Reexamining Ministry Titles

Words Matter II: Why Use Secular Titles for Sacred Work?

In the course of my research, I studied the staff listings of about 400 congregations.  In the vast majority of churches studied it was very easy — indeed painfully easy — to tell who was ordained and who was not by their job titles.  Most commonly the title pastor is reserved for the clergy.  Lay staff are distinguished by the secular nature of their job titles.  They are directors or coordinators or administrators.  A clergy person responsible for administration is called executive pastor while a lay person with the same responsibilities is called the business administrator.  A clergy person responsible youth leadership is called the youth pastor or youth minister while a lay person with the same role is called the youth director.

This approach raises the question, “why use secular titles for sacred work?”  A small fraction of the churches studied have chosen to use the titles pastor and minister more inclusively – for a clergy person or a lay person – if that individual’s job is to pastor or minister.  The title describes the person’s function rather than their status.

During my formative years as a Christian adult, the lead clergyperson in my church had a wonderful way of referring to himself.  “I’m one of the ministers of the church,” he would always say as a group went around the table with introductions.  His refusal to assert the title Senior Pastor was a deliberate effort to level the playing field, to elevate the rest of us, and to take our ministries seriously.

I invite congregations employing lay persons in ministry to communicate their openness to the ministry of all Christians by reexamining their system of job titles in a way that affirms the sacred work of their lay ministers and is precise about responsibilities and expectations.  When it is necessary to specify the status of those who are licensed, commissioned, or ordained, it is probably more precise to use the words “clergy” or “ordained,” which have specific meanings in the discipline, than pastor or minister.

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4 Responses to Reexamining Ministry Titles

  1. Dan Moseler says:

    Interesting observation, but misses one key factor. In the large church I formerly attended, we tried for a while to use the title pastor for a number of the key lay staff members in leadership positions. When the Conference became aware, we received clear direction that the title pastor should not be used for any lay staff member. I doubt our experience was unique in the denomination.

  2. I am very interested to hear that, but not surprised. I did find UM Churches in my research that use the titles of minister and pastor for some of their lay staff — although they are certainly a minority. My impression — and it’s only an impressions — is that many of them are newer churches that have intentionally modeled themselves after non-denominational churches in a variety of ways, this being one.

    • Dan Moseler says:

      This was a church with roots in the 1920s that was growing in the late 1990s and transitioning to multi-site ministry in the 2000-2006 period. We looked hard at UM and other churches (e.g., St. Luke’s, Willow Creek, Ginghamsburg, Saddleback, etc.) to try to avoid re-inventing wheels. It was a visible demotivator when those who had earned the title had to lay it aside.

  3. Gene Ramsey says:

    If your goal is “to level the playing field, to elevate the rest of us, and to take [all] ministries seriously” as being equal in nature, why even bother to use the terms clergy and laity? On the other hand, if you think that there is a difference between the two important enough to distinguish by those terms, then it seems to me that it would likewise be appropriate to make such a distinction in the titles used for their roles in the church as well.

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