Pastor, Church & Law

Distinctions Between the Terms Pastor, Clergy, Minister

§ 1.01

Key point 1-01. The terms pastor, clergy, and minister are used in a number of state and federal laws. Most courts construe these terms broadly, and disregard any distinctions among them. A few courts have construed these terms more narrowly, and attempt to distinguish them.

The terms pastor, clergy, and minister often are used interchangeably. Such usage is perfectly appropriate in most cases. Occasionally, however, it is important to distinguish among these terms, since many state and federal laws refer to only one or some of them. For example, the Military Selective Service Act provides that regular or duly ordained ministers of religion shall be exempt from training and service.1 50 U.S.C. App. § 456(g)(1).Whether a representative of an organized religion may validly solemnize a marriage depends, in most states, upon his or her being characterized as clergy, a minister, or a priest. Confidential communications made to clergymen, ministers, and priests are considered privileged from disclosure in many states. A few states specifically require clergy, ministers, priests, or rabbis to report actual or reasonably suspected cases of child abuse to civil authorities.

Clergy and ministers of the gospel are excused from jury duty in some states. The exemption is often conditioned upon the timely filing of an application for exemption. The Immigration and Naturalization Act confers preferential “special immigrant” status upon alien ministers who have been engaged continuously in the ministry for two years immediately preceding their application for admission to the United States and whose services are needed by a domestic religious denomination.2 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(27)(c).

The Internal Revenue Code excludes rental or housing allowances, as well as the fair rental value of church-provided parsonages, from the gross income of a minister of the gospel for federal income tax purposes.3 I.R.C. § 107.The Code also exempts a duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister of a church in the exercise of his ministry from self-employment taxes (if certain conditions are satisfied)4 Id. at § 1402(e).as well as from federal income tax withholding.5 Id. at § 3401(a)(9).It treats such a person as self-employed for Social Security,6 Id. at §§ 1402(c)(4) and 3121(b)(8).and as an employee for purposes of church retirement plans.7 Id. at § 414(e)(3)(B).A large number of states have adopted the federal provisions relating to the exemption of clergy from the tax withholding obligations. Accordingly, the term duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister of a church in the exercise of his ministry has relevance in the computation of state income taxes in many states.

A few courts have attempted to distinguish between the terms pastor, clergy, and minister. To illustrate, one court, in interpreting a state law exempting “buildings … actually occupied as a parsonage by the officiating clergymen of any religious corporation,” held that a non-ordained youth minister was not a clergyman and thus was not entitled to have his residence exempted from state property taxation.8 Borough of Cresskill v. Northern Valley Evangelical Free Church, 312 A.2d 641 (N.J. 1973).The court concluded that the term clergyman implies ordination and accordingly does not include an unordained youth minister. Another court drew a distinction between the terms pastor and minister:

[T]here is a difference between a minister and a pastor. Pastor is defined in Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition [as] “the minister or priest in charge of a church or parish”; in Black’s Law Dictionary, 4th Edition [as] “a minister of the Christian religion who has charge of a congregation or parish.” Ecclesiastically, all pastors are ministers or priests, but all ministers or priests are not pastors. A minister has no authority to speak or act authoritatively for any local church, but its pastor does because he is the designated leader and top official of the local church.9 Johnson v. State, 173 So.2d 824, 825-26 (Ala. 1964).

Many churches use the term minister with reference to any ordained or credentialed person, and reserve the term pastor for those ministers who are employed by a church to perform pastoral services. Accordingly, a missionary, seminary professor or administrator, or evangelist may be a minister but not a pastor. Some courts have observed that the term minister connotes a Protestant clergyman and not “a Jewish rabbi, Muslim imam … atheist or agnostic or a member of a religious sect which, like some divisions of Quakerism, lacks a formal clergy.”10 Voswinkel v. City of Charlotte, 495 F. Supp. 588 (N.D.N.D. 1980).

Most courts and legislatures have interpreted the terms clergy, minister, and pastor broadly, and have disregarded any distinctions among them. To illustrate, Rule 505 of the Uniform Rules of Evidence, which addresses privileged communications between clergy and counselees and has been adopted by several states, defines clergyman as “a minister, priest, rabbi, accredited Christian Science practitioner, or other similar functionary of a religious organization.” Similarly, a New York law pertaining to solemnization of marriages defined the phrase clergyman or minister of any religion to include pastors, rectors, priests, and rabbis.11 See Ravenal v. Ravenal, 338 N.Y.S.2d 324 (1972); see also In re Silversteins’s Estate, 75 N.Y.S.2d 144 (1947); N.Y. CIV. PRAC. LAW § 4505 (Consol. 1999).

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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