Pastor, Church & Law

Definitions and Status

Chapter 1

This chapter addresses the legal definitions of a number of important terms associated with clergy, including pastor, minister, and clergyman. A number of laws use these terms, and so it is important to understand their meaning.

To illustrate, would a volunteer youth pastor who has no ministerial credentials be considered a “minister” for purposes of the clergy-penitent privilege? Would such a person be eligible to perform marriage ceremonies? What about eligibility for a housing allowance under federal tax law?

These questions demonstrate the importance of understanding legal definitions. This chapter also addresses the important concept of ministerial status. Ministers may be either employees or self-employed, and this distinction is important in a number of contexts including income tax and Social Security reporting.

In addition, some laws use the terminology of an ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister. The courts and government agencies have often expressed discomfort when called upon to define these terms, noting that they are not prepared to define ecclesiastical terminology.

As we will see throughout this text, attempts by courts and government agencies to define ecclesiastical terms often are clumsy, naÏve, and inadequate. Yet, the use of these terms in a number of statutes makes it necessary for the courts and agencies to define them.

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