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Ethics and Religion Talk: What is the Role of Clergy?

D. Patel asks, “What are duties of the priest/minister and of the devotees? what is relationship between priest and devotee? What do the priest and devotees do inside the place of worship in your religion?”

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 More recent columns can be found on 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].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

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

“The first duty of a Presbyterian minister is the faithful preaching of God’s Word, and to instruct all church members, young and old, in the principles of our faith set forth in our Confession of Faith and our two Catechisms. His second public duty is the right administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, according the command and example of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is charged especially to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (II Timothy 4:5), proclaiming the good news of the salvation God has provided through the redemption accomplished by His incarnate Son.

“As an extension of his public ministry, he provides pastoral care to the members of his congregation as needed. This labor of love embraces a wide spectrum of needs, as wide and varied as the membership of his church. But in every case, he is present as the minister of God’s Word, to bring its light and guidance to bear on the cases before him. He is not a physician, psychologist or therapist, and should resist the temptation to dabble in those special disciplines.

“Church members are obliged by their membership vows to make diligent use of the means of grace as dispensed by the pastor of their congregation. They should hear the preaching of the Word with active faith and close attention, and labor to bring forth the fruit of it in their lives. The central act of public worship therefore is the reading and preaching of God’s Word. Other parts of worship include uniting in public prayer, led by the pastor, and ‘the singing of Psalms with grace in the heart’ (Westminster Confession, Ch. XXI.V).”

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“In The United Methodist Church the clergy are ordained to two orders of ministry: deacons and elders. Deacons are ordained to ministries of word, service, and justice. Elders are ordained to ministries of word, sacrament, order, and service.  Both orders of ministry are called to lead congregations in the mission to form persons as disciples of Jesus Christ equipped to join in God’s mission in the world.

“All members of The United Methodist Church are baptized to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

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

“I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister which means I have years of training and I am credentialed by our UU faith to serve a congregation. I provide pastoral care, preach sermons on Sundays, perform weddings, memorial services, baby dedications, and other rites of passage and fulfill other public duties on behalf of our congregation. I am the spiritual leader in our congregation. We understand our faith as a ‘priesthood of all believers,’ meaning almost everything I do can also be done by our lay leaders. We believe in the shared ministry of our congregation; we work together, and we are seen as equals.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“How does one define ‘devotees?’ Is this a reference to someone who is a strong believer in a particular religion or god (God)? If so, we may then begin this discussion.

“The Second Vatican Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium states, ‘…no special preference is to be accorded any private persons or classes of persons whether in the ceremonies or by external displays’ (The Sixteen Documents of Vatican Council II, p. 129). Therefore, there is to be no difference in the relationship between ‘devotees’ and the other members of the Church.

“The above said, there will always be members of the faithful with whom the priest or minister will be closer. The reason is the priest or minister will easily relate to these others as friends. Still, the priest or minister must be careful not to use this as a method of excluding others.

“The distinction is a priest or minister who is first a human being and friend of others versus a priest or minister who is first a professional. While the latter indicates the person’s function, the former represents the person’s humanity.”

My response:

The rabbi is first and foremost a teacher and second a ‘pastor,’ although we don’t use that word. Our role is to teach and encourage a deep connection to Torah and Jewish tradition and practice. We also visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, and help celebrate lifecycle events, such as births, bar and bat mitzvah, and weddings.

Regarding what we do during worship – other than the rabbi sharing a Torah-based lesson (and announcing pages), there is no difference between what the congregation does during worship and what the rabbi does during worship. We both either pray or count the ceiling tiles until it’s time to eat (just wanted to see how many read this far down in the column!).


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 in 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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