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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Useful article. It illustrates a real danger facing all of us in ministry to congregations. The language can be rather unfair to those of us who are real chaplains in hospitals, homes, etc. There’s a need to translate the heavily conservative-evangelical jargon into the life of mainstream churches.

  • If a pastor is not a chaplain, then he/she is no more than an administrative official organizing the congregation according to theological authority. Chaplaincy is the heart of pastoral care.

    • As Dr. Rainer said, there are “many pastoral roles that are congruent with chaplaincy.” You say that chaplaincy is at the “heart of pastoral care.” Dr. Rainer, in his article, essentially agrees, writing: “In fact, most of the pastoral care and concern for church members are chaplain-like functions.”

      But…pastoral care isn’t the only function of a church pastor. The Bible says that the pastor is a shepherd, overseer, teacher, and equipper. It’s a multi-functional role.

  • Diane D'Angelo says on

    I agree that pastors are often overloaded with work; if that were not true, fewer people would leave the profession after just a couple of years. People are starved for community and human interaction. Why not suggest that churches hire a pastoral counselor or chaplain as staff member?

    Two additional thoughts: Part of gaining spiritual maturity is discerning where one’s boundaries are. The idea that a pastor is a fully formed adult who does not have lessons to learn right along with his/her congregation needs to die.

    Secondly, and this goes hand-in-hand with the first point, is taking a look at gender roles and how they influence one’s approach to the job. Is caring for one’s flock unconsciously seen as “women’s work” and therefore rendered less important than visioning and growing? Is resistance to developing people skills easy to deflect by blaming the congregation for being too emotionally demanding?

  • The common definition of chaplain refers to one who does ministry to a specific group of people. Dr. Rainer did try to clarify his usage of the word at the beginning of his article. It is unfortunate that the word chaplain does at times have a negative connotation…. However, I think the most effective means of evangelism is to do exactly what chaplains do… they focus and express care for a specific group of people…. I want the congregation I serve to do that exact thing for each other… but only to broaden their scope… to function as chaplains to the whole city and county. A church that functions as a chaplain to the whole community will have an impact that cannot be measured…. When the love and care is seen, the message is heard….

  • Doug Slaughter says on

    I came to this article with high expectations of learning from Dr. Rainer again. I was not disappointed. The bonus for this article was learning about chaplains. If the comments on this blog post are representative of the chaplaincy, here is what I learned:

    1. Chaplains do not accept apologies.
    2. Chaplains are too sensitive.
    3. Chaplains love to criticize and denigrate others (Dr. Rainer) even though they chastised him for denigrating them.
    4. Chaplains love to flaunt their credentials.
    5. Chaplains love to tell people what a great work they do.

    • I agree that chaplains do a great work, and the last thing I want to do is trivialize them. That being said, I agree that the complainers need to lay off Dr. Rainer (see my comment immediately above yours). Have none of these chaplains ever pulled such boners themselves? If they haven’t, then they’re either dishonest or they haven’t been in the ministry very long.

    • Please don’t learn about chaplains from Mr. Rainer. If this is what you’ve gathered from his article, i’m disappointed. I’ve been a hospice chaplain for over 10 years and feel that none of what you feel you learned about chaplains accurately reflects myself, my colleagues or my profession.

      • Samuel, Doug wasn’t talking about Dr. Rainer’s article. What he’s learned about chaplains is due to the ungracious, unkind, and unforgiving CHAPLAINS who have commented ON Dr. Rainer’s article.

    • Well said, Doug. I certainly hope that most of the chaplains working in ministry today are a lot more gracious, kind, and forgiving than what we’re seeing in this discussion thread.

  • Ironic, isn’t it? Dr. Rainer used the word “chaplain” in a way that people found offensive, and he has apologized repeatedly for it, but some of you crybabies still haven’t been pacified. I daresay this is precisely what he was talking about. Many pastors have to deal with this kind of petty whining on a regular basis. Why don’t you make your own pastor’s job easier and grow up?

  • Walter Griffen says on

    I have been at my present church 9 years now. This describes my (bi-vocational) church experience when I first came here, but we are making strides to change that perception. It has come slowly and at personal cost. However, a change in perspective not only needs to come from the pastor (seen as selfish or self-seeking) but from Director’s of Missions, Evangelists, Supply Preachers, and trusted church leaders who “get it.” Right now, I don’t think I have a single church member who would even know what I would be talking about. We have been through “Transformational Church.” Which, while not really suited to a small church of 60 worship attenders, did help us begin thinking differently about the church, its vision, and looking outside of nickels and noses. Perhaps leading a church through “Transformational Church,” “Simple Church,” “Healthy Church Survey,” etc. could lead a church out of the chaplain mentality. Very difficult to do in small churches. With God all things are possible. Only believe.

  • David Simmons says on

    I have 20 years experience as a congregational pastor. I remember this admonition from years ago, not to “become a chaplain” to your people (i.e. being a hand holder, a coddler, a caregiver), but a leader of people. That metaphor worked for me… until I became a hospital chaplain. And while I very much understand and agree with the overall point of the article (I’ve lived it), I’d also like to suggest one more way pastors can learn from chaplains.

    Chaplains are trained that the onus of change and spiritual growth is not on the chaplain, but on the one receiving the ministry and on the Holy Spirit. If the patient wants to change, they have to do the work to change. However, much of the training we receive as pastors is about taking on the personal responsibility and anxiety of changing people and changing our organizations and making them big and great. Why are so many pastors are burned out? Because we accept responsibility for things we have no control over. Will people receive our leadership? Sometimes. And sometimes not. Will people accept our boldness and guidance? Not always. Is it okay to let someone walk away unchanged? Ask a chaplain, and they will tell you, “yes.” What chaplains know how to do is to put the work of growth and change where that work belongs.

    Thus, after several years as hospital chaplain, I decided to “become a chaplain” in my work as a congregational pastor. I chose not to be responsible for responsibilities that belong to others. When a board member would ask, “What is our vision pastor?” (Implying, what are YOU going to do to make us better?), I would reflect the question back onto them, just as I did in the hospital room with patients. “I hear you want vision. Tell me more about that.” And within a few minutes, they were actually hearing themselves saying it… we want YOU to fix our church. As I began to let go of the anxiety of the change being all up to me and skillfully redirected people’s energy back to their God-given responsibility, the troubles outlined in the article began to ease. People complained less. People took ministry ownership. People began to take responsibility for the vision of the church. And I worried less about outcomes. My prayer changed from, “God help me to lead this church well” to “God, you have a LOT of work to do with these people. What do you want me to do?” I never really became a good pastor until I learned to become a chaplain.

  • The article makes denigrates the term “chaplain.” as well as those whose place of service is chaplaincy.

    I understand all too well what the article is saying. It is a problem of the smaller church, especially the single-unit family sort of group.

    The article also makes the pastor more “entrepreneurial” than pastoral. That doesn’t work everywhere and is a source of discouragement, frustration and conflict.

  • Unfortunately, Thom, what you are really talking about is boundaries. It is just so easy to get sucked into addressing felt needs as opposed to setting appropriate boundaries. Ironically, often chaplains do this better than pastors in congregational settings. The art of the brief visit, asking the difficult question, and listening for the deep needs–these are important “chaplain” skills for any pastor. And that frees us to do the other important things, like equipping, visioning, evangelism, and spending time away with family. So maybe an article ought to be titled, “How to be a better chaplain, feel less guilty, and have more time for other ministries.”

  • With all due respect, I’ll just put this out right away: if you were offended by Pastor Rainer’s remarks, you are likely to find some way to be offended by mine, even though no offense is intended. I am both daughter and granddaughter of ordained pastors, and am neither pastor nor chaplain in the traditional sense. I have been a church organist for over 30 years; the last 30 for the same congregation, and that is a ministry of its own. In those 30 years there has been a sequence of six full-time pastors and more interims than I can remember.

    Personally, I found nothing offensive in anything that appeared in this article, and am certain that Pastor Rainer meant no offense in his remarks. Having also been involved in theatre for many years, I am deeply aware of how vocal inflection can greatly change the meaning of words. I strongly suspect that had Pastor Rainer been vocally addressing a group, his remarks would not have appeared to bear the derogatory definition some have assigned them. He was simply trying to make a point about how and why many pastors find their role to be different, or to change from what they expected upon entering the ministry of being a church pastor.

    Many years ago, I saw a short film, which was titled simply “Parable.” There were no spoken words, only actions. (You can read about it here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0320239/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl ) While the actual story in the film may not apply to this article, much of what Pastor Rainer has said reminded me of that film, in that many churches evolve the pastor into something of a human marionette. But, while the typical marionette is operated by one person, the pastoral marionette has an entire congregation struggling over who will pull the strings and control what gets done and what doesn’t.

    While I haven’t studied Catholicism, I suspect this may have been a part of the reason for requiring the celibacy of priests. Several of the gospels contain the verses, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” As several commenters above have intimated, trying to balance church responsibilities with family responsibilities is nearly impossible, and has been the cause of more than one pastoral family divorce. With both family members and congregational members pulling strings, the pastoral marionette not only seems to have no control, whatsoever, but being pulled in so many directions simultaneously, can discern little, if anything, of how to get back on the right track. Perhaps that can help Pastor Rainer lead into the sequel to his initial entry.

  • Hmmm, I wasn’t sure that I like the title of this post. As I read it, I liked the title less. It seemed to perpetuate the thought that a Chaplain has left the ministry as if he or she was “less than” the parish pastor. As a highly skilled hospice Chaplain I have had the privilege to work with men, women, and children to assist them to bring their earthly lives to a fitting end and to step into eternity with knowledge of where they are going. In other cases, I have had the privilege of working with families whose loved one was dying and assisted them to bring to an end bitterness and resentment from prior wrongs. There are so many more stories of skilled ministry that I and my team of 17 hospice Chaplains could tell. I’m not sure that it is a fair or even accurate epithet for the pastor to be called a Chaplain. That is a dated epithet, not something current. Instead, why not call him what he is: lazy, disinterested, vision-less, beat up to the point he doesn’t care anymore, spiritually weak and tired. Those seem more close to reality. Frankly, I don’t like being compared to someone who has lost his heart for ministry. That is definitely not the case with hospice Chaplains or Chaplains in any other ministry. It seems like a condescending slap in the face as if Chaplains have nothing to offer. Sad to read that here.

1 2 3 4 5 6