Pastors and Chaplains

Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.

He’s written an article, “Ten Signs a Pastor is Becoming a Chaplain.” I think he does a disservice to both pastors and chaplains.

Let me start with my understanding of the roles, and the assumptions that I bring to the consideration of this topic. I’ve been both a congregational pastor and a chaplain. Chaplaincy has been my primary calling, in both the military and academia. A chaplain is someone who ministers outside the bounds of the church. It’s a unique ministry of evangelism–you don’t spend your days with pastoral responsibilities to people who are members of your own church. You are pastor to an institution, and all the people that comprise it. You are in the world. Yes, you disciple smaller groups of leaders and of believers, but most of the people you meet and work with have only one thing in common–their identity with you as a member of that community. In most chaplain positions, you minister on the edge–not just on the edge of the church, but on the edge of critical issues of life and death. You deal with ranges of human behavior that most pastors never see. You minister to the grieving, to the dying, to those preparing for battle, to those wondering about the future. You may go with your congregation into battle: as the Army Chaplain Corps Song says, “We march in his name through thunder and flame wherever the call may be.”

A congregational pastor, on the other hand, is shepherd of a group or community. The basic call is expressed in 1 Peter 5: 1–“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them.” That’s what a pastor does–that’s why a pastor is called a “pastor,” the Latin term for shepherd. A pastor has care for a flock of believers. A pastor is responsible for feeding them with the Word and Sacraments, for providing pastoral care in times of illness or grief, and at transitions such as weddings and birth. A pastor lives with the people, cares for them, loves them. A pastor visits in the hospital, in the nursing home, in the funeral home. A pastor is a friend, a confidant, a physician of the soul.

Now this may vary in some settings, as in a large church or in a multi-church district. In those cases, the senior pastor has a team of other pastors, or at least of elders and deacons. But the pastor is still The Pastor, the shepherd that leads the flock, the pastor that has responsibility for this flock.

A good chaplain must first be a good pastor. Chaplaincy is a specialization of the pastoral calling. It is at once a broadening (extending beyond the congregation) and a narrowing (to a specific community). It requires both the ability to relate to a wider range of people, as well as the ability to become an expert in a particular institutional culture.

Now, turning to Rainer’s article. He reflects a certain mindset that is becoming popular in some denominations. Here “chaplain” is used in a negative sense to speak of a pastor who focuses on the flock he has been called to shepherd. The assumption is that a pastor has more important things to do–evangelism, and life beyond the community. He is to be a church planter, a leadership guru, an entrepreneur, a community activist. I’ve seen these pastors. They speak of visitation, including visitation of the sick, with disdain, as something beneath them, as something the elders do.

Well, my family has suffered from such, in a couple of denominations. My wife has been hospitalized three times, and never had a visit from her own pastor (in the days when she and I were members of different churches). My children were hospitalized, and never had a visit from her pastor (or mine, when I was not the pastor). Each instance lasted days, and in some cases weeks, but the pastor always was too busy, or thought it beneath him (of course, no elders or deacons visited, either.).

Frankly, if a pastor doesn’t love pastoral care, I think they are in the wrong career. Maybe they should be in business. Maybe they should be an entrepreneur. Maybe they should be an evangelist. But if you are going to be a pastor, tend your flock. Tend it, Peter says. “not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock”

A pastor is called to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. A pastor is a preacher, and is the one that baptizes, presides at the Lord’s Table, and presides at weddings and funerals. The pastor’s preaching must grow from a mix of time in the study, praying and reading the Bible, and time visiting. It is only in visiting, in hearing the hearts of the members, that the pastor knows what issues confront them, that need to be challenged by the Law or comforted by the Gospel. A pastor can’t preach canned sermons, or sermons that worked somewhere else, least of all sermons out of a book–a pastor’s sermons are unique to this group of people in this place, and represent the application of the Word to their lives as individuals and as a community.

Who needs to be out evangelizing? The members. Who needs to be out in the community? The members. Who needs to be making sure the church as an impact in its community? The members. The pastor goes with them, the pastor goes before them, but the pastor goes as the shepherd, leading the flock, caring for it, protecting it.

I guess this vision reflects my own experience and my own training. I missed the entrepreneurial model–thank God. I had little exposure to the Fuller models of church growth (and its heretical “homogenous unit principle”). I missed the “entertainment evangelism” fad of liberal Lutheranism, and the “seeker friendly services” of evangelicalism. I was trained as a classical Lutheran pastor–and I still think it a Biblically faithful model.