Ten Signs a Chaplain is Becoming a Pastor


Church growth consultant Thom Rainer recently wrote about the ten “warning signs” that a Pastor might be becoming a Chaplain. This drew a lot of attention among professional Chaplains as well as Pastors. Reading the post made me realize that it’s just as important to recognize the warning signs that your Chaplain might be heading down the slippery slope of becoming a – gulp – Pastor.

Here are ten (okay, seven) warning signs to look out for. Supervisors, take heed! (And please read on afterward – warning: sarcasm ahead)

  1. There are problems with the Chaplain’s documentation. When you ask for his or her documentation at the end of the week, the Chaplain hands in a sermon outline. When asked to explain a three-hour block of empty time each week, the Chaplain responds that it is message preparation for their study at the nursing home.
  2. The Chaplain has a sudden interest in leadership journals and books. You may catch the Chaplain devouring a copy of Leadership Journal, or even Fast Company, while pretending to read The Wounded Healer. Be on the watch for anything with the names Ziglar, Ortberg, Maxwell or Hybels on the cover.
  3. You experience increased difficulty reaching the Chaplain. You may page or call the Chaplain and a person identifying themselves as a “secretary” will answer and ask to schedule a time to get back to you. The Chaplain may also stop reminding everyone they come in contact with that he or she is “available any time” .
  4. The Chaplain’s caseload becomes a source of pride rather than misery. When a Chaplain says that they have a caseload of 150 patients with a smile on their face and is tagging along with the marketer, you have a Pastor on your hands.
  5. The Chaplain becomes “busy”.  The aforementioned “secretary” may reply to visit requests with “I don’t know if the Chaplain can see your dying mother today, she’s busy.” You will get no clarification as to what “busy” means.
  6. The Chaplain takes time off from work. When not “busy”, the Chaplain is now “on vacation” or “off for the day” according to their “secretary”. As Chaplains never take time off, this is a sure sign they are becoming a Pastor.
  7. The Chaplain becomes less heretical.  For Christian Chaplains, this is one of the most dangerous signs. When a Chaplain goes from being a mystic Universalist to supporting views such as a non-relative idea of Truth, considering the Bible as authoritative or anything else approaching orthodox belief, they are near lost.

I hope you catch the humor and sarcasm in those statements. In no way at all do I want to stereotype or diminish the role of Pastors. Rather I want to point out that just as there are misconceptions about what Chaplains do, there are misconceptions about what Pastors do (or don’t do). However the nature of those misconceptions are troubling.

Myth 1: Good Pastors Aren’t Chaplains

Rainer’s view isn’t new. In a 2011 Christianity Today editorial, Mark Galli condemned the negative stereotype of the “Chaplain Pastor”. In contrast to the entrepreneurial or “catalytic” pastor,

[the] Chaplain pastor is “wired for peace, harmony, and pastoral care…[they] don’t grow churches. In fact, a Chaplain pastor will hasten a congregation’s demise because they tend to focus on those within the congregation rather than in bringing new converts to Jesus Christ.”…This, of course, inadvertently denigrates every clergyperson who is literally a chaplain—in hospitals, in the military, and elsewhere, as if these ministers are second-class clergy. If they were real ministers, they’d be growing a megachurch. Instead, they are only good enough to “bring healing to hurting souls.”

The mold now for the Pastor is that of a successful entrepreneur. Unfortunately this mold also tends to see people either as means to an end or obstacles along the way to be handled by someone else. I have met many individuals as a Chaplain that have felt neglected by their church precisely at a time of need. Their response was to leave and never trust the church again. A Pastor may say that people like this have become too focused on their own needs and lost a Kingdom view of saving others. But churches are more than just salvation stations. They are places where the hurt come to hear Christ and be healed. When that happens, they in turn can heal others in need of Christ.

Myth 2: Pastoral Care Leads to Burnout

Many professional Chaplains responded negatively to the post, feeling that it missed the heart of what Chaplains do. However Rainer’s post points out problems in the “Chaplain” stereotype that require us who are professional Chaplains to look at ourselves critically. Many of the “warning signs” that Rainer points to are related specifically to a lack of self care and boundaries. Some of the terms he uses to characterize Chaplains include “omnipresent”, “fearful of protecting family time” and “rather have no time off”. The mere idea of equating being a chaplain to being burned-out is unsettling, probably because it edges dangerously toward an ugly truth for many of us who do this work.

Pastors need to be on the lookout for burnout in those that do congregational care in their churches. Pastors who may not be comfortable with care issues may take a hands-off stance, letting deacons and care response groups function without any oversight, feedback or support. Professional Chaplains are typically more aware of the need for self care, and some actually try to do it. But the fact that burnout is so prevalent in his assessment is not a good sign.

Myth 3: Pastoral Care is Less Important Than Church Leadership

Another issue that arises from Rainer’s judgment is the implicit idea that “chaplain work” (my term, using the lower-case here to distinguish professional Chaplaincy from broader congregational care) is of lesser value to the Pastor than other skills such as management, vision-casting and evangelism. Congregational care is primarily for others to do:

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.

Many of my colleagues feel that Pastors do not see pastoral care as important as church leadership or formal church ministry. All of us Chaplains have run into at least one Pastor or Priest who didn’t see the need to visit a sick or dying patient. I was once scolded by a minister who told me that seeing a dying patient wasn’t his responsibility because “that was {the Chaplain’s} job.” It was only after a long, heated argument that he agreed to go, but told me he would never see anyone for me ever again.

Good Pastors Need Good Chaplains

Rainer and other contemporary church-growth promoters equate being a Pastor with only a certain skill set. Pastors have one set of skills, and Chaplains have another, to be true. However Rainer’s thinking seems to lead to the conclusion that because different skills are involved in church leadership and pastoral care, good Pastors aren’t Chaplains and good Chaplains aren’t Pastors. I don’t think he means to say this at all, but it sure sounds like a conclusion you could adequately draw from his statements. This should absolutely not be the case. Pastoral care was at the heart of Jesus’ outreach. His proclamation of the gospel came not only through preaching to the multitudes, but healing them and caring for them individually.

Ministers are called to ministry for different reasons, even though the title may be the same. Some seek to evangelize and others to serve, but they both find their way to the pulpit. The call to ministry involves gifts and calling. Where we don’t have the gifts or the call, we find someone who does and nurture that person to do the best he or she can do. What Pastors and Chaplains need to see is that their calling involves their gifts, but there are very, very few who are called to be Pastor that are gifted both in caring, leading and growing a church. A Pastor with skills in pastoral care will become frustrated and burned out when they are asked to do things that they don’t have skills or gifts for. In the same way, a Pastor without caregiving gifts or skills should probably not try to swim in this part of the pool; best for themselves and everyone else involved.

As Paul reminds us, all spiritual gifts are necessary for ministry to function properly and in a healthy way, but no single person is gifted so completely as to do them all well. Pastors need to recognize and value the importance of the role of pastoral care in their ministry, especially if they aren’t gifted in that area. They can do so by hiring and supporting professional ministers who are gifted and function as Chaplains to the congregation. They need to treat them as equals both from the pulpit and in the church office. If one can’t be hired, then the lay ministers need to be trained and supported as if they were paid staff. They are that important.

I’ll close with a question posed by Galli, that should serve as all as Pastors, Chaplains and Christians:

So who told us that the pastor is primarily a leader/entrepreneur/change agent and anything but a curer of souls? And why do we believe them?

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