Why We Need More 'Chaplains' and Fewer Leaders: What's a pastor for?1
In my email recently came another list of suggestions on how to tell if your church is healthy. The warning signs of a sick church were lack of outreach ministries, increasing dropout rate, church conflict, little corporate prayer, and finally, the pastor has become a chaplain.
It's becoming increasingly common to infer that when a pastor becomes a "chaplain," the church is in trouble. A few years ago, one website encouraging "innovative" ministry listed five types of pastors that a church might call: Catalytic, Cultivator, Conflict-Quelling, Chaplain, and Catatonic. The page clarified that "each of these types carries positives and negatives," but it seemed clear that the further one went down the list, the more problematic was the pastor. At the top of the list were Catalytic pastors, who are "gifted in the prophetic and tend to be charismatic leaders. These pastors have lots of energy and are focused on the mission of the church … that is, reaching the community for Jesus Christ. In the 'right' church, they'll grow it without a doubt."
A Chaplain pastor, on the other hand, was mired near the bottom. A Chaplain pastor is "wired for peace, harmony, and pastoral care. This is the type of pastor that has been produced by seminaries for several decades, though a few … a very few … seminaries are retooling. Chaplain pastors eschew change and value status quo. They don't want to stir the waters; rather, they want to bring healing to hurting souls." And if that weren't bad enough, "Chaplain pastors 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."
The assumptions here are all too common, I'm afraid. So we hear in many quarters that pastors should be leaders, catalysts, and entrepreneurs, and the repeated slam about pastors who are mere chaplains.
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."
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.
There may be something else going on as well. A chaplain is a minister in the service of another. A chaplain at a hospital or in the military is clearly not the highest ranking member of the institution, clearly not the person in charge of running things. The chaplain's job is defined by service—service to the institution's needs and goals, service to the individuals who come for spiritual help. The chaplain prays for people in distress, administers sacraments to those in need, leads worship for those desperate for God. In short, the chaplain is at the beck and call of those who are hurting for God. He's not his own man. She is not her own woman. There's no mistaking a chaplain for an entrepreneurial leader, a catalyst for growth. No, the chaplain is unmistakably a servant.
In an increasingly secular, capitalist culture, it's understandable that so many clergy are fascinated with the idea that they can be leaders and entrepreneurs. These are the people our culture admires most—those like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or whoever has made a ton of money and a practical difference. I can appreciate this. When I was a pastor, I felt I gained more credibility with my church board—composed of mostly business people—when I could wax eloquent about the church's "decadal growth" and the need to "target a young demographic" and create "revenue models" that would "ensure long-term stability" for the church.
Such is the culture we live in, where successful business people seem to enjoy really important work, and pastors, if they are not careful, will be chaplains, mere servants.
It's interesting to note how much time and energy our Lord spent on "healing hurting souls." Take this typical summary in Matthew's gospel: "So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them" (4:24, ESV). When Matthew wanted to sum up what Jesus did over and over, time and again with people, this is the sort of thing he said: "He healed them."
It's also interesting to note the way Jesus framed how his disciples should think about their ministries: "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).
Okay, I paraphrased a bit. But I'm not convinced the paraphrase is false to the sense of Jesus' words. In any case, it seems clear that Jesus was a chaplain of souls, and that he encouraged his disciples to think of themselves in the same way.
One wonders where we got our other ideas about the pastorate. For centuries, the pastorate was thought to be about "the cure of souls"—souls being understood not as the spiritual part of us, but as the fullness of our humanity. The pastor has traditionally been thought of as one who does ministry in the midst of a people who are sick and dying, and who administers in word and sacrament, in Scripture and in prayer, the healing balm of the Lord.
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?
The good chaplain-pastor recognizes that the ministry of healing hurting souls has many dimensions. Take King David's chaplain, Nathan. It's clear that Nathan is at the beck and call of his king, and that he sees himself as a spiritual presence to comfort and affirm his patron. At one point, he tells David, "Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you" (2 Sam. 7:3). But he also knew that if he was truly going to serve his king, he was going to have to challenge him from time to time—like when he confronted David about his adultery.
But note how pastoral even that conversation is: Nathan tells David that he has "despised the word of the Lord," and David admits, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan is acting as a chaplain, to heal the sinful soul of his king (2 Sam. 12).
To say that a pastor is first and foremost a chaplain—someone who is the Lord's means of healing—is not to suggest that his or her role is primarily therapeutic. It includes therapy-like moments, for example, in helping parishioners deal with their ordinary fears and worries. But it is fundamentally about the healing of souls—helping men and women, boys and girls, to become right with God, and therefore, right with others.
This will happen in a variety of ways, as the pastor leads worship and hears confession and simply spends time with the congregation. This happens even when presiding over those functions we tend to think are perfunctory. When the pastor is present, you see, people get this intuitive reminder that God is present. That often puts people on their best behavior—sometimes annoyingly so! But when the pastor communicates in word and deed the graciousness of God, the pastor's presence can be a great comfort to people. For it is by grace that we are healed.
Eugene Peterson put it this way in The Contemplative Pastor: "The primary language of the cure of souls … is conversation and prayer. Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected. It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited—the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer."
I've been a parishioner in many churches over many years. In each church, the pastor has been tempted, as I was, to become the great leader, to shape himself in our culture's image of success. To be sure, the modern pastor does have to "run a church"; he or she is, in fact, the head of an institution that has prosaic institutional needs. I've been thankful when my pastor carries out these institutional responsibilities with efficiency and joy.
But the times I remember most, the times when my troubled soul has been most deeply affected and moved—outside of preaching and receiving the sacraments—have been when my pastor acted like a chaplain. When he pulled me aside in the narthex, put his arm around me, and prayed with me about some matter. When he visited me in the hospital. When in unhurried conversation I felt less alone, because I knew in a deeper way that God was present.
Some say that pastoral moments like these are like germs, and if we let such moments take over, they'll make the church sick. I beg to differ. During such moments, the church is never more healthy.
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