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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.

SoulWork
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Galli is editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, Chaos and Grace, A Great and Terrible Love, Jesus Mean and Wild, Francis of Assisi and His World, and other books.
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Why We Need More 'Chaplains' and Fewer Leaders