Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Ministry is both an office and a function designated for serving the religious, pastoral, and human needs of a group or community. It can be an individual or corporate effort, practiced intradenominationally or in conjunction with other religious groups through community service associations or coalitions.

Ministry normally takes three different forms: that of the Word , which involves preaching, proclamation, teaching, and evangelization; that of the Sacrament , or of worship, which concerns leadership of liturgy or collective ritual; and that of Service , which entails assisting those in need either by helping individuals or by seeking social change in sources of oppression. Usage of the term ministry historically has been distinctive to Christianity, stemming from the Apostle Paul's self-identification as a minister (Rom. 15:16). Luther and others during the Protestant Reformation believed that all people were called to ministry although only some to ordination, which has given rise to an emphasis upon lay as well as ordained ministry, particularly in the form of service. Some congregations or denominations place a strong emphasis on external ministry such as missionary work, evangelization of nonbelievers, or striving for social justice through education, health care, and political or economic pressure. Others retain an internal focus on the needs of their own membership with more limited outreach activity.

Although ministry in many denominations has been undergirded with a theology of divine call to vocation and servanthood, the ministry as an occupation also has been understood to be a paid career normally beginning in young adulthood. Sociologically, it is considered to be an internal labor market bound within a denomination or tradition. Although some denominational crossover may take place, such situations are not commonplace. There is substantial evidence that ministers have tended to think of their careers in ways similar to secular occupations, such as moving up an informal job ladder to congregations of increasing size and budget and to positions of denominational influence and leadership. In socio-economically poorer congregations, ministerial tasks and responsibilities have been handled on a part-time or nonstipendiary basis, either by ordained or by lay individuals.

Roles and Role Tension

Ministerial roles have differed in emphasis across time and religious traditions. In the early church, ministry at various points involved prophetic commitment, priestly responsibilities, and pastoral insight. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has put special emphasis on the preaching and pastoral functions. Ministers from mainline denominations emphasizing the pastoral caregiving role have tended to become involved in social reform, although countervailing beliefs in individual autonomy, relativism regarding the rightness of one's own perspective, and hesitancy to generate disagreement and possible membership decline within the congregation have produced some ministerial ambivalence over social action commitments (Jelen 1994). Ministerial roles in the black church tradition have focused primarily on preaching and on leadership for the welfare of the community as well as wider civil rights and social change activism (Harris 1993). Contemporary ministerial issues within the black church include the need for greater formalized training, concern over the persistence of sexism against female ministers, and the need to develop inclusive ministerial models that can encompass a growing diversity within the African American community (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

Dual commitment to congregation and family has been a major source of domestic role tension for married ministers. Additionally, marriage has been a valued occupational resource for men in the Protestant ministry, where the minister's wife normatively has been expected to volunteer a considerable amount of labor as a lay leader within the congregation. Such expectations have incurred tension as more women pursue careers or otherwise join the workforce. Expectations also have been challenged with the growing presence of male ministerial spouses, as more women enter the ministry. Blizzard's (1985) multidenominational study on Protestant ministerial roles, duties, and frictions during the 1950s was foundational in identifying a critical ministerial dilemma as one of multiple-role conflict. Subsequent studies have built on Blizzard's work, associating role ambiguity and changes in occupational self-understanding as core occupational concerns of the ministry (see Kleinman 1984, Malony and Hunt 1991). Comparative research on Roman Catholic priests has additionally focused on demographic concerns, namely, high attrition rates and growing shortages of priests.

Prestige and Professional Tensions

Historically, while the ministry has offered low income compared with other professions, it has proffered a level of prestige exceeding secular occupations with similar earnings. In the past, selection for monastic or ordained orders often served as a means of upward social mobility, particularly for men otherwise not having access to formal education. Rising literacy and education have facilitated occupational and professional differentiation, which subsequently has infringed upon many traditional ministerial roles and responsibilities, depressing occupational prestige as well as contributing to occupational role tension and conflict. Other long-range factors have contributed to a decline in ministerial prestige as well. According to Douglas (1977), when religion was disenfranchised from state support, ministers became dependent upon local congregations for their subsistence, a relationship that has tended to suppress not only professional authority but also a minister's persuasive power. Conflict over ministerial authority and prestige can be manifested in congregational power struggles between clergy and laity, in disparate expectations over professional autonomy and financial compensation, in consumerist expectations by laity, and in pressure to diminish and renegotiate ministerial roles and responsibilities. Additional trends associated but not necessarily causally linked with a decline in prestige within mainline denominations include a sharp decrease in young men seeking to enter the ministry and a substantial increase in women ministers, resulting in a feminizing and graying of the occupation. Declines in church attendance and real income, and boundary issues between ministers and congregational members evident in increased litigation over sexual abuse, have further eroded occupational autonomy, authority, and prestige.

Deprofessionalization of the ministry is another trend related to declining prestige. While increased secular education and occupational role encroachment have been widely discussed as leading causes of depleting the distinctive nonsacramental functions of the ministry, Kleinman (1984) also argues that a shift in the ministry's self-understanding of professional authority, changing primarily during the 1960s and early 1970s from a traditionally elite clericalist notion of being set apart from lay functions by virtue of ordination, to a humanistic perspective of the minister as an enabler or facilitator for developing ministerial skills among all participants, has raised concern over what remains distinctive to the ministry as a professional occupation. Another contributor to deprofessionalization has been the decreased ability for many congregations to support full-time ministers in several denominations. Formalized ministerial pay scales and compensation packages have pressured congregational budgets and denominational willingness to supplement ministerial salaries for non-self-supporting congregations, resulting in increasing use of part-time and nonstipendiary lay pastoral ministers or those ordained only for a particular site. Due to clergy supply shortages, deprofessionalization of Roman Catholic priests' nonsacramental roles to a series of lay administrative and pastoral positions has opened up new ministerial opportunities for laity, particularly for women (Wallace 1992), although the denomination's maintenance of a male priestly class set apart through ordination keeps lay ministers peripheral to denominational leadership and decision making.

Many religious organizations also have upgraded and formalized requirements for ordained and lay ministry offices or licensing as part of a concurrent occupational reprofessionalization movement. Ministerial professionalization has been particularly apparent in conservative evangelical and pentecostal Protestant traditions, where ministers increasingly are holding seminary degrees and have developed both professional specializations and technological expertise. Reprofessionalization movements have recast traditional ministerial functions into highly developed concentrations in pastoral counseling, education and supervision, preaching and homiletics, administrative management, urban ministry, fund-raising, agency program development, and specialized chaplaincies for ethnic communities, hospitals and care facilities, colleges, prisons, and the workplace.

The ministry is an occupation in flux, partly owing to widespread demographic change from primarily first-career men to include both women and second-career men, and the varied backgrounds and interests they bring, and partly owing to the way the ministry must rearticulate its traditional roles in contemporary denominational environments of shifting supply and demand, differing professional needs, fresh attention to role boundaries, and increased heterogeneity within many congregations and their communities.

See also Samuel W. Blizzard, Clergy, Ordination, Roles

Paula D. Nesbitt


S. W. Blizzard, The Protestant Parish Minister (Storrs Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1985)

J. W. Carroll, As One with Authority (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1991)

J. D. Davidson et al., Faith and Social Ministry (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990)

A. Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977)

L. J. Francis and S. H. Jones (eds.), Psychological Perspectives on Christian Ministry (Leominister, U.K.: Gracewing, 1996)

F. E. Harris, Sr., Ministry for Social Crisis (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1993)

T. G. Jelen, "Protestant Clergy as Political Leaders," Review of Religious Research 36(1994): 23-42

S. Kleinman, Equals Before God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

C. E. Lincoln and L. H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990)

H. N. Malony and R. A. Hunt, The Psychology of Clergy (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1991)

P. D. Nesbitt, "Marriage, Parenthood and the Ministry," Sociology of Religion 56(1995):397-415

H. R. Niebuhr and D. D. Williams (eds.), The Ministry in Historical Perspectives (San Francisco: Harper, 1983 [1956])

M. E. Reilly, "Perceptions of the Priest Role," Sociological Analysis 35(1975):347-356

R. A. Schoenherr and L. R. Young, Full Pews and Empty Altars (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993)

R. A. Wallace, They Call Her Pastor (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992).

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