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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  • No analogy or metaphor is perfect, so while not all chaplaincy roles are what Thom describes in this post, the underlying point is the same. As pastor at any church of medium size or more, one could spend half of a week’s work hours visiting hospitals, nursing homes, and shut-ins. What churches must understand is that they cannot get that and at the same time get original and well-prepared Bible studies, top shelf preaching, skilled administration, and creative energy.

  • I think there are two sides to this. There are many traits on the list I can relate to, however, I think it is a response. As pastor of a small church, I want to lead our fellowship to be fruitful in their community. The problem is, I’m often treated like a chaplain. Rather than hearing testimonies of how people are following Jesus in their world, I hear complaints, or have everyone else’s ideas dropped in my lap as though it’s the church’s responsibility to fulfill their vision. It gets to the point where I dread the next phone call or email because it’s just another heap of mashed potatoes on an already full plate. I’ve been trying to set an example of serving outside the formal structure of the church and preaching a message that the membership are the ministers of the church to the community. We are trying to get people to see the burdens of their heart as opportunities and even a calling to make a difference. Yet, since I am the only real staff member, if someone thinks that something needs to be done, it falls on me to do it, or let them down (which isn’t always a bad thing).

    I know I’m probably opening a Pandora’s Box of discussion here, but all this is to say, the pastor can slide into a chaplain role by their own doing, and they can be press-fit into that box by the expectations of the congregation regardless of how they are trying to lead.

  • Dr. Rainer,
    What you have experienced in these responses about the chaplaincy I hope would encourage you to write a blog about how chaplains in various ministries have been treated as second class citizens when it comes to ministry. Many Guard and Reserve Chaplains serve tri-vocationally. Some Chaplains bare the scars of deployment and find it difficult to come back to ministry of the church. I totally understood what you were trying to say. However, being a Chaplain myself I had to read the article several times and let it sink in before I responded. I find it also interesting that many churches will not even hire a Guard and Reserve Chaplain because they fear they will be deployed. I like reading your articles and enjoy your ministry.

  • Great article and keen observations. Just out of curiosity … are your observations more from the perspective of F/T pastorate? Do some, most, or all still hold true for bi-vocational pastors? Does church size play a role in these observations?

  • Thanks Thom. While I am a chaplain and CPE supervisor at a hospital, I was called to be lead pastor of a church 3 years ago. I have used what I have learned to equip church members to do pastoral care. We have developed a Congregational Health Network to do the pastoral care in the church, hospital, and community. It involves liaisons and elders and a minister of pastoral care. I am free to do preaching and lead other teams for evangelism and community ministry. Thanks for your article. It helps me to keep on track.

  • Chaplain Kevin Jackson says on

    God bless you Brother Rainer. I am a military chaplain and I can certainly understand the sentiment of all of the chaplains who have commented on your post. However, I want to approach it from a different perspective. I believe you honestly wanted to address issues that related to pastors. However, in using the chaplain metaphor many were offended and taken aback as was I.

    As a reputable leader in the Christian community, I want to encourage you to continue your graciousness by writing a follow-up article highlighting a positive acknowledgement of what chaplains do in every sector. Although, I acknowledge that you have apologized to some persons within the comment section, realize that most people will not read those comments. Persons on twitter and other social media will not read that apology.

    In essence, Matthew 5:21-24 seems to be appropriate. In Christ, even when our intent is not wrong but the outcome offends others, we win more by taking a more humble state and publicly correct that which offended others. This is not political correctness, this is a Christian principle because we are all an integral part of the body.

    This is a hallmark of our Christian faith. Doing the hard things to ensure Christ is glorified even in situations that were created because of a lack of understanding.

    I am sure this gesture will help many of those who were offended to be made whole and feel the acknowledgement that their role in the kingdom is necessary and important. In addition, an article that directly addresses the real challenges of the pastorate is still relevant and I’m sure written in another format would bless many.

    Thank you for all of the other articles that have blessed the kingdom. This indeed is your finest hour to demonstrate Christ to your readers so that they may learn how to appropriately handle conflict the biblical way.

    I graciously await your response.

    Grace and Peace

  • Rowan Zeelie says on

    Thak you for this article. I am new to ministry, having just completed my first year as a pastor, but I see signs of this in the expecttions of some of the congregation and to be honest it is already starting to eat away and my enthusiasm and energy. I get particularly frustrated by the support in any ideas or suggestions I bring to the leadership about ways to connect with those outiside the church, but the unwillingness of anyone to actually get involved – “we love your ideas as long as we don’t have to do any of the work.”
    But I want to thank you again for this article because at this erly stage of my ministry I know what signs to look out for. I wonder if when they start to appear is that a time to sit down with the leadership and start talking about expectations. I get the feeling that my expectations of why I am in this church might be different from what their expectations are of their pastor. A better understanding of each other’s expectations might lead to a more realistic and less stessful ministry for everyone.

  • Hi Thom,

    I thank God for your grace and humility in response to the critique of others.

    Whilst I appreciate you want to take time to change language and metaphor, I would ask that you don’t wait too long. I’ve been two years pastor of a church, the unhealthy model you outlined is firmly entrenched here and I find myself under pressure to fit to it.

    I look forward to the follow-up article.

    Every blessing,


  • Heartspeak says on

    Thanks Dr. Rainer for responding graciously and wisely to your critics! Leaving aside the terminology for a moment, I saw the all too familiar description of pastors and congregations who have failed to fully understand the role and purpose of ‘church’ and leadership.

    The congregations expect to be ministered to rather than seeing themselves as ministers. The role describing the pastor is one of a pastor/shepherd and is a valuable one. But all too often we expect one man to fulfill all the roles of pastor, teacher, evangelist, prophet etc. Herein lies the error– that a congregation thinks it’s only the job of the ‘paid guy’ to minister to others and that the pastor both thinks and accepts the demand to be all things by himself alone. Understandable given how most have been trained ( both pastors and congregations!) Raising up leaders from within the congregation and casting the vision of everyone as ministers cannot, by definition, be done entirely by one man, yet so many try because it’s ‘expected’!

    My prayer is that more pastors will come to the understanding that theirs is, and must be, a shared role and that God’s people will be challenged to seek God for their role in the ministry of reconciliation to which we’ve all been called!

  • Michael Walker says on

    I found your so-called metaphor not only denigrating, as others have stated, but down right offensive. In my time as an Army Chaplain, both active duty and reserve, as well as my time as a Health Care Chaplain, I had more opportunity every day for ministry, teaching, and outreach, than I found in most pastorates in a month. I also found more support for my ministry in the military and the hospitals than I did in most local congregations. In virtually every one of your ten points, I confess that I had problems in most of the churches I served. But I did not have those same issues in my chaplaincy ministries. (I will not take the time here to go point by point, but I could give many examples in reference to each of them.) In almost all of my chaplaincy positions I had opportunity for professional development and plenty of vacation and sick leave; that was rarely the case as a pastor. If I did not take time off as a pastor it was not because I was afraid I would miss something, but generally because I was not granted time off by the congregation.

    For two and a half decades I was endorsed for military, health care, and a professional organization by the Home Mission Board (later NAMB) at a time when Chaplains were considered to be missionaries. That attitude was also shared by my subsequent endorser at CBF. As a chaplain I had the opportunity to minister to a diverse group of people, across a wide spectrum of religious, ethnic, and cultural groups, many of whom most Southern Baptist congregations would rather have ignored. (How many local pastors have had an avowed atheist volunteer pick them up and take them on their pastoral visitation?)

    • George H. Jowanski says on

      Do you not read? Thom apologized for goodness sake! It seems like you have the gift of hubris and want everyone to know how qualified you are. I find your comment not only denigrating, but down right offensive.

    • For crying out loud, Dr. Rainer has apologized umpteen times already. Get over it!

  • Thom,

    First, you have conducted yourself with much grace. While what you use for a word picture does break down, your points are well taken. I would hate to think that people would get lost in that and miss what is being said.

    Second, that for your compliment about my post. I’ve never quoted my dissertation online before, but this time it seemed to fit all to well. Usually, I’ll quote articles from my church health web site that are based on my dissertation that apply. I didn’t have one that really fit this and thus my direct quotes.

    Third, it is likely that what you are describing comes closer to how codependency would look like in the life of a pastor. May I recommend looking at the book, Over coming the Dark Side of Leadership which has a chapter on this.

    Fourth, keep digging for a word picture. I’m sure that you will find an analogy or metaphor that will work. I’m confident from reading your other articles that you will find something eventually.

  • Gary Kammer says on

    There are many problems – the greatest is that pastors need to start learning how to plug the holes in their nets. So many pastors I am talking to are losing people. As Thom noted many pastors are right to be concerned for their people but doing it themselves will burn them out fast. Learning how to identify potential leaders is key for a good pastor.

    My organization is working on just this. I am identifying good practices that will bring a bit of relief to the pastors while opening up ministry opportunity to those in the seats. If revival is to come it is critical that we plug the holes. So many potential leaders in congregations are just never asked to help out: it will change soon.

    • On the contrary, many potential leaders are asked to help out, but almost invariably make excuses as to why they can’t. Ironically, these are often the same people who bail out on the pretext that “their needs aren’t being met”.

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