Chaplain Vs. Pastor

Chaplain vs. Pastor – Is There a Difference?

A question that has often been asked of me is—what is the difference between a chaplain and a pastor?  That is a very legitimate question and one that needs to be answered, for many people are under the impression they are one and the same.

Both callings are wonderful callings on a person’s life, and are desperately needed, but they are very different in ministry.  A pastor’s ministry deals mainly with in-reach, or we can say is church-based.  Whereas, a chaplains ministry deals mainly with out-reach, and is community-based.  A simple definition of a chaplain is, “a minister in the workplace.”  In other words, Chaplains have a home church they attend, but their church is actually outside the walls of the church building.  It’s called the community.  Chaplains serve people of all faiths.

I am not saying the church does not do Missions work, for it does great missions work—locally, nationally and internationally.  However, a chaplain at the local and national level has Constitutional protection, whereas a pastor does not.  An ordained chaplain is recognized by the government, whereas an ordained pastor is not because of the separation of church and state issue.

Jesus tells us that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  The government (Caesar) has specified how we are to interact with secular society through the Constitution.  That’s where the chaplain comes in.  He’s a bridge between the secular and the sacred; between the community and the church.  I believe that Nehemiah is a beautiful example of how this works.  By his actions it would be fair to say that he was demonstrating what a chaplain says and does.

When Nehemiah heard about the conditions of the walls around Jerusalem and the people who were there, the first thing he did was weep and then he prayed.  A part of his prayer was that the Lord would grant him favor in the sight of the king.  Nehemiah wanted to go and rebuild the walls, but before he could go, he knew he would first have to get permission from a pagan king.  Finally, when asked by the king what was troubling him, Nehemiah again went to prayer, and then shared with the king the conditions of the walls and his desire to go and rebuild them.

 After listening to Nehemiah, the king asked him, “what do you request from me?”  (talk about an open door).  Again Nehemiah prayed, and then he said, “If it pleases the king may I have letters to the governors of all the regions so they  allow me to safely pass through until I come to Judah . . . also may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the kings forest, so that he must give me all the timber to rebuild the gates.”  The king granted Nehemiah’s request and ultimately the walls and gates were rebuilt, and the people were secure.

The point in this story is this: God used a pagan king (Caesar) to see that His work (the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem) would be accomplished by God’s people.  God used pagan resources for kingdom purposes.  Nehemiah was the bridge God used to see that the work was done.  He not only did God’s work, he did it with the kings blessing and support.  That’s the protection a chaplain has.

 Part of the chaplain’s ministry is to be a bridge between the secular and the sacred.  The Constitution of the United States provides the means by which this can be accomplished without compromising in either direction.  The following explanation provides the means by which this may be accomplished.

 The Supreme Court articulated in Lemon vs. Kurtzman (403, U.S. 602, 1971) a three-prong test which would interpret the constitutionality of ministries or church related services which may be questioned in relationship to church and state issues.  This test is used for determining offense of the establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the government for a redress of grievance.”

Chaplaincy is not in offense to the establishment clause to the First Amendment and is validated under the Constitution in that:

1.  It has a “secular” purpose. A chaplains primarChaplaincyy purpose is secular (crisis intervention) followed with strong spiritual overtones.  The Supreme Court has explained that there can be no animus of religion (animosity against religion) in the design and goal of the program.  However, the court has also made it clear that the presence of religious purpose, being secondary, would not change any established laws and how they are interpreted and practiced.  The court will not validate any legislations or governmental action when a secular purpose is lacking, but it will validate the action if it is proven that the activity is motivated wholly by religious consideration.
  • In Carter vs. Broadlawns Medical Center, a case challenging a hospital chaplaincy program, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the district  court pliancy erred by focusing almost exclusively on the religious purpose, without looking at the complete subject matter, which reveals a valid secular purpose (to help patients get well).  Thus, as long as there is a valid Secular Purpose, there may be religious benefits to the program without violating the Constitution.

2. The government action must not have the primary or principle effect of enhancing or inhibiting religion.  In other words, the government must remain neutral on all matters concerning relief organizations and their involvement in government and/or its agencies.  Its principle effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.  Just because a program that is ran by a religious organization involved in government and its agencies receives an incidental benefit under government policy does not mean it has violated the primary effect.

  • In Carter vs. Broadlawns, the hospital chaplaincy program was challenged on the grounds that it violated the effect test by providing financial aid to enable persons in its care to practice their religions.  While the district court concluded that paying a chaplain to provide religious care is an advancement of religion, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals noted that some financial benefit to religion can be tolerated in applying the effect of the element.

Understand that government or its agencies can hire (pay) chaplains to perform their services.  However, the religious selection result must be done through a religiously neutral process rather than a specific church or religious organization that would restrict the eligibility of the chaplains.

3.  The final action is that the government must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion. The agency cannot enforce exclusion of certain religious guidelines but must open its forum to all religious doctrines.  Nor can the government oversee, inquire, determine or monitor the religious material (what is religious and what is not) and religious doctrine, for it would violate the undue entanglement element.  At the same time the religious element (chaplain) cannot usurp the authority of the agency being served and remain under the covering of the Establishment Clause.

Chaplains must be careful to avoid implications of the first amendment establishment clause.  It is in the best interest of the chaplain to understand the ramification of this finding and be able to articulate involving the ministry being endorsed by or sponsored by a government agency.

Chaplaincy Ministry is distinct from Pastoral Ministry in that a Chaplain is a spiritually called servant attached to and in support of a group or entity whose primary mission is not spiritual.  Chaplains therefore have access to the community in ways that many Pastors do not.  There are significant differences between an ordained pastor and an ordained chaplain.

Pastoral Ministry

  • Minimal training for Crisis Ministry
  • The pressures of political correctness
  • No crime scene training needed
  • Often untrained & inexperienced in dealing with trauma settings & traumatized people
  • Accustomed to talking & counseling more in a primary minister mode
  • Often the focus of attention as people come to hear or interact directly with the “minister”
  • Individualized Ministry
  • Primary leader & pace setter for the ministry
  • Less crisis oriented
  • Expected to stand for faith.  Trained to authoritatively & to impose beliefs in love
  • Unity in ministry team
  • Unique stresses
  • Congregational demands


  • Training and experience for Crisis Ministry
  • Trained to deal with crime scene protocols
  • Trained to deal with trauma scenes & settings, & helping traumatized
  • Usually functioning in a supportive listener role more than a verbal advisor
  • Often a background, secondary or subordinate servant role under others authority
  • Team Ministry: one of many equals
  • Subordinate & support servant role to other authorities
  • Often crisis driven ministry
  • More careful about imposition of beliefs & often to earn the right to be heard
  • Potential religious diversity in chaplaincy team
  • Unique stresses
  • The pressures of political correctness

Pastors and chaplains are not in competition with one another.  Instead, they complement one another.  Again, a chaplain is a bridge between the secular and the sacred.  Chaplains hope to minister to people who perhaps have never stepped foot inside of a church, or at least haven’t for quite some time.  As they have the opportunity to meet the person where they are, love on them and do good for them, they hope to encourage them to get plugged into the church.  Chaplains can also be better “help workers” within their churches and better able to assist the pastor in ministering to the body.

I thank God for the pastors and I thank God for the chaplains.  Two unique callings, both with the desire to serve and honor God by serving and ministering to God’s creation.


Chaplain Steve

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