Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pastor to some, chaplain to all. . .

While reading over at First Things' On the Square, I encountered a phrase with which military chaplains resonate but which is also applicable to the ordinary duties of a parish pastor.  We chaplains have an expression we invoke about ourselves, and it is, “We are pastor to some, chaplain to all.”

I have a pastoral relationship and responsibility to those within my parish, by whom I have been called and to whom I have been called.  But every pastor knows that there are others of the same denomination who are not members of your parish but whom you see in the hospital, at weddings, for counseling, etc..  I am not necessarily their pastor but I serve them as, well, a chaplain.  In the same way, there are civic responsibilities which fall to me because I am the pastor of this parish within this community.  I am not pastor to these people, or to the neighborhood, or to the community and its agencies, but I am, for lack of a better term, chaplain to these folks.

Let me be perfectly clear here.  I have a different relationship with those whom I serve within this parish than I do those outside the parish (here I am speaking not simply of those on the membership list as within the parish but the regular attenders who may not be "official" members).  As Lutherans within this parish, we have a doctrinal standard and confession that governs everything we are and do, especially me and my role as pastor to these people.  But I also understand that when I function as "chaplain" outside the parish community, these people may not even know, much less agree, with the doctrinal and confessional identity that binds me to that church in which I was ordained and the parish to the Synod.  As such, the relationship is distinctly different.

I do not become "Methodist" when I serve as a "chaplain" to a Methodist in some particular situation (say, a person in the next bed of a hospital room who requests me to pray for them as well as the member of my parish in the same room).  Neither does that person become "Lutheran" because I pray with that person.  The rules that govern what a Lutheran can do as "chaplain" in such circumstances are not written out to meet every possible situation.  Sometimes we must make them up as we go along.  But this does not mean we are free to sacrifice the integrity of our confession or our relationship to the parish and Synod in order to meet the expectations of those who come to us as "chaplains."

Once I was sure that the military chaplain faced a significantly different landscape than a Lutheran serving in a parish as pastor but now I am not so sure.  The neat little dividing lines between pastoral and chaplain roles are not so easy to discern nor are they are set in stone as they once were.  Instead, we find ourselves interpreting the rules to fit circumstances and situations that our forefathers may never have envisioned.  It would seem salutary then that we keep the distinctions clear and that we operate with the fullest measure of integrity when we serve as "chaplains" as well as parish pastors.  I am not at all suggesting that each of us do what seems right in our own eyes.  There must be a measure of consistency for our confessional integrity to matter at all but there must also be a measure of trust in the decisions of those who act as "chaplains" to those they are not "pastors".

It would seem that there are pastors who feel a great deal of uncertainty and are uncomfortable serving as "chaplains" outside the confines of the parish and the more clearly defined responsibilities of pastor to his people.  It would also seem that there are "chaplains" who prefer the venue of serving outside the parish and for whom their pastoral relationship and responsibilities are less comfortable.  To put it bluntly, some of us Lutherans want to be pastors to all people and some of us want to be chaplains to none.

While I readily affirm that the primary and central relationship and responsibility is the one defined by my call to the people who called me, I am also conscious of the blurring of these lines in a world where formal parish membership is a lower priority and where circumstances and situations exist for whom none of the previous rules may apply.  It is going to get worse before it gets better.

In a church body like the Missouri Synod in which these roles are formally distinguished and differentiated, we find ourselves increasingly pressed to act like pastors to those with whom we have no formal pastoral relationship and to be chaplains where our forefathers never dreamed a Lutheran pastor might be asked to go.  The stress of this is shown on a national level as some refuse to trust the judgment of others and others refuse to distinguish any difference between what they do as "chaplains" from what they do as "pastors".  It is also shown on the local level as congregations find this pastor may not do what another pastor does as chaplain in the community.

I have no solution here but I would suggest that confessional integrity has to come first or there can be no trust in the pastoral judgment and discretion of the individual finding his way through the maze created by pastors asked more and more to serve as chaplains outside the parish community.  I also know that as long as clergy act with integrity but come to differing answers with respect to their role as chaplains in the community, our unity and harmony as a Synod will be tested.


John said...

Rev. Peters,

Are you saying that while you have been called to shepherd a particular flock, you have also been called to be a chaplain to the community at large? If so, where is the line drawn, and who draws the line? Who keeps the waters from being muddied for your flock?

Are you saying that a called pastor of a congregation, in the event of a disaster, is free to act as chaplain to the community at large by participating in a prayer service at a stadium in that community?

Pastor Peters said...

No, you did not read what I said. What I said is that the military chaplains of our church body deal with these fine lines of distinction between those whom they are pastor and those to whom they are chaplain. We can learn from them. A chaplain is not a called position but a relationship. When the woman in the next hospital bed asks you to pray with her when you are visiting your member there, you have two roles - one as pastor to your member and "chaplain" to that person. The same rules do not apply to both relationships. Everyone knows this is a hard knot to sort out in this day and age. All I was saying is that military chaplains do this as part of their "living" and perhaps we could learn from them. I am not, by the way, presuming to place this distinction upon events in the past but simply wondering if the strictures of the military chaplain's vocation might help us sort through the often confused and confusing path Pastors face as they find themselves where they have not been called but still play some sort of role.

Janis Williams said...

Do you suppose the times past in which parishioners called their pastors, "father" and non-parisioners called them, "reverend" would help sort it out? At least for those on the other side of the collar?

The public role of the minister is a whole 'nother animal. The private roles of pastor and chaplain seem to me (in this case) akin to the situation of a non-ordained person being asked to baptize. It is a ministration (not ministry) given when called for. Called for by the person in need, not given willy-nilly to any and everyone.