December 3, 2020

In Praise of the “Chaplain” Pastor

Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Michael Šplho

Mark Galli is speaking my language (again). Every pastor and church leader needs to read his article, “Why We Need More ‘Chaplains’ and Fewer Leaders.”

Much to my personal dismay, “chaplain” is apparently a dirty word — at least to those who claim to know what makes a good leader in a healthy church.

Mark recently received one of those ubiquitous church growth communiqués listing qualities of healthy/unhealthy churches and suggesting kinds of pastoral leadership that can solve the problems. One mark of an unhealthy church was, “the pastor has become a chaplain.”

“Chaplain” was fourth on a list of five types of pastors — Catalytic, Cultivator, Conflict-Quelling, Chaplain, Catatonic. Fourth is not good.

It’s nice to know “experts” think people like me are just one step away from being catatonic. Gee, thanks.

Mark Galli rightly opposes this analysis. But let me be even more blunt than he is in his fine article — this kind of analysis, this motivational corporate business-speak dressed up with a few spiritual words to make it appear applicable to church settings, is a pure abomination. Not that we can’t learn anything from the corporate world, but for heaven’s sake, the American church has bought into this “wisdom” to such a degree that most church “leaders” wouldn’t know genuine pastoral theology if it bit them on the nose. Of course pastors must provide a certain level of institutional leadership — any group of people that comes together will have to deal with institutional matters — but when corporate leadership paradigms come to define who we are, what we do, and how we do what we do, we are in deep doo-doo.

To his credit, Galli is willing to speak out, as the evangelical circus parade passes by, that the ringmaster has no clothes, and that the entire circus apparatus and even the audience is supporting the lies that the ringmaster is believing.

What is so bad about being a “chaplain” pastor? Chaplain pastors, according to the piece Galli received, “want to bring healing to hurting souls.” Heaven forbid!

We find ourselves in an odd period of church history when many people have become so used to large, impersonal institutions that they want that in their church as well. Thus the attraction of megachurches, where people can blend in and not be seen if they want. Many thought leaders who ponder church life naturally end up championing massive institutions and denigrating (inadvertently, to be sure) the healing of hurting souls. And this in a community whose theology is supposedly grounded in the universal and cosmic love of God who gives attention to each of us as individuals.

Mark also notes that a chaplain is essentially a servant, not an entrepreneurial leader who functions in the style our culture honors with the most attention and accolades. I understand the longing for respect that many pastors have. They (rightly) feel that they are doing some of the most important work in the world, but get little recognition for it. The temptation is strong to make use of resources that are readily available and to pattern ministry after corporate models that influential parishioners will appreciate and support. When it “works,” as it often does, the result is a religion that sparkles, a faith for winners.

There’s only one problem — that isn’t Jesus’ way. I mean, isn’t that obvious? If you’re a minister and it’s not obvious to you, I question whether you should be in ministry. As Mark Galli paraphrases:

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles like to be seen as “leaders,” “entrepreneurs,” “catalysts for growth,” and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ ” (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus could not have been clearer, whether by word or example. And so it was with the apostles, who spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth as suffering servants, not superstars; who built humble communities of loving service, not “great” churches.

It is time to reclaim good words like “pastor” and “chaplain” from the foolish counselors who are leading us astray and undermining the foundations of the church.

The American church is in deep trouble, and Mark Galli has put his finger on a primary reason — her leaders have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing or how they’re supposed to be doing it.

Is it possible we’ve lost touch with the One who can show us?


  1. Anyone who’s had experience of military chaplains, at least, won’t be so contemptuous. The chaplains I’ve met in the Navy have been some of the most self-sacrificial people I’ve ever encountered. They take on all the emotional burdens of a huge and varied group of people who are inevitably under a lot of stress, and tirelessly encourage others and bring healing to hurting souls. It can’t be easy to be both a priest or pastor and a Naval officer, but they somehow manage to balance everything they do and be a tireless source of morale and comfort, everywhere from the deck to the battlefield. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for chaplains.

    So don’t listen to that big jerk who bashes chaplains! We have those here too. Even the hardcore atheists are disgusted by them, because the chaplains we have on board are so obviously kind and honorable men. I know you’re not a military chaplain, but for this demographic at least, chaplain will never be a dirty word.

  2. First, ditto and kudos to everything Kate said. As a former Army officer in a strange, new world (women were pretty rare in 1980…) only a few good chaplains (one a Catholic priest, the other a Luthern minister) kept me from going over the ledge…..oh, and the rabbi who shared a building with me tied my ugly oxfords when I was in uniform and too hugely pregnant to reach my own feet!

    But, ummmm, isn’t ministering to the sick of heart or body or mind the JOB of the guy (or gal) up in that pulpit? Maybe I am just a crazy old Catholic who doesn’t understand, but if taking care of the flock as the hands and heart of the Shepard here on planet Earth is a sign of “malfunction”, then I proffer that the guidelines are themselves sick and crooked.

    Keep the Faith, Ch. M!

  3. David Cornwell says

    Pastoral care in the traditional understanding of the term is not popular among pastors. Many find whatever excuse they can not to engage in it. Some will give hours and hours to denominational bureaucracy which for the most part is a spinning of wheels that never arrive at a destination. And the leadership model that you are talking about here apparently doesn’t even recognize it as being part (or else a very insignificant part) of the work of the church.

    I think that when a pastor models sound pastoral theology for a period of time, the church itself will learn to be a caring community. Often a church that some would brand as being “liberal” manages to do a better job at pastoral care than evangelicals. Mennonites are often very good at it. Also the Catholic priests that I’ve known.

    If I were looking for a church this would be at the top of the list in my seeking. Sometimes one can get a clue in the way a pastor conducts funerals and cares for the grieving.

    The Kingdom we seek isn’t one modeled on the kingdoms, systems, and enterprises of this world. Time spent attending leadership seminars might be better spent alone reading the gospels once again.

  4. The Previous Dan says

    “but when corporate leadership paradigms come to define who we are, what we do, and how we do what we do, we are in deep doo-doo.”

    Yes we are! The religious right has a pretty slick and effective machine going now days. To look at the numbers of those who claim to be Christians you may even think that “we” are winning. But when you look at the stats on broken homes, depression, addiction, domestic abuse, etc. they indicate we may not be having the meaningful impact we claim. It appears that Constantine has again persuaded that church to sell its heart in exchange for “success.” You hit it on the nose, CM; we need “servants, not superstars; who built humble communities of loving service, not great churches.”

    • Dan-

      That’s becuase for the religious right, Christinaity is a business. Its a mesh of “faith” as they define it and corporate values. They would like to turn the church into a Fortune 500 operation.

  5. “Not that we can’t learn anything from the corporate world, but for heaven’s sake, the American church has bought into this “wisdom” to such a degree that most church “leaders” wouldn’t know genuine pastoral theology if it bit them on the nose…”

    Sad but true…… Do we let our culture define leadership or do we let Jesus define leadership? We need to be a whole lot more counter-cultural on this point and show a lost world there is a better way….. Right on brother! Amen!

  6. Yes, Yes, Yes to everything you said!

    And let me add one more point. I have one more than one case when a pastor who fit the corporate leadership paradigm also made a vain attempt to perform traditional ‘chaplain’ duties. It often created a conflict interest. It became so bad that when I was a leader of a finance team I had to refuse traditional pastoral counsel and confession because he had a history of using what he learned in counsel and confession to get people he could influence and control in places of lay leadership.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      What you describe is gross malfeasance. It sounds like he wasn’t trying to perform chaplain duties. He was making a pretense of doing this in order to gain leverage for his “real” work.

      • Yes. Whenever the “Real” work is to cast vision and make sure that vision gets enacted (in a business sense), all other duties become secondary to that “real” work.

        The corporate governance model usually enacted by modern church growth churches usually involves the pastor selecting the finance, building, and other key lay leaders. Once that model is implemented, it is almost impossible not to have conflict of interest.

    • David Cornwell says

      ” he had a history of using what he learned in counsel and confession ”

      This reminds me of a substitute preacher in a church I attended one Sunday about a year ago. He had led a men’s retreat for the same church a month or so before this sermon. In the sermon he used the personal stories that men in the group had shared him in counseling, as sermon illustrations, names and all. These stories were about marital and family situations. The man supposedly is a trained counselor. But this was the most totally unethical and despicable acts I’ve ever seen from the pulpit.

      • Gail and I attended a church where the pastor was more subtle, but just as inappropriate. Whatever “got his goat” the previous week became worked into his sermon, and it usually involved something he heard in conversation with church members. I remember a couple of weeks when he pounded hard against the practice of counseling — in a week after I had been talking with him about Gail working hard to establish her counseling practice. We should have just walked out, but at the time we didn’t.

        • I had one ministry leader who crticized me for talking to a counselor. I was told that all I needed was Jesus and that I needed to have more “faith” and to avoid the secular system. Even worse I knew of a situation in Wisconsin where a pastor who railed against counseling and Celebrate Recovery programs caused an alcoholic and several other people who dealt with different issues to go backward. It crushed a guy I knew… Thsi was the same pastor that told someone whose divorced was finalized to get off the property and leave the church.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          This leads to the obvious question of why you would talk to this guy? If there was a social necessity for conversation with him, that’s what football is for. If he wants to use that as grist for the sermon mill, who cares? But personal stuff that actually matters???

    • …”he had a history of using what he learned in counsel and confession….”

      Breaking the Seal of Confession is a big no-no. Lord have mercy!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Automatic Immediate Excomunication. (At least if you’re one of us Apostate Satanic Romish Papists — if you’re a Born-Again “It’s All Under The Blood (TM)”.)

        • My husband and I lost a pair of friends and our parish lost a Deacon when he decided to use church rolls as potential “clients” for a multi-level marketing scheme they had gotten into. Our dinners at their house stopped being full of talk and laughter and turned into sales pitches (They had asked if they could “PRACTICE” the pitch on us, knowing full well we had sub-zero interest in this Ponzi scheme and little money even if we were interested.)

          They wound up moving far, far away after all the investigating was done. Deacons do not hear confessions, but in many other ways this man we used to call friend and brother had access to many pastoral “secrets” that he abused for profit.

  7. Clay Knick says

    I’m on my seventh funeral in the last two months. The most recent one is a 48-year-old woman who was a faithful member who died yesterday from a stroke. I spent hours and hours with her family. Believe me a model of ministry based on a business model would not have worked in this case! So don’t tell me that the traditional, “pastor as shepherd” model is useless. This model has served the Church well for 2000 years and it is being perverted by the “pastor as anything else” model. Pastors don’t have to do all the caring and all the ministry; it can be shared. In the church I serve there are three people who visit the sick, shut-ins, and others. I see them, too, but these three will often let me know if one of these people needs a visit or a call.

    So, I think Mark is spot on and Mike is right there with him.

    • Clay, I have a good idea how drained you must feel. I hope you are able to find a bit of time and space to be refreshed. Thanks for your faithfulness to true pastoral ministry.

      • Clay Knick says

        I’m trying to pace myself because there are other things going on, too, as you know so very well. I’ve got another member who is very close to death also. So I’m trying to rest some when I can. I’ve had a quiet afternoon today and I really needed it.

  8. I agree with everything said I this article, exept the use of the word “church” in order to describe the conservative evangelical church, as if nothing else was a church. What about all of the other denominations, including Roman Catholic, that train their pastors to “pastor”? The only “church” I’ve seen use the business leadership model is the American conservative, non-denominational evangelical church. It seems that the leadership model for a pastor is used where the church congregation is a sort of island, with no institutional backing. The church staff has to handle all of the functions dof the church, as opposed to an institutional church with clergy hierarchy, staff to support them, and so on, that work outside of the individual parishes. Do I have this correct?

    • Yes, the communiqué Galli referenced is usually first directed to evangelical pastors. However, the church growth movement and its reliance on corporate management principles has made plenty of inroads into mainline Protestant denominations as well. Evangelicalism tends to be most affected, because it is the most entrepreneurial and disconnected from history and tradition.

      • David Cornwell says

        Some mainline denominations started attempting to use church growth techniques as far back as the 1980’s in an effort to turn around declining membership. I suppose it did work in a few individual churches, but as denominations the decline continues and probably will continue into the future. When I was a pastor denominational leadership turned it into a numbers game, with goals set and records kept. Church worship and programming had to all be planned around these goals. Recognition, along with awards, were given to the churches in each category (small, medium, large) that posted the largest increases in attendance and membership. And it became a way to seek career advancement, from smaller churches to larger with a bigger pay package.

        It didn’t work, and least on a denominational basis. And it led to frustration, dissatisfaction, and burnout on the part of pastors. And Jesus got lost somewhere in the shuffle. Of course this is a generalization. And there are many good and faithful pastors who simply did (and are doing) their work, the work of the parish, and more or less ignored the buzz..

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I agree with everything said I this article, exept the use of the word “church” in order to describe the conservative evangelical church, as if nothing else was a church.

      Tony, the American Conservative Evangelical church has hijacked the word “church” without any modifiers to mean themselves and themselves alone. Just as they did the word “Christian (TM)”.

      What about all of the other denominations, including Roman Catholic, that train their pastors to “pastor”?

      Let’s see… “Mystery Babylon (TM)”, “Satanic Counterfeit (TM)”, “Great Apostasy (TM)”, “CULT (TM)”…

  9. Just because God knows us personally, and is deeply involved with our lives, doesn’t mean that our minister should be too. For one thing, God is more cost-effective. I mean, what is a minister for, anyway? To conduct church services, or to follow us around and play psychologist? (Ministers will of course have their own opinions about what their role should be, but you’ll rarely find one who says that they’re unnecessary!)

    • When you’re dealing with the loss of a loved one, or the shock of serious illness, or a family crisis, do you turn to those who love you for support or do you call your psychologist or therapist? Mwhen you go to church are you there to receive or to give?

    • Your approach to theology is similar to how Jack Welch ran General Electric…. Who is there for who?

      • Most people think the purpose of their job is to keep them employed. You’ll never meet a chiropractor who doesn’t think you need chiropractic.

  10. 3500 years ago a large group of unruly slaves were freed from Egypt by a gracious act of Jehovah God and were led by Him to Mount Sinai in order to receive the Law. Too impatient for the Lord’s instruction, they built a golden calf and held a “feast to Jehovah.” What caused them to think that Jehovah would be pleased with such worship? 3500 years ago everyone in the region used golden calves to worship their gods; Egyptians, Hittites, Canaanites, and Mesopotamians.. It simply stood to reason that Jehovah would be pleased with the same.

    So what does that have to do with chaplains and aggressive corporate pastors?

    Today, we do not worship golden calves, but we do worship, wealth, corporate success, fame, good looks, and great talent. Is it any wonder that we think God would be pleased if we could get someone like that to be our “pastor”?

    Who in their right mind worships a servant? Those who know Jesus do, and their choice of pastor will be a reflection of the One before whom they bow.

  11. I am convinced that much of our modern looking to entrepreneurial and administrative methods to grow the church rather then looking to the Spirit of God and His power (which leads to being a servant). Is like the Israelites going down the Egypt for horses and chariots rather thane trusting in God.

    Thanks for the good word.

  12. My mother died several weeks ago after months in and out of the hospital, rehab and finally hospice. I can’t express adequately my gratitude to the pastor, associate pastors, Stephen ministers, and hospice workers who all ministered to my mother and to our family. The pastor as business leader would have meant nothing to my mother or family–in fact, it would have had a very negative impact.

    I will cherish forever the caring conversations, the prayers and the love expressed by true chaplain/ministers. My mother and family were comforted beyond words by scripture readings and prayers when my mother was too weak to respond beyond saying quiet amens. It seems that what is most valued in the eyes of the Lord and those who follow him are not the things the culture values–or sadly what most of the church today values.

  13. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the word “pastor” in the New Testament seems to always be used as a verb, not a noun. The offices are bishop, elder, overseer, etc… but the work is pastoring. If we hold that a “pastor” is somebody who “pastors,” then you might argue that CEO’s leading “churches” aren’t even pastors at all, regardless of what they call themselves. You could then argue that the organizations that they lead are not necessarily even “churches” anymore either. All the emphasis on “leadership” is simply an application of behavioral science. The idea is to influence the behavior people as in an experiment to produce the desired results. Manipulation and control. Isn’t this kinda the exact opposite of what Jesus came to bring about? It certainly isn’t the movement He started, but it seems fairly epidemic in evangelicalism.

    I can’t help but think this came about, aside from obvious sin issues, as a result of congregational autonomy. All these completely independent churches have no built in safe-guard against entrepreneurial exploiters. At least, not beyond the discernment of the laity, which has proven real effective. When your congregation is merely a cog in the machine, than perhaps it’s easier to settle into traditional roles. This might explain why mainline churches tend to do better at having shepherds, or chaplains.

  14. I wonder how many members were in the church at Phillipi or Thessalonica at the time of Paul’s writing. How many was Paul ministering to in person when he sent those letters? How many were ever in the church of Paul? He would probably be considered a pauper in this culture. So would his leader. He only managed 12.

  15. Chaplin Mike….

    Thank you for this. You know blogs like the IM, Wartburg, etc.. and your analysis are refreshing. They also give me some hope. I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to see someone take the evangelical culture to task.

    My faith fell apart in 2009. There were many contributing factors that led to it. One of them was the inability to get help in the evangelical system at the time. I was in a mega church setting and had connections it 2 different churches. I was struggling with work, and doubt and other theological isses were kicking my ass. In the channels I was in people didn’t know what to say. A couple thought it would pass. They didn’t know how serious the doubt was. So I tried to talk to a pastor. I so desperatly tried to get help. I knew one at one mega church that shall go un-named. I contacted this person and asked if I could meet with them. I said there was a problem, it was serious. He wouldn’t meet with me. He told me he didn’t have the time. He asked if we could talk by phone. I was hesitant to do so, but agreed. Then began the longest session of phone tag. He was never there. When he did call back I was unavailable. So I was in knots….and finally recognizing that it wasn’t going to work, I gave up on constantly leaving voicemails.

    I couldn’t believe how ridicilously hard it was to meet with someone.

    But if you really want to hear a story that takes the cake, there is another situation I heard of that is appealling. This happened at a mega church as well which shall remain unnamed. It involved a daughter who was caring for her bed-ridden mother who had terminal breast cancer. She was quite sick. So the daughter who was involved in this mega chruch called the Elders and asked if one of them could come by their home, annoint her with oil and pray for her Mom. The person that spoke with “Sharon” told her that the Elders don’t make house calls and wouldn’t viist her Mother. She had to come into the church if she wanted prayer. It sent “Sharon” into shock and desbelief.

    So today I am on the other side. I find it sickening that many chruches have this attitude. It sickened me at the time that many churches operate in this business mindset. What good is church growth if you can’t take care of the flock? Why the intense focus on chruch growth anyhow? Is this franchise or a church? Is it a publically traded stock on Wall Street with dividands pain to investors or is it a church?

    I guess the overarching theme is why do so many churches expect to be taken so seriously. The system is a joke!! Who is there for who? Is this pastor there for the people or are the people there for the pastor? And in mega chruch situations this became an even more heinous problem.

    Thanks Chaplin Mike…I would have loved to have had you as my Pastor. In a way i guess you are….

  16. I think we all, especially leadership, should be focusing on depth and letting growth take care of itself. Instead we have churches that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

  17. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    I remember when my Pastor said to folks who were doing a potential church plant that he wasn’t interested in being a chaplain. When I asked him to clarify, he said that he wants his ministry to be one where the gospel is reaching the lost and the Kingdom is growing rather than just taking care of those who are already in his church. And I get that. But I really disagree with him on that. Or at least I know that as I move toward ordination and take up a more pastoral role in my ministry, I’d be honored to take care of the flock and to be a curate of souls. And maybe as those souls get healed and grow closer to Christ, they’ll take the gospel out and bring more hurting souls in need of care. Or maybe not. But I’d like to be a pastor first and foremost. And that seems to imply chaplaincy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Sounds like your “pastor” was only interested in being an Evangelist and nothing else.

      • That sort of “rack up the newly saved souls” is a travesty of Christ, a total abomination to grace and common sense. Satan must love guys like this.

        To me, it is EXACTLY the same as a man who is a sexual prowler and philanderer…..more interested in notches on his bedpost (or his Jumbotron) of all his conquests, and totally uninterestered in what happens after he walks away grinning from a still-warm bed or altar call. Lord forbid either of these men would want to stay around for the deepness and intimacy, because it takes time and energy and is oh-so-very MESSY and unpredictable!

        • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

          It’s less the desire to only focus on Evangelism and only save the lost than as it is that he wants to be “missional” (like the guy in the other article was saying. He definitely wants to care for his flock, but he doesn’t want that to be the main point. The thing is, in some denominational circles (esp. mainlines) the church had mostly become a club for those who’d been there for generations. Since his church had come from that kind of background, he was reacting against it. Me, on the other hand, had spent so much time in Evangelical circles where the “wretched urgency” of evangelism and church growth was so front-and-center that I was reacting against the other extreme. In either extreme, there’s no discipleship. And I think that’s where my pastor and I can agree: as ministers, we need to be making disciples, not just pew warmers or converts.

  18. For the fundamentalist evangelical mega-church, it is very hypocritical to focus on the Great Commission and ignore Jesus’ admonition to Peter to take care of his sheep, tend his flock, love the sheep. The writer of the Gospel of John, presumably relying upon church tradition, made a point of Jesus repeating this command three times, three different ways. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew, also using church tradition, has Jesus giving the Great Commission once. I realize that there are several other references to these principles thoughout the New Testament writings, but to further my point, the New Testament overwhelmingly focuses on the church leaders tending to the flock. Outreach was just the very first step. The most important work for the leadership was to shepard. How do these “take the Bible literally” brothers and sisters miss this point?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When “number of Souls Saved” became the currency to pile up and claim bragging rights.

    • Tony-

      You know what is even more discouraging is the number of blogs that are floating on the internet that detail spiritual abuse, neglect, and those struggling in mega chruch environments who can’t be fed or find community because their church is too focused on growth. Its troubling how there are many people who find them self in authoritarian chruch structures along the way…even if accidental.

    • Tony I stumbled across this Beliefnet interview of Julia Duin who discusses why people leave church. She touches on the pastor issue quite well…

      (Question to Julia Duin)
      For as long as I can remember, evangelical churches have been stressing the need to be “relevant” to American culture. You say they’ve failed on this front–that they are out of touch. How has this happened, and what can be done about it?

      Relevancy means speaking to the true battles people are facing in terms of depression, exhaustion, joblessness, inability to connect with God, etc. I do not see most pastors at all in touch with how the majority of their listeners have no idea how to hear from God. This should be a top priority. Relevancy is understanding what your typical parishioner goes through; everything from killer rush hours to family breakdowns. One wonders if pastors lead real lives. I think many are isolated from what the rest of us face; thus, I rarely if ever take notes in church any more, because there’s rarely anything insightful in the typical sermon. Part of the problem is that pastors do not want to admit that much of Christianity does not work. So many of the promises in Scripture simply don’t come true, and people cannot wrap their minds around that contradiction. Now, there are ways around this, but it’s the rare pastor who gets it that people are struggling with what their lives are like and what the Bible stays – and the wide gulf in between. Speaking to those hard spots would be so helpful. Unanswered prayer is so huge an issue yet very few authors – Philip Yancey, Bob Sorge – address this. After a while people think they must be awful Christians because the system is not working for them, so they drop out out of sheer discouragement. That does not need to happen, yet this goes on all the time. Folks hate being part of something in which all they do is fail.

  19. In Australia chaplain often means a Christian worker in a secular place – schools, hospitals, the military. Thus they are front-line Christian workers as opposed to those who work in churches.

  20. I read the Galli article too and shared it with the other students in my ministry class at an SBC university. I’m hoping to hear what they thought of it in class this week.