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Friday, July 1, 2022

Specialized Replacements for Traditional Clergy

via Flickr


It is well-known that with the expansion and development of a civilization, along with the growth of that civilization's human population, work becomes more and more specialized. Consider the role of medical doctor, which has gone from being one career to a multitude of specializations. Click here for a list of 20 specialized areas of medicine. When you click into each you will find a further list of subspecialties. All are needed, and all have value. The same goes for a range of other fields, and here I would like to share how one role, that of clergy, is actually being broken out not just into subspecialties, but also into entirely different fields. These are in no particular order, and this list is by no means meant to be exhaustive. 


"[S]omeone (such as a priest) who officiates at a religious rite." (Merriam-Webster)

Also called 'celebrants,' these are people who focus on helping people craft meaningful ceremonies to mark milestone events in life. These can range from baptisms to weddings to funerals, and all points in between. It used to be that if someone wanted to get married they would need to hit up the local priest or other minister. Where I grew up, in rural Missouri, it was certainly that way. When I served a small congregation in New Mexico I had a couple attend a service one day for the first (and perhaps only) time just so they could ask me if I could officiate their wedding. I gladly agreed, since no one owed me the satisfaction of being members of my church just so they could get married. 

Over the decades in the United States the situation has changed dramatically. Several years ago I heard an Ethical Culture clergy leader comment that there was a time when he could make a decent extra income from officiating weddings, but that this was no longer the case. With the internet, access to legal ordination has become freely available to everyone. The Universal Life Church, in its various manifestations, has led the charge in democratizing ministry. Further, other organizations exist that insist on professional qualifications but do not require a theological degree to become a credentialed officiant. I am a Celebrant with one of these, The Humanist Society.

People can opt to either have a friend get ordained online and officiate, or else hire a professional celebrant like myself. In either case they have more control over the ceremony than they would with a traditional minister. For example, a Roman Catholic priest won't do a beach wedding, because for them a marriage must take place on consecrated ground. While some resorts have caught onto this and arranged to have their own chapels built and consecrated, otherwise someone wanting a Catholic wedding in a non-church location is out of luck. Unless, of course, they hire an independent Catholic priest who will perform it for them. While the priest may not be Roman Catholic, they will still be able to offer a Catholic wedding on unconsecrated ground. 

Other ceremonies can be crafted as well to suit the needs of a couple or family. Instead of a christening, a baby naming or child welcoming can be arranged. Or, perhaps the family wants a christening but has no formal church connection. There's no need to fake it for a priest when they can simply hire a celebrant. New ceremonies can be invented for special occasions, and existing rituals can be modified to suit unique circumstances. Officiants make life a little easier for folks who want a nice ceremony without having to fake it for a clergy person, or else accept whatever script the denomination in question approves. 


Chaplains lead nondenominational religious services and provide spiritual support to those who are unable to attend organized religious services. A chaplain may work in a hospital, prison, or university, or serve as part of the military. Although prison, military, school, and hospital chaplains work in very different environments, they all provide spiritual guidance to individuals who don't have access to formal religious services offered by their faith of choice. (

Every American Gen Xer like myself, or Boomer, will remember Father John Mulcahy from the TV series M*A*S*H (he was a bit different in the novel and its film adaptation). He was a kindly priest serving at a military medical camp, and as a chaplain he wasn't there just for the Catholics. This is, ideally, how the role is expected to be carried out. In hospitals, rehab centers, prisons, the military, and other settings, chaplains are intended to provide spiritual support to everyone. Whether a chaplain is Lutheran or Muslim, when they are with someone in their care the focus is on that person's spirituality and not their own. Proselytizing goes completely against the code of ethics of professional chaplains, as this is not their purpose. It is now not uncommon for people to be endorsed by non-denominational or interfaith organizations, rather than ordained by an ecclesiastical body, to serve as chaplains. Again, this is something The Humanist Society can provide, and which I may pursue in the future. 

When I was in the hospital several years ago, for emergency surgery to remove my gall bladder, one of the ministers of my Unitarian Universalist congregation offered to visit me, but I declined because my stay was to be only a few days. If I didn't have any religious affiliation, a chaplain could have filled that role for me, if requested. 

Life Coaches

A life coach is a type of wellness professional who helps people make progress in their lives in order to attain greater fulfillment. Life coaches aid their clients in improving their relationships, careers, and day-to-day lives. (Verywell Mind)

So far I have known two people who are life coaches. There is training and preparation involved, as well as a code of conduct and well-defined boundaries. Personally, I have no experience working with a life coach, and so can't say much more about them than that. They do, in my opinion, take and expand one of the roles that historically could have fallen more to the clergy. 


An activist is a person who works to bring about political or social changes by campaigning in public or working for an organization. (Collins English Dictionary)

This one might come as a surprise to you, but I assure you I am serious. In the 1960s and before in history, clergy have taken some of the leading roles in activism for a better world. Or at least, what they thought would make for a better world. Over the years the role of 'activist' as both a volunteer and a professional area of work has developed. People commit to certain causes and either use spare time outside of their regular work to push for social change, or else make a cause the focus on their career. Now, there have long been non-clergy people who were activists, but I think that as a distinct role it has become much better defined separate from ministry. 


A psychologist is a professional who practices psychology and studies mental states, perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior. Their work often involves the experimentation, observation, and interpretation of how individuals relate to each other and to their environments. (Wikipedia)

Having been raised Roman Catholic I know what it's like going to confession. I wait in a line, go into a small room with a priest (it's rarely a box with a divided and a little screened window, like in the movies), and list off the offenses I've committed against God. This is pretty much how it went for me the first few times, and then in my teens I read in a Catholic book that I was to consider the priest in the confessional a friend and spiritual counselor who could give me godly advice. So that year, when I was 13 or so, I gave it a try. I kneeled behind a divider in a confessional and told a priest what was on my heart. I was part way through when I heard him snicker. I rushed through the rest, he told me how many times to say the Hail Mary and Our Father, and I got out of there. It was humiliating.

That's not how it's supposed to go.

If you really want someone to listen, and as a professional help you find your way through trauma, heartache, or simply the enigma that is your personality, a psychologist can help. There are different schools of thought in psychology, and at the same time all are committed to helping people be healthier, more optimal versions of themselves.  


A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (an M.D. or D.O.) who specializes in mental health, including substance use disorders. Psychiatrists are qualified to assess both the mental and physical aspects of psychological problems. (American Psychiatric Association)

Up until about a decade ago I thought of psychiatrists as necessary only for 'crazy' people with severe disorders, and I was suspicious of the medical treatment of psychiatric problems. For example, I falsely believed that anti-depressants would dull the personality and give a false sense of well-being. How I wish I had known better sooner, because then I wouldn't have lived so long without proper treatment for depression. A few months into treatment it was like the lights came on in my head. I wasn't made happy by the pills. What they gave me was the ability to feel normal and thus be able to create my own happiness. We are willing to treat other biological conditions, but when it comes to the brain people too often draw a line. That needs to stop. Psychiatry offers something that religion has not and cannot. This is science-based, medical treatment of real conditions. 

Social Worker

"A social worker is responsible for improving their patients' lives by helping them cope and manage stress they may be facing. Social workers will meet with patients, listen to their concerns and create a plan to better help their patients manage the problems in their lives." (Gwynedd Mercy University)

"A social worker will get a master’s degree in social work, and their training revolves around how societal factors will affect a person’s behavior. They also learn about the different social services and social resources that are available in the community. Many professionals get their master’s degree in social work while they are working in a different field." (HealthyPlace)

This one gets two quotes, because I know so very little about it. The key difference between social work and psychology seems to be the focus on societal factors along with the ability to connect people to appropriate resources available from private and public sources. In the past it was clergy who often had the most access to family and personal life, and now social workers have taken in farther.


The real takeaway I want to leave here is that each of these roles, and any others you might think of, aren't simply fractions of what clergy people have done or still do. Rather, in each specialty the work is expanded and deepened. There is formal training of various levels and varieties for each as well as competing schools of thought and domain-specific terminology. Each one does something that might have been part of a clergy role, but makes it more than it was. 

This doesn't mean that clergy are obsolete. Religious communities will continue to hire individuals to lead services, conduct ceremonies, deliver homilies, visit the sick, and more. Clergy are, in this context, generalists, and there's nothing wrong with that. I simply think we won't need as many of them, nor should anyone feel they have to become clergy unless they want the generalist role.