Leadership As Chaplaincy

About a month ago I read an article by Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, called “Why We Need More ‘Chaplains’ and Fewer Leaders.” It was one of Galli’s regular Soulwork columns, published by CT as a web-only feature. As soon as I read the piece, I knew it would someday find its way into one of my blog posts. That day is today.

I was, first of all, intrigued by the article’s title. Not many evangelical writers would dare to suggest that the church needs fewer leaders these days, especially if the alternative is an increase in “chaplains.” By placing that word in quotation marks, however, Galli makes clear that he has in mind a ministry style more than a specific ministry role.

Like most people influenced by the army of leadership consultants and management experts “serving” the evangelical church community these days, I had developed a negative view of the term “chaplain.” The literature in this field generally uses the term pejoratively, a way of describing a ministry style which focuses more on maintaining the status quo than on casting vision or launching new enterprises. That is the way I have used the term when I have said, to people who inquire about my vision for planting a new church, “God has not called me to be a chaplain to disgruntled ex-Episcopalians.”

Galli’s article, like a splash of cold water, caught my attention and refocused my thinking. It caused me to repent of my earlier attitude toward the term “chaplain.” As Galli notes, attaching negative connotation to the term denigrates those who serve in the vital role of chaplain… in hospitals, nursing homes, colleges, and the military. Moreover, it implies that today’s church leaders should aspire to be charismatic visionaries and entrepreneurial motivators rather than pastors and priests whose primary ministry is what used to be called the “cure (or care) of souls.”

Galli writes,

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. … 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.

I have served as a local church pastor, and, if God brings the new St. Patrick’s Church into existence, I will serve in that role again. I have reflected on my experience as a pastor, and the way I understood my job at that time, as I have considered what sort of leader I aspire to be in the future. Galli’s article helped crystallize some of the ideas that had been taking shape in my mind for a while. I have determined that I am not a charismatic entrepreneur, and I do not wish to be one. Further, I do not know the implications of that admission for the work I want to do in the Grandview/OSU area.

This I do know. I believe the primary work of a pastor is spiritual formation, the cultivation and development of Christlikeness, first in himself (or herself) and then in the people among whom he has the privilege to serve. This, I think, is how Mark Galli defines the term “chaplain” in the title of his article. I base that conclusion on statements like these.

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.

That is what I aspire to be and to do. I want to be a “servant-leader” whose primary concern is to assist men and women, boys and girls, to become more like Jesus.

For that reason, I need to admit something else that might rankle my readers who are also members of the Anglican communion, my newly-adopted church home. Where Evangelicals call the main leader in their churches the “pastor,” Anglicans prefer the term “rector.” I don’t like that word.

The word “pastor” comes from a Latin root which has to do with things related to shepherds and sheep herding. Its Christian usage connotes one who is a spiritual guide and a “shepherd of souls.” The word “rector,” on the other hand, derives from the Latin root which means ruler or governor. In my mind, the image of a rector is one who runs a church while that of a pastor is one who serves a church. I prefer the latter image, even as I prefer the role of servant to ruler.

Many times over the years I have heard people describe the main leader of their church something like this: “Rev. So-and-so is a great preacher (or administrator or motivator or something else), but he’s not much of a pastor.”  In my mind, that is like saying that a butcher is a great conversationalist or sports fan or investment counselor, but he’s not much of a meat cutter.

Mark Galli writes,

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.

May God forgive me for ever speaking ill of chaplains. By His grace, that is precisely the kind of pastor I want to be.


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