What Do Parish Ministers Do?

A colorful pile of "to do" lists

When people picture what a minster does in their work, they might imagine the minister in the church where they grew up, or one they saw on TV. People mostly see the minister preaching in worship or officiating a wedding. Maybe people have heard that ministers visit people in the hospital, or elderly shut-ins. Some people assume that the job of a Unitarian Universalist minister is very different from that of ministers in other faiths. Parish ministers are those who serve a congregation. What do our parish ministers Do?

Ministry is a complex profession with a lot of regular duties that most people have never considered. Some may seem familiar, but some may surprise you. Here is a short summary of what ministers do in their professional role. It is based on the basic competencies ministers in training must meet in order to be considered ready to serve in our faith.

Worship and Rites of Passage

This not only includes writing and preaching a good sermon, but also collaborating with musicians, managing the flow of services, and providing training and support to lay worship leaders. Recently, it has become important for minister to be familiar with technological improvements in church life, such as multi-platform worship. Ministers maintain awareness of multicultural and multi-generational approaches and often integrate arts and other multisensory elements into services. Ministers also officiate at special rituals of life. This means creating and leading important ceremonies such as weddings, memorials, child dedications, coming of age rituals, and new member recognition services.

Pastoral Care and Presence

This work ranges from sending notes to people in times of change, to helping families process their grief, to referring people to counselors for ongoing mental health support. But it also includes helping support the church community at times of crisis and turmoil. It may include training and supervising a pastoral care committee as well. Pastoral care is not the same as therapy and the ministers should be aware of this difference. They must maintain healthy boundaries and understand cultural and generational needs. It is important that they have the skills and understanding to respond appropriately to issues such as sexuality, mental health, end of life, and relationships struggles.

Spiritual Development for Self and Others

This work ranges from leading religious education programs and teaching spiritual practices, to helping people integrate their religious past with their current beliefs. It is important that minsters have a good understanding of different religious traditions and practices. A minister maintains their own spiritual depth as a model for others and a source of wisdom and inspiration. This means ongoing study and continuing education for ministers. It also means good self-care, such as getting counseling when needed, and having time to relax.

Social Justice in the Public Square

This is work inside and outside the church walls. It ranges from inspiring people to participate in social change efforts grounded in our UU values, to collaborating with other local faith leaders, to articulating a faithful position through the media. Often, ministers show up at the local protest march in a clerical collar or clergy stole as a form of public witness. Ministers should understand issues of racism, power, and privilege and work to dismantle systems of oppression. They help others do likewise.

Administration

This does not mean the minister runs everything, but it does mean there are many leadership tasks in ministry. In a big church, this might mean managing the professional staff. In a smaller fellowship, it might mean supporting committees and helping develop new lay leaders. Regardless of the size, it means working with the mission and strategic plan. Ministers should be familiar with good budget and fundraising practices and helping with stewardship. They understand conflict management and good organizational functioning. Ministers generally attend board meetings as a non-voting member of the board.

Service to the Larger Unitarian Universalist Faith

This includes promoting connections to our faith in sermons and classes. It also includes providing support to UU ministerial colleagues and attendance at regional and national gatherings such as General Assembly. Ministers will often serve on denominational committees and task forces, such as nominating committees or credentialing bodies. Ministers have a good understanding of UU history and polity and collaborate with colleagues of other faiths.

Leading Our Faith into the Future

This includes heeding input of emerging generations and watching cultural trends that impact our faith. For UU ministers today, this includes the recommendations of the Commission on Institution Change. It also involves employing a radical welcome and articulating a bold vision of the future. Ministers help organizations live into multiculturalism in our diverse world. Work toward anti-racism and anti-oppression is part of the general work of ministry and infused in everything from worship to administration.


No one can excel in all these areas at once. There is just a lot to do. And in a part time position, there is automatically limited time in which to do the tasks of ministry. A minister will need to be clear and realistic about priorities. The seven areas above are far from a laundry list, to be checked off at the end of every work week, but it does provide a framework for the breadth and depth of this work. There is something that makes ministry different from some other jobs.

When we are ordained, we take a vow in front of a congregation and whatever force may have called us to ministry. Our vow relates to a covenant, a holy promise with the congregation that ordains us. Different ministers have slightly different vows, but we generally vow to serve the greater good in our work. This means that a minister’s particular calling and vows will likely impact how they approach these tasks of ministry.

Though part of our tradition is the “priesthood and prophethood of all believers”, there are some people who feel called to the work of religious professionals and have the training and credential to serve in a unique way. In addition to some of the tasks of ministry, we tend to the spiritual health of the organizations in which we serve and bring that perspective to our leadership.

In addition to a covenantal promise made at ordination, ministers have a covenantal relationship with their clergy colleagues. We covenant to support each other in the call and to living lives of integrity. This includes our collegial support of those who serve in different kinds of ordained ministry, such as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and military units, as well as ministers who teach at universities or seminaries. There are institutional ministers who support our congregations through their work at the UUA or UU Ministers’ Association. Some ministers serve through non-profit organizations or private counselling practices. We covenant to honor the breadth among the work of all our colleagues as they serve, while helping them stay accountable to the greater good.

About the Authors

Jonipher Kūpono Kwong

The Rev. Dr. Jonipher Kūpono Kwong currently serves as Interim Senior Minister at Fourth Universalist Society in New York, NY.

Sarah Movius Schurr

The Rev. Sarah Movius Schurr joined the PWR team in 2016. She serves as primary contact for all congregations in the states of Washington, Montana, and Wyoming. In addition to her primary contact work, Sarah is the PWR specialist for small congregation concerns.

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