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No, this is not the start of a joke about a bunch of people walking into a bar. Rather, I thought it would be helpful to clarify various titles that people give to leadership roles in churches.

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Related (but not identical): english.stackexchange.com/q/26651/1696 –  TRiG Oct 25 '12 at 17:43
    
"What is the difference between a pastor, a priest, and a minister?" Semantics. –  Pat Ferguson Aug 23 '13 at 19:24
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The only real difference is what the bartender says to them. –  fredsbend Sep 8 '13 at 0:58

4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Catholic version

Priest The biblical order of presbyters. One who conducts sacrifices

  • Vicar, a priest who is the bishop's helper
  • Dean (arch-priest) a priest who is designated by the bishop to oversee a number of parishes
  • Monsignor, a title given by a Bishop to an exemplary priest.

Pastor The priest who is in charge or a parish, he may have associate pastors - recently ordained priests start as associate pastors.

Minister Ordinary ministers are the bishops, priests and deacons who administer the sacraments to the faithful. Extraordinary ministers are laypersons appointed by the priest to help in the administration of the sacraments.

Chaplain An ordained person whose vocation is specific to their task (i.e. hospital chaplain, military chaplain etc..) not to a parish.

Preacher Not a specifically Catholic term.

Reverend A title given to any priest deacon or bishop (to varying degrees)

Deacon An ordained person in the order below priests. Deacons cannot celebrate Mass or administer the sacrament of reconciliation (strictly speaking, they can hear your confession - but they can't do anything about it). Deacons come in two flavors. The permanent deaconate (people ordained specifically as helpers to the priests) and transitional deconate (seminarians ordained a few years before their eventual ordination to the priesthood)

Elder Not a specifically Catholic term.

Bishop The successors of the apostles who oversee their diocese or bishopric (in the Eastern Catholic churches). Together with the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, they are the top of the Catholic hierarchy. They are the ones who can confirm with the Holy Spirit (or appoint priests to do so in their stead) and only they can ordain priests.

  • Primate the Bishop of the first diocese in a nation (the primate of the U.S. is the archbishop of the diocese of Baltimore)
  • Archbishop a bishop of a larger diocese
  • Cardinal a title, given by the pope generally to a bishop to serve as an elector of the next pope.
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If anyone knows exactly what a rector is/does, please edit it in there. I don't think the Catholic encyclopedia entry jibes with the modern definition, which seems to be just, the priest who lives in the rectory. –  Peter Turner Jan 25 '12 at 19:29
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In an episcopal church, a priest is either a rector (called by the church) or a vicar (called by the bishop) –  Affable Geek Jan 25 '12 at 20:13
    
What do you mean by 'called'? –  Peter Turner Jan 25 '12 at 20:32
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Oh yeah, that's kind of a Baptist term :) At its best, "called" means that a person hears from God that he should go and serve a congregation, and the leadership of the congegration, after much prayer, agrees that God has indeed sent this person. In common practice, it means that a person wanted a church job, answered the ad, and the church hired him. –  Affable Geek Jan 25 '12 at 20:43
    
I once read the regulations on appointment of a Church of Scotland minister. It started with "no-one shall be appointed to minister within the Church of Scotland unless he shall be called". I thought that was a great spiritual way to start. Unfortunately the second paragraph went to on describe the exact wording the congregation was to write on the piece of paper that was "the call". –  DJClayworth Jan 25 '12 at 22:07

An attempt at a generic Protestant version. Note that these are guidelines, and additional tradition-specific versions should be consulted!

Clergy:

  • Priest One who conducts the rituals that mediate between God and man.

  • Pastor From a word meaning 'shepherd', one who 'watches over' a church, manages it, and tends to its members. Because of the shepherd connotation, the members of the church are often called the flock as in the flock of sheep under a pastor's care.

  • Minister One who tends to the needs of others. From the Latin for the right hand, the one you would use to give something to someone else (as opposed to your sinister left hand, which was typically used for less pleasant duties). A pastor would by definition minister to his congregation.

  • Chaplain A person who is called to minister to a group of individuals on an as-needed basis, such as for weddings, funerals, and hospital visitations only. In some very small congregations, chaplains are also called to serve in part-time basis only, if the church meets less than weekly, or if the pastor is not expected to perform regular visitation.

  • Preacher One who actually preaches a sermon

  • Reverend A generic title for any ordained persons, one who is to be 'revered' for his special calling

  • Bishop An overseer of the clergy, most typically involved in a church hierarchy. Baptists, Mennonites, and other congregational churches who reject hierarchies also reject bishops. In African American churches, this can also refer to any pastor who has raised up pastors within his own church, and thus may effectively be just a very successful senior pastor.

  • Apostle Literally one who is "sent out" (from the Greek) to spread the news. Historically, this refers to those 12 men whom Jesus specifically charged with the task of spreading the news. 11 of these Apostles were originally disciples i.e. students of Jesus

Depends on the tradition:

  • Deacon Depending on the tradition, can have a wide variety of meanings, although all indicate that one is serving in a capacity. The deacons were so named in Acts 6, in order to relieve the Apostles of duties that were time consuming but not as important as their ministry through proclaiming the Word. Specifically the line (in 6:2) is "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables."

    As an example, a Deacon in a Baptist Church is equivalent to an elder in a Bible Church or a vestry member in the Episcopal church - all of which are non Clergy who in effect "run" the local church which the priest / minister / pastor is paid to lead. Think of it as the board to the Pastor's CEO. In contrast, a Deacon in the Episcopal church is a guy who has just been ordained, and in most instances, will become a priest in about 6 months time, but has not yet so been named. As a deacon, they can read the Gospel, prepare the Eucharistic table (but not actually lead the Eucharist), and pronounce the blessing at the end of the service. All of this to say - an Episcopal deacon is a junior priest whereas a Baptist deacon would be a very senior member. As you can see, there is a lot of variation.

  • Elder Also highly dependent on the tradition.

    In "Bible Churches", the Board of Elders functions much like a vestry - a board of committed, respected members of the congregation would serve in an advisory or leadership capacity to set the direction of the church.

    In the Mormon tradition, since most men are supposed to preach, the elders have more of an organizing role for the congregation.

Note: In the NT, deacons, elders, and later bishops are the only mentioned leadership positions.

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from what tradition are these definitions? eg, in the background I have, several of those terms are synonymous –  warren Jan 24 '12 at 20:46
    
In many cases a single person may fill multiple roles- often the pastor preaches, the minister served as priest, etc. but these terms should be fairly consistent across traditions, except where noted. –  Affable Geek Jan 24 '12 at 20:51
    
Btw , many people assume these terms tone synonymous, precisely bc of this overlap. Still, it's good to know the nuances, because technically they are different roles/jobs in the church. –  Affable Geek Jan 24 '12 at 21:02
    
Um, although it often ends up that way for practical reasons, many traditions don't have any age requirement on elders (the English term being a misnomer.) Also, in some traditions being an elder ipso-facto means you are no longer laity! I realize there is a lot of variety in the understandings of that role, but considering it has more Biblical explanation than most of the other roll names you explain here, I think you could treat some of the possible definitions a little more throughally. –  Caleb Jan 24 '12 at 22:28
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In your description of the role of deacons you said "The deacons were so named in Acts 6, in order to relieve the Apostles of duties that were time consuming but not as effective in furthering the kingdom." This statement gives the impression that serving as a deacon does not further God's kingdom work as much as do prayer and ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). True, after deacons were chosen, the word of God kept on spreading, but the deacons were just as much a part of furthering the kingdom as the apostles; they simply had a different role to fill. They may not have been as gifted in –  rhetorician Aug 23 '13 at 16:13

Some of the primary differences are due to the believed place of the clergy.

In some churches being clergyman is considered a "vocation". If someone is called to be ordained they are ordained for life (barring exceptional circumstances). Even if they stop doing the job of a priest, they remain one. The denominations that practice this typically have a three-level clergy: bishops, priests and deacons. These churches include Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutherans. In these denominations:

  • Priests are the primary ministers, normally responsible for overseeing the congregation
  • Bishops are overseers of other clergy
  • Deacons are either more junior or more specialized clergy. In Catholic and Anglican traditions a deacon cannot celebrate Mass.

Reverend is a title applied to one of these e.g. "Reverend John Smith". To call someone "a reverend" is technically incorrect.

Other protestant churches reject the idea of ordained clergy. A church leader is appointed to a specific job, and can leave it. When a pastor quits his job he is no longer a pastor. These churches use different terms for their leaders:

  • Pastor From the word for shephered, one who oversees and provides care for the congregation. Many churches reserve the title for their more senior leaders within a congregation.
  • Minister from the word for servant. One who provides for the needs of the congregation, and typically used for church leaders. Often interchangeable with pastor.
  • Preacher one who preaches. May or may not also be a church leader.
  • Apostle originally refers to one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus, and then to other people. It literally means "one who is sent", and is applied to someone who carries the Christian message to others. Wikipedia has a good article. Some churches still use the term. The Latter Day Saints use the term to refer to their highest leaders.
  • Elder AffableGeek describes this much better than I could. It depends on the tradition, but is frequently used to describe a member of an advisory or leadership committee within the church, separate from the pastors.
  • Deacon is sometimes also used by these churches for more junior leadership roles or more junior Elders.

Other terms:

  • Vicar in the Catholic church is a priest who is the bishop's helper. In the Anglican church it is a priest who is in charge of a parish.
  • Chaplain normally means a priest or minister who serves a specific community or institution other than a church - e.g a prison, military unit or football team.
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Definitely depends on the exact church. Deacons were laity in the church I was brought up in. Basically Deacons were junior Elders. –  Brian Knoblauch Jan 25 '12 at 21:08
    
Good point. I'd forgotten that. –  DJClayworth Jan 25 '12 at 22:03

An etymology-based perspective

Here are some meanings for these roles based on the original meanings as used in the New Testament. Many denominations attempt to use these terms in the same way, such as the Brethren, Presbyterians and some Baptist churches.

Pastor: a shepherd. Someone who looks after the 'flock' of God: his people. Pastors are listed in Ephesians 4:11 as one of the gifts that God has given the church. There are varying opinions about gifts: some think this is a leadership role, and others that it describes regular church members - in both cases they would be the people who are naturally good at caring for the spiritual health of the other church members.

Priest: someone who mediates between a god and people. Jesus is called our Great High Priest, while many Protestants support a doctrine called the Priesthood of all Believers, which is based on 1 Peter 2. Those who support that doctrine believe that all Christians are priests because we are all meant to go between God and the people around us, and therefore the leaders of a church should not be called priests because they are not special in that regard.

Minister: a servant. (We may not think of it that way, but in politics a Prime Minister is the head of the Public Servants, so the meaning is still hidden there.) There is a sense in which all Christians are meant to serve each other, and so we are all ministers, and we all do ministry. There is another sense for people who are particularly gifted at serving others - this is the sense found in Romans 12:7. And there is another sense: the Greek word for 'minister' is 'diakonia', from which we get the word Deacon. Most denominations believe that a Deacon is a person who has been specifically appointed to a position. Passages like 1 Timothy 3:8-13 might be indicating an appointed position, or they might not - I'm not particularly sure either way.

And though you didn't ask for this one, I'll include it too:

Elders, Presbyters and Bishops: Presbyter is a transliteration of the Greek word meaning Elder. The idea is like a village elder, the natural leaders of a small community because of their age, wisdom and experience. In most Protestant denominations except for the Anglicans Bishops are thought to be equivalent to Elders - the word Bishop means an Overseer (which is how some Bibles translate it.) The idea is that they are there to oversee the church, to "hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it." (Titus 1:9)

None of the terms I have described necessarily imply an employed position in a church. Most churches will use one of these terms and use it to mean that the person is an employed staff member of the church, which can give the wrong idea that their title is used because they are employed rather than because they are a servant or an overseer etc.

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