For several years, first as a volunteer then for pay, I had the joy of serving as a hospital chaplain. I remember spending time with parents who had lost a child. The pain was palpable for them, but I was able to sit by their side to listen and to pray. I remember being on duty in the Emergency Room when victims of horrific accidents would come in and loved ones would be caught in a vortex of emotion. I tried to be an anchor for them in their anguish, lest despair swallow them whole. I remember making rounds on a hospital floor, sitting in on team meetings that included physicians, nurses and physical therapists as we together shared insights and tried to address the needs of the whole person. I made notes on charts that reflected my time with patients and contributed observations. I remember sitting with the elderly in a long-term rehabilitation facility as they related fascinating stories of history I had only read about. I also recall the loneliness in so many as all their friends had already died and family had abandoned them. I tried to bless them by respecting them and valuing what they had to say.
In all these, I tried to be the face and feet and hands and voice of Christ.
I remember conducting weekly chapel services, some that would be attended only by a handful (if that) of people. Yet, I cherished the opportunity to open the Scriptures and bring the comfort of Christ to bear to those whom the Spirit had brought. I never thought it a lesser thing to prepare for those few than to prepare for many.
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.
But a pastor is different from a chaplain. True, a pastor cares for the flock in their distress in much the same way as does the chaplain. But a pastor has a greater responsibility, a broader charge, a more functional purpose.
The Apostle Paul explains the pastoral role in his letter to the church at Ephesus. There we are told that Christ “gave pastors-teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” The job of the pastor (a translation of the word “shepherd”) is to educate, equip and engage the people of God in the mission given Christ for His church in this world.
In this sense the pastor is more akin to a military captain than a chaplain, or perhaps a sergeant better captures the concept. The church exists in this world on a mission. The local church is an instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit to lead the flock in the praise of Jesus, to edify and equip them in service to Jesus, and to seek to bring Christ’s sheep into the fold through the witness of the gospel.
All this is to say, the chaplain works in an institution for the care of people in the distresses of this fallen world. The pastor does that as well, but not merely to provide solace. The pastor cares for the flock with an eye to leading them into (or, back into) the spiritual fray for the sake of the kingdom of God.
In this war-torn world, Christ’s sheep clamor for comfort. Understandably so. To be sure, the consolation of Christ is theirs. The God of all comfort does comfort them with the balm of Gilead. The fears of life are met with the peace of Christ the world has no right to (John 14:27) and with the assurance of the sustaining presence of their faithful God and Father (Isaiah 41:9-10). But, comfort is not the whole of the pastor’s discharge. It cannot be the whole.
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. It is the job of the pastor to see that this is done.