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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  • You hit the nail on the head. I quit pastoring when I realized the congregations wanted me to tell them only what they already believed, in the way they believed it. No challenge, no thinking, no growth. (Note, In fairness: having Master’s in both Divinity and Philosophy, with considerable PhD work in Ethics, my positions are conservative, but not necessarily popularist.) I wanted to teach, equip, challenge, motivate, etc. They wanted me to ‘drop in’ on ‘Grandma X’ etc., twice a week to check on her/them, visit, drink tea, and pet the cats & dogs. Mind you, ‘Grandma X’ etc all lived within 10 miles, had working phones that they knew how to use, as well as working cars that they drove often. Time spent in prayer was expected, while time spent in reading, studying, reflection and contemplation was seen as a luxury. Mind you – the ‘business world’ is no better. The only difference is that I expected the ‘higher’ of the church to be Christ, while the ‘higher’ of business is never more than the ‘bottom line,’ of profits.

    I still try to do the minister work of teaching, training, etc.; only now I do it ‘off the payroll’; where, because they love having a volunteer, and boasting about my training, they are more tolerant and slower to criticize for fear of losing me. I am careful not to tread on the pastor’s authority, and I find they love having a sympathetic ear.

  • I’ve seen a lot of push back online about denoting the difference between a Pastor and a Chaplain. Those with a heart for the hurting and have gifting to reach out to give spiritual care are often labeled Chaplains while those with leadership abilities and a knack for vision casting are called Pastors. The push back comes when one is elevated above the other.

    I knew a lot of great Chaplains in the Army, they were fulfilling God’s will in the circumstances and environment they found themselves in. They were not elevating man’s needs over the Great Commission, they were pursuing it within their current conditions. These are the good type of Chaplains. The poor form of Chaplaincy is when people’s feelings and wants are elevated over God’s will. It becomes people serving to help people feel better rather than understanding feelings follow motivations. It is okay to want people to feel good or okay, but this must always be done with understanding God’s will always trumps man’s feelings.

    I know pastors who avoid conflicts because people’s feelings get hurt in conflict. Conflict is inevitable. Avoiding all conflicts to avoid hurt feelings is wrong. One Pastor I knew said he sees his role as doing what the people want first rather than first concerning himself with what God wants. That in my mind is the negative form of Chaplaincy. It puts men’s wills before God’s will.

    A mature Christian with Chaplaincy gifting would humbly acknowledge where their gift for serving is and have no problem with allowing a Pastor with greater leadership ability to run the local church. It is when a Chaplain insists he should be the lead pastor rather than a better qualified individual problems arise.

    • Thanks for giving credit to our military chaplains. In my years of ministry I’ve seen far more ineffective “pastors” with zero leadership skills presiding over congregations. Many with “degrees” from unaccredited schools and no training in leadership. At least military chaplains are trained in organizational leadership from the standpoint of their military service. The problem is that small churches (which are the majority) only have one pastor and that person must function as a full staff. Even if their preaching on Sunday is spot on they will quickly become overwhelmed by the needs of the congregation and community. Chaplains are trained to understand the need for self care, whereas novice pastors feel that they are immune to the demands of the pastoral call. Furthermore, chaplains are more likely to not start new programs for the sake of starting a new program. It is usually a mistake to over extend your mission, just because you can, without critical analysis of how the change will effect the mission of the church.
      One more quick note. The beginning points sets up a “straw man” argument, as if being a chaplain is less than. In fact, being a chaplain is probably closer to the Great Commission than most congregational ministers will ever experience.

  • I am a hospital chaplain. This is a terrible list! Insulting and uninformed.

  • Charles Seligman says on

    As a professional military chaplain I can say this definition of chaplaincy in no way describes who I am or what I do on a daily basis. I am perplexed at the negative view of chaplaincy outlined in this blog. Chaplaincy as a profession is made up of certain competencies that at time overlap with pastoring, yet go beyond pastoring due to the specialized nature of often working in a secular and pluralistic environment. I would say chaplaincy is nuanced and requires a special call beyond that of pastor and embodies being a pastor and then some.

  • Kim Wheeler says on

    Hi Thom,

    Great article on the problems with becoming a servant/pleaser of persons, rather than a servant of God and His apostolic (sent and sending) purpose.

    As some of the others have said, it might be more accurate to say pastors should be more like chaplains, rather than less. Chaplains are constantly serving both believers and unbelievers, equipping folks to carry on without them, working for deep understanding of what their faith has to say and how to express it with integrity, and assessing and adapting their ministry in a rapidly changing world.

    Of course not all chaplains do this, either. But the pressures your article speaks of, come from the members of my congregation, not those I serve as a chaplain.


  • Thank you for the article. I currently feel like a doctor who has stopped taking new patients because his case load is too full. What do you do if you want to take the church to an outward focus, while pastoring a congregation that seems only inwardly focused?

  • Today is Wednesday June 15, 2016. I have just found a read this article. I am a chaplain and also an interim pastor. I found this to be very informative. Definitely worth sharing, as many of the churches that I serve while the pastor search is in progress, is without a pastor because he failed to lead his congregation in the stepping up and participating portion of serving Christ.
    In Christ,
    Chaplain/pastor Cliff

  • Sir, in your article you wrote: “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.” A.) There is nothing wrong with ministering to the needs of church members. In fact, the opposite in a pastor could lead church goers to perceive the pastor as self-absorbed and/or focused too much on growth and church numbers; B.) What is your definition exactly of church leadership that equips others and C.) Leading congregations to reach those who do not have a church home, a.k.a increasing church membership by bringing higher numbers of people into the four walls of a church building wasn’t exactly Jesus’ main focus or what he did. Do you want to know how to be a good overseer of the flock? Do what Jesus did. Get out of the literal and mental four walls of your precious church business. And bring your church followers with you. Non-Christians don’t typically flock to churches. It is our calling to go to them. And in the meantime, stop insulting Chaplaincy. God bless you as you go in Holy Yeshuas Name. “As a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings, and a partaker of the glory to be revealed, I appeal to the elders among you: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is among you, watching over them not out of compulsion, but because it is God’s will; not out of greed, but out of eagerness; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” -1 Peter 5:1-3 Berean Study Bible
    “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” -Acts 20:28 KJV

  • As a senior chaplain in a long term care ministry who served as a pastor in several congregational settings I see some valuable critiques of both the pastor and the church members. However, it left me a bit suspicious that you see a chaplain as something less than what he/she is. The role of the chaplain in healthcare, military, corporate world or elsewhere is a highly specialized field filled with unique challenges and abundant blessings.

  • Thank you, Dr. Rainer, for the article. I’m sorry that many of your readers allowed themselves to get sidetracked and were seemingly unable to grasp your main point, which is that church pastors shouldn’t allow themselves to become primarily (and certainly not exclusively) focused on pastoral care with a congregation that’s internally focused.

    Thank you for the great work you do and the encouragement you are to many of us in the trenches of ministry.

  • Some pushback has been given over at IMonk:


  • Robert Smith says on

    As a bi-vocational pastor serving full-time as a chaplain, I feel that my role as a chaplain has informed and enriched my pastoral ministry. One of the things that I have witnessed is that the church maybe in decline because many young pastors see themselves as the next “Billy Graham” or the next “Rick Warren” full of vision and purpose, but missing the nurturing component of a shepherd. Growth in ministry comes by not only looking for new converts, but by caring for the flock that God has already entrusted you with. This lack of nurture often is the reason we have as many people going out the back door as we have coming in the front door.

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