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How Different Are the Roles of Ministers, Pastors, Priests, Reverends, Rectors, Parsons, Vicars, and Chaplains?

Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.



Technically pastors, priests, reverends, rectors, parsons, vicars, and chaplains are all ministers of some religious tradition. Their affiliation and office within that tradition determine their specific roles.


In Latin, the word minister means servant. So, a minister serves others. Ecclesiastically-speaking, a minister is given authority by her/ his denomination to perform religious worship and other rites of the church such as administering the sacraments, officiating weddings, baptisms, and funerals. According to the article “What Does Minister Mean?” from the website, the word itself originated between 1250 and 1300.

Roles or Functions of Ministers

- For the typical Christian church, ministers plan and preach sermons every Sunday of the month. This requires researching the Bible, and other sacred and secular texts to create sermons that would address today’s parishioners.

- Ministers help their congregants (individuals and families) deal with whatever trauma or tribulation they are encountering in their lives through counseling.

- Ministers visit the sick, the homebound, and the incarcerated members of their congregation.

- Ministers teach the theology, rites, traditions, and ethics of their particular denomination.

- Ministers guide church members in their quest to lead spiritual or moral lives.

- Ministers perform administrative duties such as attend meetings, create and/ or oversee events, and appoint, hire, train, and supervise staff.

- Be an example of what it is to live a decent and moral lifestyle.

- Ministers should also spend time in theological study, prayer, and contemplation.

Types of Ministers

There are ministers who are licensed and not ordained, and ministers who are ordained. The requirements of each depend on their religious affiliation. In some, licensing is a crucial part of the ordination process. Candidates for ordination (seminary students) must procure a license in order to serve as minister in their probationary period. Other denominations might license lay people, who have appropriate ministerial education to serve a particular congregation such as, one in a geographic region where finding ordained clergy is difficult.

In certain denominations, ordained ministers can deliver the sacraments, and conduct ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, etc. The licensed minister is only permitted to preach. Other traditions may permit the licensed minister to perform weddings, but only in his/ her assigned church.

Once a person becomes an ordained minister, they hold the title forever, so-to-speak. But a licensed minister’s credentials must be renewed after a certain period. Regarding education, in many religious traditions, an ordained minister is required to hold a Masters of Divinity degree. A licensed minister may be required to take a number of seminarian courses.

Easter Altar, United Church of Christ, Milford, CT

Easter Altar, United Church of Christ, Milford, CT


The word pastor is defined as one who tends to or watches over the flock, meaning congregation. A pastor is akin to a shepherd, and is often described as spiritual leader of a congregation or church; a minister who oversees a church; or a clergyperson who teaches Christianity to a congregation. The word itself originated from the Middle English word ‘pastour,’ which stemmed from Anglo-French word ‘pastur,’ which in turn derived from the Latin ‘pastorem.’ Its first use, as stated in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, was in the 14th century.

Roles or Functions of Pastors

Once again, the specific roles or functions pastors perform depend on the religious tradition and congregation they serve. Since a pastor is a minister, she/ he takes on the same general roles.

- Prepare and preach sermons.

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- Counsel members of the congregation.

- Visit the sick, the homebound, and the incarcerated.

- Teach the word of God, rites, traditions, and ethics of their particular religion.

- Encourage church members to lead Christian and moral lives as dictated by God and their religious tradition.

- Perform administrative duties.

- Be an example of what it is to be a good Christian: living a righteous and moral lifestyle.

- Spend time in theological study, prayer, and contemplation.

Types of Pastors

Depending on the denomination, you may have full-time pastors and interim pastors. And as in the United Church of Christ, you may have different kinds of interim pastors. A full-time pastor is distinguishable from an interim pastor by number of work hours and the main duty of the interim.

A full-time pastor generally works 40 hours per week. An interim may work less. An interim’s main function is to carefully prepare and guide the church through the usually fragile transition period toward calling a new full-time pastor.

Depending on the size of the church as well as the tradition, a church could also call or employ the following types of pastors:

- Senior pastor. This minister provides leadership for the entire church, including pastors with lower titles that are part of staff; hire and fire staff; do most of the preaching; develop and oversee programs to help the church succeed at what it feels God is calling it to do.

- Associate or assistant pastor or pastors: aids the senior pastor in accomplishing her/ his duties and takes over if the senior pastor is sick, on vacation, or temporarily unavailable.

- Worship pastor: takes care of the church’s music ministry.

- Pastoral Counseling: works with members dealing with emotional and other issues.

- Youth pastor: teaches, counsels, and develops programs for the youth (age 13 plus) of the church, including retreats and camps.

- Children’s pastor: teaches and prepares programs and activities for children 12 and under. Their job may also include working with entire families, especially those with issues such as, parents of children with physical or emotional disabilities.

- A church can also have prayer pastors to handle prayers of the church; pastors for men; pastors for women; pastors whose sole job is to visit the sick, the homebound, and get involved in communities of need that are outside the church.

Priests in Rome

Priests in Rome


A priest is the same as a minister or pastor with the authorization to lead, officiate, and guide in an ecclesiastical capacity. The term, priest originated in the first or second centuries, according to the website It came from the Greek word ‘presbyteros’ or ‘presbuteros,’ which derived from the Latin word ‘presbyter,’ meaning ‘elder.’

In ancient times, only members of certain families and heads of royalty (kings, princes) could be priests. Today the title is used by the following denominations and religions: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy, The Church of England (Anglicans), some Lutherans, Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Taoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Wicca, and Yoruba. In the Roman Catholic denomination, priests are called Father.

Roles or Functions of Priests

- Just as ministers and pastors, priests prepare and lead the worship services, rites and ceremonies for their parish or congregation.

- Counsel their parishioners who are in need.

- Visit the sick, the homebound, and the incarcerated.

- Teach Biblical principles, rites, traditions, and ethics of their religion.

- Encourage parishioners to live morally and decently as dictated by God and their particular denomination.

- Perform administrative duties.

- Be an example of what it is to be a good Christian: living a righteous and moral lifestyle.

- In the Roman Catholic Church, a priest also has the authority to administer the sacrament of reconciliation (hear parishioners’ confession of sins and provide penance or absolution).

- Spend time in theological study, prayer, and contemplation.

Monks in Thailand

Monks in Thailand

Types of Priests

Since specialization is more pronounced among Roman Catholics, my list will lean towards that denomination.

- Jesuits. They are ordained members of the religious order, Society of Jesus, which was founded in 1534 by former knight St. Ignatius De Loyola. They focus on advocating for social justice across the world, and on education. They are nicknamed “God’s Marines.”

- Monks. They reside in self-sufficient communities such as monasteries, and can be ordained priests.

- Friars. They belong to Mendicant Christian Orders, and can be ordained priests. They take vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity, and are supported by donations as well as from the work they do among the laity. There are four subsets of friars: Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians (See my hub titled “Difference between the Religious Titles Brother, Friar, Minister, and Monk”).

- Canon. They are priests of the Cathedral Chapter: group of clergy appointed by the bishop to advise him and manage the cathedral or diocese.

- There are also associate and assistant priests. In the Episcopal denomination, associate priests are employed by the parish to help the rector (described later). Assistant priests are usually part of the congregation and volunteer their time.

Church with Cloudburst, New York City

Church with Cloudburst, New York City


Reverend is simply a title given to members of clergy in Christian and some non-Christian traditions such as Buddhism. It is a manner of honor and respect for their religious vocation. The term derived from Middle English via Old French via the Latin word ‘reverendus.’ Evidence dictates that the style of address was first used in the 15th century.

Roles or Functions of Reverends

Since reverend is a style applied to clergy members, those with the title perform duties similar to those mentioned, depending on their denomination and whether or not they are ordained.

Types of Reverends

- Some reverends are ordained and others are not. The word ‘the’ is usually prefixed before reverend, that is, if using the word reverend in reference to a clergy member, you would say, ‘The Reverend’ followed by the individual’s first name, surname, or full name.

- Very Reverend. This is a title or style of respect given to bishops in the Roman Catholic and Anglican denominations. It is used mainly in the UntiedKingdom and its Commonwealth countries.

- Right Reverend. This is another title or style of respect given to bishops in the Roman Catholic and Anglican religious traditions. It carries a little more weight than reverend, and is used mainly in the UntiedKingdom.

- Most Reverend. This style of respect is applied to archbishops, primates or metropolitans (unless their church is independently-run) in the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox religions. All bishops and some monsignors in the Roman Catholic tradition, except in the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth countries, are addressed as the most reverend.

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City

St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City


A rector is a Christian clergy member who is the head of a place of worship, religious household, institution of education, or hospital. A rector could be in charge then of a church, a home/ community of clerics, or a university. The bishop of a diocese can be called a rector. The term originated from Middle English from the Latin word ‘regere’ meaning ‘to direct.’ Its first use was determined to be in the 14th century.

In the United Kingdom and Canada Anglicans, the Church of Ireland, and the Scottish Episcopalians call most of their parish priests, rectors. In the Episcopal Church in the United States, a priest who is elected to head a financially-independent church is called a rector. This information comes from the article “Rector (ecclesiastical)” from

Roles or Functions of Rectors

- Rectors’ main function is to preside over, guide, and manage the institution they are in charge of.

- As priests or pastors, they perform duties similar to those already mentioned.

Types of Rectors

As noted there are rectors who preside over parishes, rectors who preside over educational institutions, and rectors who preside over hospitals.


Parson is a term associated more with Christian clergy in the United Kingdom. The term originated in the first half of the 1200s. It originally applied to parish priests whose religious office (“ecclesiastical benefice”) or church was supported strictly by endowments and therefore, operated independently of the larger ecclesiastical body. It is somewhat similar to a rector or vicar (described later), depending on the appropriation of tithes. Today it is applied in much the same way in some Protestant denominations. The term stems from the Middle English word ‘persone’ via the Latin word ‘persona.’

Roles or Functions of Parsons

Since parsons are authorized ministers, they perform the same functions as ministers or pastors, and rectors.

Types of Parsons

There are no specific types. Parsons may live in their church-owned homes, called parsonages.

Coat of Arms of former Italian Seminary, Madonna di Campagna, Verbania0Pallanza, Italy

Coat of Arms of former Italian Seminary, Madonna di Campagna, Verbania0Pallanza, Italy


Vicars are Christian clergy in the Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions. The term was first used in the 14th century. It derived from Middle English via Anglo-French via the Latin word ‘vicarious.’ It means to act vicariously, to substitute, or represent. Vicars, therefore, substitute for or act on behalf of the priests, bishops, rectors, and parsons of a parish or diocese.

The term vicar was first used to distinguish between two ecclesial positions of clergy, one who received or was in charge of all the tithes of an independent, self-supporting church, and the other, who received only a stipend from the former or the larger denominational body.

Roles or Functions of Vicars

Vicars are ministers, pastors, or priests in their various faith traditions. So in general, they perform the functions previously mentioned for those titles.

- In the Roman Catholic Church, a vicar can be the representative of any ecclesial position or serve on behalf of another priest, bishop, archbishop, etc. The pope himself is called Vicarious Christi or Vicar of Christ because he acts on behalf of Jesus Christ and God.

- In the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches, a vicar may be the pastor’s assistant or in charge of a particular mission. Lutheran seminarians preparing for ordination are also termed vicars.

- In the Anglican Church, especially in the United Kingdom, all priests are termed vicars.

- In the Eastern Orthodoxy, the bishop of a diocese is called a vicar.

Types of Vicars

In the Roman Catholic denomination, the term Vicar General may be applied to a priest, usually 30 years plus in age, who is appointed by a bishop to act as liaison between him and the congregations under his charge.


A chaplain is a member of clergy who ministers as a spiritual advisor in institutions outside of the church. The term came from the Middle English word ‘chapelain,’ which came from the Latin word ‘cappellanus.’ It has been used since the 1100s. Though those terms are synonymous with priest, chaplains are not necessarily Christian.

Chaplains may or may not be ordained, licensed, or appointed by a denomination. There is even a 24/ 7 online group called Chaplains on Hand, consisting of members of various faith traditions to assist you with any problem.

Roles or Functions of Chaplains

- The main duty of a chaplain, I would say, is to provide for the spiritual and emotional needs of people in the secular institutions they serve.

- Depending on their faith tradition, some chaplains can perform weddings, baptisms, conduct funerals, serve communion, and/ or preach.

Types of Chaplains

- Hospital chaplains. They work with the infirmed and their families, providing comfort, assisting in decisions of life and death, and sometimes acting as advocates.

- Hospice chaplains. They provide care and comfort to people in the latter stages of their lives and their families. They may even perform the last rites.

- Nursing Home chaplains. Usually, these residents are unable to travel, so chaplains will conduct worship service in a public space in the home or in the resident’s room. They also serve residents and their families in other capacities.

- Military chaplains. They provide spiritual guidance and support to members of the military, regardless of branch, and their families. They will be stationed with the enlisted during times of conflict, but will not take up arms or fight.

- Prison chaplains. They work with inmates, who want to know God or become more spiritually-minded. They may also work with the inmates’ families.

- University or college chaplains. Offer spiritual support, guidance, and perhaps education to students and faculty.

- Chaplains of sports teams. Provide spiritual guidance to team members and others associated with the teams, especially before a game.


Beverley Byer (author) from United States of America on July 18, 2019:

Tim, I appreciate your support! Thanks!

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on July 17, 2019:

Great article. I enjoyed reading this well written piece on the descriptions of different types of leaders in Christian churches. Thanks.

Beverley Byer (author) from United States of America on June 27, 2015:

serenitymiller, you are very welcome. Glad you gleaned something from my article.

Serenity Miller from Brookings, SD on June 26, 2015:

Very informative breakdown - thanks for sharing! It can be terribly confusing to figure out which title goes with which level of responsibility and which requirements are needed, especially as a prospective ministry student. This is a good overview of the distinctions.

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