s also very frustrating when people get so hung up on semantics that they miss your overall point, eh, Dr. Rainer? 😉

  • Very good article that describes the symptoms very well.

    These are the fruit of a congregation that has not been discipled individually and as a congregation about what it biblically means to follow Jesus and to be the body of Christ. This the fruit of what I’d call the secularization of pastoral ministry which has led to many seminary graduates to not have much of an ecclesiology at all. That leads to a theology of ministry that is extremely weak.

    This has led to a the lack of spiritual formation focused on Jesus being head of the church body. This is lack very often because of very individualistic preaching and teaching that only focuses on one’s personal relationship with God but fails to focus on the corporate relationship with Christ and each other as a church body. Thus, many churches are running around like chickens with their heads cut off because they are not holding fast to the head of the church, Jesus Christ.

    Such a church can build up numbers and buildings in the flesh. Not doing this in the Spirit opens them to become a backroom of the very ills they are called to heal.

    Dr. Guy Brewer’s testimony about doing this, that I quote in my dissertation, is as follows,

    ‘Over the course of three years I worked day and night to build the congregation and physical facility that became Edgewater United Methodist Church. Although I devoted virtually no time to prayer, I averaged eighty hours per week in committee meetings, visitation, sermon preparation, and the work of the ministry. By the end of those three years, Edgewater United Methodist Church was a success according to the standards of the annual conference. We had gathered a congregation of 200 plus persons and completed construction of a church building and a parsonage. Under the veneer of performance standards, this fledgling congregation was exhausted, under-nourished, and fearful with a wornout, depressed pastor. Edgewater United Methodist Church appeared to be a success but lacked the marks of congregational health such as joy, unity, patience, and enthusiasm. We relied on ourselves and achieved exactly what we set out to do. We built a church under our own power. (5)

    Brewer, Guy. “The Effect of Metanoia, A Forty-Day Season of Prayer, on Heart Attitudes of Murray Hill United Methodist Church.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2000.

    “Churches without a passionate spirituality also have a weak prayer life. Brewer
    writes a very bleak description of such unhealthy congregations.

    ‘When God’s healing is not a living reality through prayer, the church can become a back ward of chronically ill people waiting to die. This form of spiritual illness is subtle but deadly. People bring crippling fear and enormous control needs into the life of the church. In such a situation, the church may become more of a leper colony than a hospital. Without the power of God through prayer, ministry to the sick and dying may become little more than compassionate commiseration with their suffering. Instead of making the sick well, churches that do not pray condemn themselves to catching the illnesses they are commissioned to heal. (13) ‘

    Brewer, Guy. “The Effect of Metanoia, A Forty-Day Season of Prayer, on Heart Attitudes of Murray Hill United Methodist Church.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2000.

    The outlook that you describe cannot always be turned around. I saw only a few really take hold to intentional preaching and teaching on both personal faith in Christ and on corporate faith as a church body. I mainly approached this using selections from Matthew, John, Acts, I Corinthians, and Ephesians.

    The book of Ephesians lays this out very well. As I wrote in my dissertation,

    “In the first division of Ephesians (chapters 1-3), Paul desires for Christians to know their high calling in Christ. The primary theme of knowing their high calling involves the formation of the new community in Christ—the Church (1:22-23). While the focus of the first division is on Christ as God’s instrument of reconciliation, division two’s focus is on the Church as Christ’s instrument of reconciliation. In Christ, this new community reconciles people separated from God and one another (2:19-22; 3:6). Throughout Ephesians, Paul is concerned that the readers not separate Christology from ecclesiology.

    Paul’s focus on the church’s high calling in Christ recurs in the second division of Ephesians (4:1-6:20). Here Paul exhorts his readers to “walk in a manner worthy of their calling.” This walk involves maintaining the unity of the church in Christian love; being equipped for works of ministry; as well as living a new life of love and moral purity within the earthly arenas of daily life, marriage, family matters, and work. Furthermore, the epistle’s opening subdivision (chapter 1) introduces readers to the source of their strength for living out their high calling—blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. The concluding subdivision (6:10-20) places their struggle to live out their high calling in Christ within its true paradigm of spiritual warfare. The contrast between these two subdivisions shows the readers that the church’s life and struggle to be faithful to its high calling is not a matter of flesh and blood naturalism, but of good and evil supernaturalism. ”

    Crowe, John Marshall, “PREACHING FOR A WHOLE PERSON RESPONSE IN DEVELOPING A HEALTHY CHURCH.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2001.

    There is much rebuilding that needs to be done given the unhealthy foundation so many churches are on. Hopefully, new church plants are built on a healthier foundation. Otherwise, they will become inward over time.

    Frankly, it is far easier to start a new church on a healthy foundation of ecclesiology and spiritual formation than to seek to transform an unhealthy church body, some of which are extremely toxic. Some are called to be transforming pastors and some are called to be church planters.

  • As a Board Certified Chaplain, I find this article negative to the professional Chaplain with its implications as we are both minister and Chaplain trained in seminary and Clinical Pastoral Education. I thank you for acknowledging the analogy is not the strongest while many, though, are looking for a follow up article. Might I recommend speaking to a board certified Chaplain certified through one of the cognate groups; Association of Professional Chaplains, National Association of Catholic Chaplains, National Association of Jewish Chaplains, Association of Canadian Chaplains, and/or Association of Clinical Pastoral Education..

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