What does it mean to be “pastoral?”

The word “pastoral,” though fundamental in the Church’s lexicon, is one of the most often misused words among Catholics.

(Image: Jomarc Cala/Unsplash.com)

Popes answer questions. It is the office of any bishop, but especially the Bishop of Rome, to teach the Faith. And the office of teaching, which is a share in the prophetic office of Christ (munus docendi) involves answering the most difficult questions concerning revelation, theology, and the sound application of Church teaching in a world fraught with complexity and confusion.

Pope Francis not only answers questions. He provokes questions, often in startling and challenging ways. Such was the case, for example, earlier this year when media outlets worldwide reported that the Holy Father had expressed support for “civil unions” for same-sex couples.

Oceans of ink were spilled reporting this news, criticizing Pope Francis, defending Pope Francis, applauding Pope Francis, correcting the news reports, with particular criticism aimed at the translation of the Pope’s words from the original Spanish, countering the assertion of a bad translation, criticizing critics of Pope Francis, and criticizing those who criticize critics of the Pope. Have I missed anything?

Whatever else there is to say about the Holy Father’s exercise of his teaching office, it raises an old and important question about the role of the shepherds of the Church, from the pope on down to the most humble priests and their collaborators in various ministries. The question concerns the very essence of the ministry of a shepherd: What does it mean to be “pastoral”?

Whatever Pope Francis said and meant on any given occasion, he undoubtedly strives at all times to be pastoral, to serve a wounded world by offering the love, wisdom, and practical help of Christ and his Church. When and to what degree the Holy Father or any bishop or priest achieves his aim of offering pastoral care is another question. Desire and achievement are not the same thing.

A strange and difficult time such as we are currently living through has a way of drawing our minds to the fundamentals of the Christian life. The word “pastoral,” though fundamental in the Church’s lexicon, is one of the most often misused words among Catholics. And misuse of this word disfigures the pastoral ministry of the Church, by which God’s flock ought to be led to the “verdant pastures” (Psalm 23) of eternal life.

The words of The Word

The cornerstone of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, where I serve on the faculty and where many priests and pastoral ministers receive formation, bears an inscription of these words from Jeremiah 3:15: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” Any discussion of what it means to be “pastoral” must begin with Jesus our Good Shepherd. So here are some words of and about Christ, taken from all four Gospels, that tell us something about His shepherding—how He leads us, how He acts, the dispositions of His Sacred Heart:

• “Come to me” (Matthew 11:28)
• “Go, therefore…” (Matthew 28:19)

• “Jesus wept” (John 11:35)
• “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21)

• “Blessed are you” (Luke 6:20)
• “Woe to you” (Luke 6:24)

• “Be perfect” (Matthew 5:48)
• “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48)
• “Be merciful” (Luke 6:36)

• “May no one ever eat of your fruit again!” (Mark 11:14)
• “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15:8).

• “Come…inherit the kingdom” (Matthew 25:34)
• “Depart from me…into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41)

• “Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Luke 11:23)
• “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40)

• “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16)
• “In the world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33)

• “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8)
• “As was his custom, Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath” (Luke 4:16)

• “I have called you friends” (John 15:15)
• “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23)
• “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15)

• “A good shepherd gives his life for his sheep.” (John 10:11)
• ”I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6)
• “I came so that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)
• “Whoever wishes to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
• “No one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

• “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these” (John 14:12)
• “Do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19)

The riches of God’s word being inexhaustible, as St. Ephrem reminds us in his Diatesseron, there are innumerable lessons one could draw from these brief texts. Building on the obvious contrasts contained in the groups of texts I have selected, there are two lessons I would like to suggest for the consideration of all those who exercise or collaborate in a “pastoral” ministry:

1) The more important lesson, but the one I will spend less time on (except in an indirect way), concerns the Word of God, God the Son. It is not so easy to know what it means to “be pastoral,” and the only sure way to understand is to become like our Good Pastor, our Good Shepherd, in every way possible, and to the greatest degree possible, without picking out some qualities of His for our use and leaving others aside. The scriptural texts above obviously express different facets of Our Lord’s pastoral heart, words, and activity. It is often challenging to harmonize all of them. But that is the mission of the Church’s pastors, and our focus on following Christ so as to become like Him is vitally important in fulfilling this mission.

2) The second lesson I am drawing from God’s word of Sacred Scripture, the lesson I will spend the rest of this article on, concerns our words. And here I want to invoke a truth the recently deceased Dr. Mark Latkovic taught me when I was a seminarian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He said that “to be pastoral is to be precise.”

It is so very easy, and so very common today, to resort to empty-headed slogans, stereotypes, and both the corrosive subjectivity and the knuckle-headed rigidity we find in both theological expression and the personal attacks that characterize so much of today’s intra-ecclesial discourse. But our Good Shepherd is at once more simple and more complex than such deformations of language suggest. And so those who present Him to the faithful must know and speak of Him with precision.

The need for precision

So, I would like to offer a few words about our care for words as we interpret and proclaim God’s word at the service and in the name of the Word, Who was made flesh and dwelt among us, but also becomes enfleshed whenever the munera Christi are exercised, including the offices of shepherd (munus regendi) and teacher (munus docendi).

Controversies concerning Pope Francis or other bishops are far from the only examples that highlight the urgency of this question. There is also the now-famous announcement of the Archdiocese of Detroit at the end of August 2020. The use of a corrupt imitation of the Formula of Baptism led to catastrophic spiritual damage. A deacon, changing the words of the formula in what to the outside observer might seem a small degree, has harmed the spiritual lives of thousands of people.

He inflicted this harm both directly and indirectly, through one of our young priests whom this deacon had invalidly attempted to baptize. Father Matthew Hood, who appeared to have been ordained to the priesthood three years ago, had no idea that all of his sacraments, including his ordinations, were invalid, and that almost all of the sacraments he celebrated in the first years of what appeared to be his priesthood were invalid.

My own interest in this topic predates any knowledge of the case of Fr. Hood (who has since received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Holy Orders). My interest stems from the recent decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concerning the Baptismal Formula:

First question: Whether the Baptism conferred with the formula «We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit» is valid?

Second question: Whether those persons for whom baptism was celebrated with this formula must be baptized in forma absoluta?


To the first question: Negative.

To the second question: Affirmative.

Not since the distinction was drawn between homoousios and homoiousios has the elimination of one “I/i” made such a tremendous difference in the life of the Church!

With all due respect and sympathy for those who used this false formula, they have done an unfathomable amount of harm. And yet it is safe to say that they somehow thought they were doing something good. I happen to know the deacon involved in the Fr. Hood case, and believe him to be a good-hearted man.

It is also safe to say that such ministers were applauded by some people for the change they made from “I” to “We.” And it is safe to say that while in this specific case the then-Archbishop of Detroit acted rightly in correcting the deacon, there has for decades been a high level of tolerance in the Church for fudging the words and actions we have received in trust for the celebration of the sacred rites by which Christ is present and active among us.

Romano Guardini, in his book on eschatology, offers a most powerful reminder of the urgency of our care for words:

A word is not merely a sign to convey a meaning. It is a living thing, embodying spirit. In company with other words it makes up language, and language is the room in which man lives. It is the world of mental images from which the light of truth is ever breaking upon him. When a word decays, it is not merely that we become uncertain of each other’s meaning. One of the forms that compose our life has perished. A signpost has become illegible. A light has been extinguished and our intellectual day made darker. To restore to its original meaning a word that is being destroyed by careless use is a service to the whole of human life.

The time has come for every Catholic to abandon what has been called Frank Sinatra Catholicism — “I did it my way” Catholicism. And it is the special duty of clergy and their lay collaborators not only to master the Tradition, and not even only to hand on the Tradition, but to hand on the Tradition in a way that is most conducive to God’s people handing it on through the works of evangelization.

It is convenient that by making these points it may seem that I am giving an apologia for a particular party in the intra-ecclesial wars. Convenient, because this is just the kind of discussion where precision is so badly needed.

To speak of our duty to hand on the Tradition in this way is not to become “rad-trads.” In fact, it is to honor the truth that ours is a living Tradition. As Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957) once said, the Church needs authentic conservatism and liberalism in order to hand on the Faith faithfully.

It is not easy to identify precisely how to harmonize these two tendencies—when and how to be conservative or liberal. Achieving precision is never easy, but it is necessary and we can be sure of God’s help. My mind may be as clunky as a camel, and it may need to solve problems with answers as narrow as the eye of a needle, but with God all things are possible. The more I become like Christ, and the more I rely on His strength, the more I can be sure of getting it right.

Shepherds and sinners

Saint Gregory the Great in his Commentary On Job writes that the shepherds of the Church set the straying sheep on the right path through their teaching. Is it not the entire mission of the Church’s pastors to help people through the “narrow” way that leads to life? Is it not obvious that countless people outside and even within the Church are going the wrong way?

Even the secular world is waking-up to the reality of sin. Secularists often do not know how to identify, describe, or prioritize different kinds of sins, but they know there’s something wrong with the world. And they are increasingly fighting for what they believe in.

Can the Church not find in their zeal some of those “seeds of the word” (logoi spermatikoi) about which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council teach? If so, the Church needs to purify the understanding and intentions of such people by speaking the word of truth to them without resorting to slogans, name-calling, or straw man arguments that convince no one but sometimes soothe the bitter heart of the speaker.

This is the mission to which all of the Church’s faithful pastors dedicate themselves. They strive  to preach and teach about the “narrow way” that leads to heaven with great charity and precision. They do not make the narrow way broad, but they also do not shut its gate. They provide a kind of traveler’s guidebook, laying-out the landscape of the Christian life with all of its opportunities and dangers.

It seems that the reigning notion of what it means to “be pastoral” is quite different from the approach just described, however. Rather than concern with precision, the emphasis is almost entirely placed on therapeutic concerns.

Once, a prominent canon lawyer gave a presentation to my seminary class during which he said, “If it’s not pastoral, it’s not good law.” Of course, there is a sense in which that statement conveys a fact. But it does not tell a truth, insofar as the meaning intended and received is in fact false. That meaning is that the conditio sine qua non of law’s legitimacy is the individual’s judgment about whether or not a given law fits comfortably with human experience.

We might call such a statement “taxiomatic” insofar as it sounds like an axiom, but in fact taxes the weary souls of those who want the Church to offer truth and solidity in a world that caters to people’s basest desires and affirms their every emotion.

I attended a funeral Mass celebrated by this same priest, at which it was made clear that the deceased was not a church-goer, and yet the priest said during his homily that that the mourners had ‘a new saint to pray to in heaven.’ Precision requires greater care for the truth. We do not know whether the deceased is in heaven, which is why we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and pray daily for the souls of the faithful departed.

I really liked this priest, personally. And he was extremely intelligent. But his words typify the dominant concept concerning the word “pastoral”: whatever makes people feel better.

One of the clues that the reigning idea of “being pastoral” is false is that it has no analogate in the natural world. Medicine, agriculture, architecture, diet and fitness, music, auto repair, and innumerable other professions all involve a measure of art, but they also require precision in order to function and achieve their goals.

To use a more down-to-earth example, if your GPS simply told you to “turn” from time-to-time, that would be a malfunction. You need to know which way to turn! So, too, in human relationships, specificity is essential. It is not okay to estimate your wife’s birthday. You need to get it right!

At the beginning of the film Gone With the Wind, there is a sundial on which is inscribed: “Do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” We might say, “Do not squander words, for that is the stuff the truly human life is made of.” A strict Aristotelian might say, “thought,” but what are words except thoughts enfleshed?

“Do this in memory of me,” Our Lord says, not “Do something like this in memory of me.” And He is our Good Shepherd, who says also, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

“We have only one life…”

This has been a difficult year for many reasons, including the COVID pandemic, much social unrest, and continuing bad news about leaders in the Church and society. But the Church’s mission remains the same: to bring Christ to people and to bring them to Christ. Taking greater care than ever to communicate the Gospel faithfully and well will do much to bring healing and peace to a world that is so badly wounded at this time.

Saint Charles Borromeo spoke to the priests of Milan during the great plague of 1576, which claimed 25,000 lives in that diocese alone. The saint implored his priests to remain steadfast in their duties to the sick and dying, challenging them to set aside their own wills, and to embrace their mission to do the will of God, in these words: “We have only one life and we should spend it for Jesus and souls—not as we wish, but at the time and in the way God wishes.”

In the midst of a broken world, all of the Church’s pastors and their lay co-workers are called to embrace and help others to embrace the will of God wholeheartedly. In all of their teaching, preaching, and writing, they must share the truth and love of Christ our Good Shepherd, for the glory of God and the salvation of His people.

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About Fr. Charles Fox 85 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, headquartered in Warren, MI.


  1. “If it’s not pastoral, it’s not good law.”

    It seems to me that the truth is the exact opposite of this: “If it’s not good law, it’s not pastoral.”

    • What a precise way of expressing the truth! Congratulations, Fr. Charles Fox. As pastors, we need to speak the Truth with Love. At times, we speak the Truth but not with Love and become harsh; at other times, we speak with Love but not the Truth and become mushy.
      On another note, we seem to have a somewhat similar priestly journey> I too studied at the Angelicum with an STD in Spiritual Theology and was a member of the Teaching Staff at St. Pius College, the major Archdiocesan Seminary in Mumbai, India. At present, I am on loan to the Diocese of Wrexham in Wales, the United Kingdom, caring pastorally for a little flock. I would love to be in touch with you as I found your article pastorally refreshing. Please pray for my little flock and me.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Msgr. Rebello! You can indeed be sure of my prayers, and I ask for yours as well. If you use Facebook, you can find me there. God bless you!

  2. Fearful of addressing the truth, isn’t our dilemma as you indicate that priests and bishops have become pastoral rather than doctrinally ‘lawful’, “that the conditio sine qua non of law’s legitimacy is the individual’s judgment about whether or not a given law fits comfortably with human experience”, as in the example of the priest’s “comforting” assurance of a saint in heaven for a man who didn’t practice the faith? Christ’s mercy has been ‘pastoralized’ [a pun on pasteurized] for decades and that trend has been exacerbated since 2013. There is room in practice of the faith for rare exceptions when clarity of conditions are lacking and the faithful are at of risk despair, although when couched as a universal pastoral approach suggesting mitigating conditions are always the determinant rather than, for example a manifest ‘irregular union’, practice of the faith collapses into sentimentality. Mercy is now widely perceived as what fits comfortably, as you well note, in our human experience, whereas mercy is mercy only when justice is observed, requiring repentance for the salvation of the penitent’s soul. If we love someone we seek their good as taught by Christ.

    • Fr Fox is receiving flak for depicting Pope Francis’ striving to be pastoral serving a wounded Church. Although he [Fox] conditions that with, Desire and achievement are not the same thing. Fr Fox’s article, it’s actual thesis is to make the important distinction between being ‘pastoral’ such as the priest’s “comforting” assurance of a saint in heaven who didn’t practice the faith, from being doctrinally lawful. At any rate I’ve always aspired to be [or have been in a different age] a Knight errant.

  3. Not sure the meaning of this: “Whatever Pope Francis said and meant on any given occasion, he undoubtedly strives at all times to be pastoral…” This, firstly, is empirically not the case unless he is a second Immaculate Conception; second, not responding at all, or with clarity and completeness, before, during or after saying something that does not confirm the sheep or feed the lambs, is NOT pastoral, it is the inverse…third, scattering, dividing the Church, defending and asking for proof of abuse and then having to reverse from an obvious injustice and not giving a full public mea culpa, for those who presented that a certain priest actively covered up abuse, and at first refused to be believe these victims and their supporters and publicly not giving them witness…etc, is not pastoral (meditate: Chile, Cardinal O’Malley, proof when there was proof – et al)… Francis is the Beloved’s Pope, like every other, that does not make him sinless and always striving to be pastoral – there are 4 Cardinals and the whole Flock of the Triune Lamb awaiting a pastoral feeding, affirming….this has nothing to do with desiring versus doing…we all chose to and do sin, which is never pastoral….Easter mercies and miracles

  4. “Whatever Pope Francis said and meant on any given occasion, he undoubtedly strives at all times to be pastoral, to serve a wounded world by offering the love, wisdom, and practical help of Christ and his Church.” No matter what he does or says that leads others astray? No matter what people or errors he promotes and permits to flourish? Who else in the history of Christianity has ever been given this benefit of the doubt? This assumption of the benevolence and saintly intent of Bergoglio is simply stunning. It’s one thing to say he may not meet the description of the “anti-Christ.” But it’s quite another thing to suggest that he has the heart of a good pastor.

    • And it’s another thing to assume the best while pointing out that being pastoral requires precision. “Striving” is a bit different from “accomplishing”, after all.

      • What is the purpose of turning a blind eye to what damage to the whole of humanity is inevitably accomplished by assuming “the best” from a Pope who has, on multiple occasions, trivialized God’s own liberating moral truths as “legalisms?”

  5. It is difficult to distinguish between “pastoral” and situation ethics. Also, when someone calls a particular action or decision “pastoral”, it essential to find out what the person means. Either it can be explained in a way that is consistent with scripture and the Magisterium or it cannot. Otherwise, it becomes something on the order of, “it’s just how I feel”. Dear God, deliver us from that.

  6. Moving forward the line of thinking here in this article and comments, I’m reminded of St. Pope John Paul II in Pastores Dabo Vobis who corrected the resultant clericalism brought about by the traditional teaching about the three priestly “powers” of sanctifying, teaching and ruling as reflected in the three priestly “offices” of priest, prophet and king. In his correction, he shifted the emphasis for best practice from the “offices” (wrongly seen as privileged position) into “ministries” (rightly lived as service to the people of God), the third ministry from “king” to “shepherd” and its function of “ruling” to “pastoral charity.” Happily, Pope Francis in his teaching and practice has picked up this subtle change.

    • I am not sure of the purpose of your enclosing traditional terminology in quotation marks (or possibly sneer quotes). It is not incorrect to say that a priest holds offices and that they are privileges, any more than it it is incorrect to say that a parent is privileged to be in authority over his or her children. (He or she may use that privilege in accord with God’s will or not). The question is whether that privilege is used according to the model of Christ. We have to be careful of imbuing terms such as “privilege” or “ruling” with negative connotation.

      The pastor is both “king” and “shepherd.” That is, he is given authority over his flock by God. As much as the falsely egalitarian culture in which we live resists this, that is how Christ constituted His Church, from the time of the Apostles.

      • Cincinnati Priest: The quotation marks are precisely that. They are quotes from Pastores Dabo Vobis which St Pope John Paul II intentionally meant to shift the emphasis from the “king” to the “shepherd” mode of the third office of the presbyter. He meant a shift from one to the other, that is not to highlight both, but one! Read the document. The kingly mode, wrongly understood by a lot of presbyters, is often cited as one of the symptoms of clericalism as glaringly manifested in the clergy homosexual predation sex abuse scandal. It is that sense of being kingly, unaccountable downward, that is to the people they serve, being only accountable upward, that is to the bishop or superior.

        • One perfectly normal word used on a sentence doesn’t require quotation marks.

          “ …the three priestly powers of sanctifying, teaching and ruling as reflected in the three priestly offices of priest, prophet and king” would have been correct.

          “ The kingly mode, wrongly understood by a lot of presbyters, is often cited as one of the symptoms of clericalism as glaringly manifested in the clergy homosexual predation sex abuse scandal.”

          Convenient to blame predatory homosexual behavior on clErica life. Makes a handy attack on priests and the priesthood, but I don’t see a connection.

  7. Or to put it simply, “pastoral” simply means “like a shepherd” (Latin pastor = shepherd). The Shepherd’s tools of trade are his crook (used to yank each sheep by the neck and drag it back towards the right direction when it is straying in another direction) and his staff (used to beat the sheep on the rump to encourage it to hurry along in the right direction). And the sheep don’t mind this, indeed it gives them comfort (Psalm 22 (23)).
    Yet so often the word “pastoral” is misused to mean the exact opposite: calling “a good pastor” a BAD shepherd who refuses to use his crook or staff and just let’s the sheep wander off wherever they wish, into the jaws of the wolves.

  8. All too often “pastoral” boils down to clergy who become spiritual Dr. Feelgoods dispensing spiritual painkillers instead of real spiritual healthcare. Under their administration the Church becomes more of a bad hospice where sinners bleed out and die spiritually.

  9. Thank you, Father, for your fine article. I am happy your remembered Dr. Mark Latkovic, who entered into eternal life one year ago (May 6, 2020). I am glad the CDF made it clear that Baptism using the “we baptize” formula is invalid. As you probably know, a dubium on this matter was sent to the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments some years ago about a priest who administered the Sacrament of Baptism using the “we baptize” formula. In 2003 the Undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship replied that such a Baptism was valid but illicit (see Canon Law Society of America, ROMAN REPLIES AND CLSA ADVISORY OPINIONS 2003, pages 17-18). The question, though, was studied by the CDF, which ruled in 2020 that such a Baptism is invalid. Sometimes the Magisterium needs to study questions of sacramental form carefully before ruling for or against validity. After all, Pope Nicholas I in A.D. 866 ruled that baptisms administered “only in the name of Christ” were valid, and he appealed to Scripture (Acts 2:38 and 19:5) and St. Ambrose for support (see Denz.-H. 646). Nicholas I believed that baptism in the name of Christ alone was an implicit naming of the three Persons. St. Robert Bellarmine defended Nicholas I from error because the need for an explicit naming of the 3 divine Persons in Baptism had not yet been determined during the time of Pope St. Nicholas I (see Bellarmine, De Summo Pontifice, Book IV, chap. XII). The Profession of Faith of Lateran IV (A.D. 1215) makes it clear that baptisms must be done with the invocation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Denz.-H., 802). Thank God, we have the Magisterium of the Catholic Church to clarify questions of sacramental form.

    • Thank you, Dr. Fastiggi, for this important review of the history of key questions concerning the form of the Sacrament of Baptism. This history illustrates the essential and fascinating relationships between truth, language, and authority in the sacramental economy. To. be “pastoral,” then, is to celebrate the authorized sacramental rites with devotion and precision, in order to ensure that Christ’s flock is led, protected, and nourished rightly. Thank you again and God bless you.

  10. What it means to be pastoral to me is that we are all flowers in God’s garden. In all gardens, weeds abound and attack the flowers. In this case, they are satanic weeds. We must ask God to save us from this peril through prayer.

  11. Fr Fox…many thanks for such clarity and underscoring the power of words, their enfleshment in symbols their efficacy in the Sacred Rites of the Church…you offer a deep reflection on fundamental liturgical theology…I need to return to this article frequently.

  12. From where I stand, it seems pastoral has come to mean sugary, go along with flow, waffle on hot subjects, whereas, in my generation, the pastor instructed, admonished and comforted, especially with appropriate prayer and encouragement. He spoke with authority and in truth.

    The bona fide shepherd takes charge of the sheep and the sheep hear his voice and they follow him. When the shepherd doesn’t know the destination the sheep are in real trouble.

  13. If it is not Pastoral, it is not Truth. That’s my take. I read something similar that “ conscience is not Truth”. That has stuck with me through much of this recent discernment about progressive ideas, German synods, etc.,
    The last paragraph of this article is for every church leader, Deacon, Lay leader
    I think

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