The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: What is the role of clergy?

What are the typical duties of clergy in your tradition who serve a congregation?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Michele L. wrote the Ethics and Religion Talk panel at [email protected] to ask:

“I understand that everyone on this panel is referred to as ‘clergy.’ I know this is a catch phrase for religious leaders. But I'm wondering clergy from different religions have different duties. To some degree I understand the difference between a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest, but not entirely. So what about rabbis, imams, etc.? What are the typical duties of clergy in your tradition who serve a congregation?”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterians affirm the all-sufficiency of Christ as our only High Priest, and the priesthood of all believers as members of His body who share in His anointing. So we have no need of a special class of priests to offer sacrifices or to intercede for us. The chief work of Presbyterian ‘clergy’ is to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word, expounding the meaning of Holy Scripture and applying it to the needs of their hearers. The ministry of the Word includes both the public act of preaching sermons and private exercises such as giving instruction and counsel from the Word to small groups and individuals, or bringing the comfort of the Word to church members in times of sickness, loss, or other distress. ‘The entrance of Thy words giveth light’ (Ps. 119:130). In this respect Presbyterian and Reformed pastors are most like Jewish rabbis; this likeness reflects the fact that the Author of our faith was a Jewish rabbi.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“The word ‘clergy’ has been just recently adopted into the American Hindu lexicon. Many members still believe it is a title reserved for leaders in Abrahamic faiths. But we do, indeed, have a formal ordination process and prescribed duties for those who carry out certain duties. For one, we have pandits (also spelled pundits). It is this word that has been anglicized to mean ‘expert.’ We also call them priests. Traditionally, their role has been to conduct ceremonies. As a rule they don’t act in any ministerial function as Catholic priests do. They are not trained to expound on scriptures or be spiritual advisors. A large part of what they do involves guiding families through the various landmarks of life with rites of passage such as birth, adolescence, marriage, death, etc. Little by little, we are seeing Hindu priests accepting more pastoral roles in some temples. But they are a small minority right now.

“We also have a very strong monastic tradition. It is from these monks and nuns who work to educate Hindus on the scriptures, theology, counseling, etc. They most usually live ashrams (monasteries & convents).

“I am a Pracharak. This is rather new classification. We translate it as “Outreach Minister.” My duties include public lectures, pastoral direction (hospital visits, hospice, spiritual direction), temple tours & such. I am also ordained to conduct informal weddings for those who don’t wish to have an elaborate temple celebration.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“In the Unitarian Universalist tradition we most often refer to our clergy as ministers or pastors and we use the title of Reverend to those who have been ordained by a congregation. We also currently have a Rabbi serving our UU congregation in Traverse City. My primary duty is to lead worship service on Sunday mornings. I also visit the sick and offer pastoral care support.

“I administer our rites of passage; I perform baby naming or baby/child dedication services, lead and welcome new members signing ceremonies, officiate marriage ceremonies and renewal of wedding vows, preside over memorial services and graveside burials. As clergy I will participate in ordination and installation services of my fellow ministers. While specifically not a rite of passage of our faith I have offered Communion during worship and I have taken Confession. And finally all UU ministers are to speak out against social injustices.”

My response:

In a generic sense, I am part of the clergy. In a specific sense, I go by the title of rabbi. And with all due respect to my colleague on this panel, we refer to rabbis simply as rabbis; the appellation ‘Jewish rabbi’ is redundant, because any rabbi with legitimate ordination is by definition Jewish. The typical responsibilities of a rabbi include teaching adult education classes and religious school for children; officiating at life cycle events such as baby-naming and circumcisions, B’nai Mitzvah, weddings, divorces, and funerals; preaching (or sharing words of Torah) at Sabbath and holiday services and before some congregational meetings; visiting the sick and other needy members of the community at home and in hospital settings; and offering some counseling services.

 
 
This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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