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RELIGION: The difference between a chaplain and a pastor

February 10, 2021 at 5:25 a.m.

There is a qualified difference between a chaplain and a pastor. It has been said that every chaplain must be a pastor, but not every pastor can be a chaplain, and this is true.

During my chaplaincy training, my supervisor emphasized three things necessary to be a chaplain: clinical training, pastoral qualities, and education (CPE). It is vitally important for chaplains to have a "pastor's heart" for ministry, but their training must also include good training and supervision in order to deal with the situations they encounter.

In general, pastors are called to oversee a church and to take care of its members. Their service includes caring for people, performing weddings and conducting funerals, visiting people who are either sick or hurting, and praying for those in need. Although seldom mentioned, there are also the tasks of balancing the church's budget and making sure that more people join the church each year than those who have left. They accomplish this herculean task by working with church members, talking a lot with God (prayer), and preaching the biblical gospel each Sunday. Since pastors are too often underpaid, it also includes an altruistic attitude based upon serving God, not man. I pastored churches 39 years before retiring and relished the role of a pastor in each of the five churches I served.

By way of contrast, chaplains are not allowed to be evangelistic. They must minister to everyone no matter what their situation in life happens to be, and they cannot attempt to lead others into their own particular religious belief system. While pastors tend to lead a rather safe life, chaplains are often called into dangerous situations -- e.g., Arkansas sending its lead Air Corps chaplain to Washington D.C. along with the National Guard troops last January 20th. Too often, they also find themselves in situations that include a variety of difficult people conflicts. Law enforcement chaplains too often are called to minister in the most difficult situations -- you know, when all else fails, let's call the chaplain.

Everyone seems to know what a pastor is and what he or she does, but this is not always the case with chaplains. Since retiring and moving to Bella Vista, I have discovered that at least two people living here have no idea who or what a chaplain is. My first encounter of this lapse of knowledge came as I knocked on a door and introduced myself as a chaplain only to be asked what in the world a chaplain is. It was an interesting encounter.

Most of the time, a law enforcement chaplain's role is simply to be among people and to represent the presence of God. While the chaplain cannot introduce the topic of religion during these times, it does present an opportunity for law enforcement personnel to raise the subject and discuss any religious issue on his or her mind. I have found that most law enforcement personnel feel very comfortable being around a chaplain, and I have always received the highest respect as a chaplain from our military personnel.

Let me share an interesting chaplain story. I was called by a fireman one day to talk to a man who was extremely combative and cursing God. As we sat facing one another across a table, he began in earnest and did a great job of cursing God and insulting anyone connected with him. He confronted me and asked who I was and what I wanted, although not in polite terms.

I looked him straight in the face, and said, "Let's get one thing straight. I'm not here to confront you about God, object to your lousy language, pray with you, or quote the Bible to you; I'm only here for one reason: I want to listen to you and see if there is anything I can do to help you right now!"

He quieted down and we had an interesting conversation. As I was leaving the building, I noticed the man standing in the parking lot talking with a fireman. When he saw me, he called out to me, saying, "Hey, chaplain, I just want to thank you for listening to me when I was upset. No one's ever done that for me before. Thank you."

That's what a chaplain does, although I guess I should confess that when I said we had an "interesting" conversation, that was probably an understatement. Chaplains minister to a lot of different people in all kinds of situations, and we do this because we love God and want to help people.

Oh, in closing, I forgot to mention the fact that sometimes a chaplain is the only voice for God in a difficult situation, and in the spirit of the Old Testament prophet, he or she has to interrupt and boldly declare God's Word.

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Robert Box is the former chaplain for the Bella Vista Police Department and is currently the Fire Department chaplain. Opinions expressed are those of the author.


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