A little over a year ago, I made the distinction – in a sermon – between congregations that desire a congregational pastor and those that actually desire a chaplain. I believe I suggested (or at least hinted at the possibility) that many congregations actually want chaplains rather than pastors (but usually don’t/won’t/can’t admit it). I’ve had a number off conversations with friends and colleagues recently concerning that distinction, and have been asked to unpack it a bit, so here it goes…
The distinction I made was this: chaplains are, as a general rule, people who minister to people in short-term or limited settings and situations – providing religious care and services to individuals in crisis and/or helping support them through specific periods of life. You find chaplains in hospitals, schools, prisons, camps, etc.
Congregational pastors, on the other hand, engage with people in long-term settings and situations equipping them to be disciples and facilitating their ongoing participation in the life and ministry of a local congregation.
Obviously, there is a certain amount of overlap between the two (especially in military and collegiate settings); nonetheless, their ministries have a vastly different scope and focus (and – although this is a different conversation – require quite different gifts).
Let me be clear before I go any further: both chaplains and ministers are important. This is not a question of quality or significance. It is a question of context and emphasis.
Obviously, it would be deeply inappropriate for a Hospice chaplain to focus on long-term discipleship goals and congregational involvement while ignoring the reality of impending death. Similarly, a congregational pastor would be out-of-line limiting his/her ministry to providing religious services to the congregation s/he serves. Having said that, the former situation is seldom a problem; the latter, on the other hand, seems remarkably common.
Why is that?
It’s simple: we live in a world where congregations have become – all too often – providers of religious services rather than contexts of congregational ministry and discipleship.
How does one tell the difference? That’s simple too; all one needs to do is ask “who does the ministry?”
In a chaplaincy setting, the ministry is mostly done by the chaplain for/to the individuals involved. In a healthy congregation, the ministry is mostly done by the individuals involved for/to one another and the surrounding community.
Chaplains are primarily called to minister to people; congregational pastors are primarily called to facilitate the ministry of people. (Of course, the lines can be blurry at times, nonetheless, the distinction is an important one.)
Again, let me be clear: both chaplains and ministers are important. This is not a question of quality or significance. It is a question of context and emphasis.
Why does this matter?
Again, another simple answer: it matters because a congregational success requires a communal commitment to congregational engagement.
A minister can sometimes do a reasonable job chaplaining a congregation (caring for them in moments of crisis and provide limited religious services) but s/he cannot be the church on their behalf.
Having said all of that, let me offer a few observations: I’ve observed that congregations who have a congregational ministry (equipped by a pastor) are almost universally excited about faith, ministry, future, and potential. Conversely congregations based on chaplaincy-type ministry are almost universally unhappy with their numbers, care, fellowship, finances, and worried about the future. The problem is, it is practically impossible to convince the latter that they will indeed be happier and more fulfilled in the former because they (rightly) recognize that it requires a higher level of commitment (and often, sacrifice). Similarly, until they actually experience true congregational ministry it is equally as impossible to convince them it’s worth it.
Here’s my question: Since it’s practically impossible to convince people that being the church is actually so much better than merely being the recipients of religious services, how do we (ministers, elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers, and other leaders) help give our congregations “mini-experiences” (foretastes) of real church so that they’ll begin to recognize how wonderful it could be?
Grace and peace,