Pastor Vs. Priest: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to religion, it’s all about the semantics. One of the most common questions amongst Christians is: What’s the difference between a pastor and a priest? The pastor vs. priest debacle isn’t anything new, and though the terms are often used interchangeably amongst the general population, they’re actually referring to two slightly different groups of individuals. To put it simply, a priest is a person who likely preaches in the Catholic faith. A pastor is someone who preaches in any other Christian faith. Pastors are sometimes referred to as priests and priests are sometimes referred to as pastors, but at the heart of the debate, the difference is which church their altar sits in.

Pastor

A pastor is simply an ordained leader of a Christian church. They can be male or female, and have the authority to preside over services and also give advice or counsel to the people in the congregation. The word pastor is actually Latin and means shepherd. The related Latin verb is pascere, which means, “to lead to pasture”. In modern Christian churches, the pastor or the head of the church is the shepherd that leads the flock (the congregation) to pasture (salvation).

Pastors were given the title based on the Biblical metaphor of shepherding. In Christ’s charge to Peter by Raphael, Christ appointed Peter as a pastor and instructed him to feed his sheep.

Pastors enjoy a full home life and may marry if they choose to. Married pastors are often considered more trustworthy and knowledgeable than unmarried pastors. They may have biological children and are typically completely integrated into the community.

Pastors are formally educated prior to becoming ordained. This education takes roughly four years and may or may not take place at a formal seminary. Many pastors are also educated in other non-religious subjects and they may enjoy a career outside of the church.

Priest

A priest is a religious leader that is ordained in a particular faith, primarily Catholicism. All priests are men. The priest is believed to be a mediatory agent between humans and God. They have the authority to administer religious rites and are called to their position by a higher power rather than an internal desire. Priests perform church services, special ceremonies and acts of counsel amongst other duties.

In the Catholic faith, being a priest is a full-time position. The individual that sacrifices their life in accordance to the calling of God foregoes the ability to pursue another career. They are completely dedicated to their churches and cannot marry with the exception of married clergy from the Anglican Communion that later converted. This is because priests are expected to “marry” the church. As a result of not being able to marry in the traditional sense, priests will not have children unless they seek ordination after the passing of a spouse.

Becoming a priest takes many years and devotion. The typical priest spends around 10 years in the seminary maturing and learning about the faith. Once they graduate from the seminary, they are placed in a church and will dedicate their lives completely to their faith. At the end of the day, a priest will retire to the rectory. Because of the intense preparation necessary to become a priest, the withdrawal rate is extremely low.

Dress and Liturgical Vestments

Because priests and pastors are names given to religious leaders of different denominations, it’s not unreasonable for their dress and liturgical vestments to differ. In general, priests have a much stricter dress code than pastors. While pastors in certain Christian religions may choose to adhere to traditional dress codes, some modern pastors have adopted a more casual style in an effort to better connect with their congregations. In the Catholic faith, the dress of the priest is non-negotiable.

Because pastors can be male or female, the dress between the sexes is also slightly different. Some items have been adapted for use by women, though female pastors in general opt for a much more casual look with less headwear, fewer accessories and lighter fabrics. A male and female pastor of the same denomination may dress very different from one another.

Shortages of Priests

In the United States, there is a shortage of priests available. There are many factors that have caused this, but smaller Catholic families, lengthy educational periods and an increasingly stringent discernment process are thought to be the driving forces behind the shortage. Because there are simply not enough priests to go around, it is not uncommon for the priest of a church to differ in race or nationality from the majority of their congregation. Many are placed in churches far from their homes and they readily accept this as their faith demands.

While priests and pastors vary in some ways, they are more alike than they are different. Both are extremely dedicated to spreading the Word and to shepherding their congregations towards salvation. They both act as a moral guide and a confidant for those that seek their counsel. Both priests and pastors are closer to God than most and both undergo years of education before taking their positions. They are both community leaders, working diligently to keep families and neighborhoods strong.