A chaplain is a pastor, that is to say, a shepherd. Not always of a parish congregation, mind you, but always of a flock of spiritual sheep. The responsibilities of a chaplain-pastor are usually broader than normal parish ministry. He will work more on clergy teams; advise religiously vague staff; start from zero, spiritually speaking, in most counseling situations; must endure (military) intense physical activity; may lead several chapel programs; serve in war
For over 30 years I served as An Army Chaplain, both in the Reserve Components and on Active Duty. During 16 of those years I was also a youth pastor, parish pastor and church planter. I had been told in college I was ineligible for the military due to a “back problem” so I was “Sovereignly Surprised” when God opened up the door to put on an American military uniform.
Those 30+ years were full of ministry opportunities I never anticipated: Advising a commander on religious issues for his unit; intense counseling with troops who never graced a church; mixing it up with all kinds of people from the community who make up our Reserve Forces; leading worship with people who were not regular church-goers; leading faithful Christians enjoying the worship respite from the intense training; enjoying the informal conversations and counseling as I roamed motor pools, hospital wards, desert outposts, rifle ranges, and crammed office cubicles; learning practical management skills as I attended Army training schools and conferences; and spending time in the great outdoors decked out in the latest military camo.
When I was selected for Active Duty and left parish ministry, I had no idea what influential positions were in store for me after 9/11…as I became responsible to train others for years of war. In all this, I pursued my ordination vows and endeavored to be an Ambassador for Christ in my Teaching Elder roles (chaplain-pastor and parish-pastor).
The Chaplaincy in America is very diverse. You can find chaplains in hospice ministry, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons jails, and within institutions like the police, fire, sports teams, NASCAR, Civil Air Patrol, motorcycle, trucking, railroad, airport, business or the military. In every case, they look for people with whom the Gospel of Christ can be shared. The opportunities are endless and they can be one-on-one, a small group or a large chapel community. The broad mission of a chaplain can be summed, as the military puts it, “Nurture the living; Care for the wounded; and Honor the dead.”
As another pastor and chaplain said, “That’s the life of a chaplain. My aim was to provide human companionship and spiritual focus. I loved to meet people at the point of need with the Jesus of the gospel, the One who held strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow—for all who would trust in Him.”1
A chaplain is a pastor, that is to say, a shepherd. Not always of a parish congregation, mind you, but always of a flock of spiritual sheep. The responsibilities of a chaplain-pastor are usually broader than normal parish ministry. He will work more on clergy teams; advise religiously vague staff; start from zero, spiritually speaking, in most counseling situations; must endure (military) intense physical activity; may lead several chapel programs; serve in war; facilitate a variety of briefs to troops and staff; prepare retreats of all kinds; serve a constantly changing flock; and will hardy ever have quality time to prepare sermons.
Another unique difference between a parish-pastor and chaplain-pastor is that the chaplain normally works in a diverse, pluralistic environment. This challenging setting can stretch an ordained man to his limits of organizational, political, and doctrinal skill. There is no Session, church membership or close-by presbytery to guide his efforts. The chaplain-pastor has to navigate a minefield of religious diversity, the responsibility of which is deep and wide at the same time. And then, many do it all far from his family’s roots.
Jesus gave all pastors their marching orders for the Church Militant in Mt. 28:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Wherever a Teaching Elder serves he strives to share the Gospel, disciple believers, and encourage the gathered flock.
Following the example of Acts 2, chaplains try to put a “Day of Pentecost” flavor to their work: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Such is the life of a parish-pastor or chaplain-pastor.
All this is to say, chaplain and parish pastors work to promote the Kingdom of God, and then, once people enter it they are encouraged to make a difference in a needy world. The pastor and chaplains role is to find, comfort, lead, disciple, feed, and protect God’s sheep. As another has so ably said:
“As part of Christ’s church, the sheep must expect to labor for the kingdom, to contend for the gospel, to suffer rejection in a field of battle that opposes them as it opposes Christ. As members of the Church Militant the sheep must live in wartime mentality until their Lord discharges them to the heavenly glory of the Church Triumphant.”2
It is the job of the Teaching Elder, wherever he serves, to see that this is done.
1. Stan Gale blog, Aquila Report, July 7, 2013; http://theaquilareport.com/pastor-versuschaplain/
Douglas E. Lee is a PCA Teaching Elder and retired Army chaplain of 30+ years. He attained the rank of Brigadier General and now serves as the Executive Director of the Presbyterian and Reformed Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel (PRCC), which includes the PCA and 6 other likeminded denominations. The PRCC endorses over 300 military and civilian chaplains.