What Is the Difference Between a Licensed Minister & an Ordained Minister?

Ordained and licensed ministers may have different functions, depending on denomination.
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The difference between ordained and licensed ministers is determined largely by individual religious denominations, but there is one prominent exception: marriage ceremonies. Performing marriage ceremonies is the main legally binding duty that members of the clergy carry out, and state laws often grant authority to do so based on whether a minister is ordained or merely licensed.

1 Variation

Most denominations use the terms "ordained" and "licensed" to refer to clergy members that play slightly different roles within the church, although precisely what differences there are varies by denomination. A general trend, however, is that a license to practice ministry comes with certain constraints and may expire within an assigned time period, whereas an ordained minister is a permanent member of the clergy.

2 Marriage

The legal authority to perform marriages is often cited as a distinction between licensed and ordained ministers, even though this credential varies by state within the United States. Some states allow only ordained ministers to perform a legally binding marriage ceremony while others have less restrictive rules. California, for example, permits anyone to apply for the authority to marry a couple, but such authority is valid for only one day.

3 Education Level

Many denominations use ordination to distinguish between ministers' education and experience levels. The Evangelical Covenant Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association, for example, typically require ordained ministers to have a master of divinity degree. American Baptist Churches, on the other hand, allow for three different "tracks" to becoming ordained based on education and experience.

4 Permissions

Some denominations place further restrictions on the ceremonies and duties that licensed ministers are allowed to carry out. Typically, a license to practice ministry includes preaching primarily. In addition to weddings, baptisms and funerals may be restricted to a local ministry or excluded altogether from a licensed minister's duties.