Upon receiving a calling to do God’s work, a Christian might wonder how to become a pastor or whether joining the clergy is the next logical step in his or her life. The process of becoming a pastor isn’t the same for every denomination of Christianity, and there are often multiple options for becoming a pastor even within the same denomination.
According to the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, there are more than 200 Christian denominations operating in the United States. Churches range from well-known groups like the Southern Baptist Convention to small organizations like Divine Science, the Social Brethren, and the Unity School of Christianity.
Although the specific steps one might take to become a pastor will vary somewhat according to a student’s denomination, the overall process usually entails the same main steps:
- Receiving a calling to become part of the clergy
- Undertaking education to learn about the profession
- Ordination by the student’s church
Within those main steps, future pastors may need to also gain life experience, attend church meetings and services, and embark on missions or fieldwork in advance of ordination.
Discernment and The Call
The first step in becoming a pastor is discerning a call to the ministry. Different churches refer to this process in different ways, and each religious organization has different supports and means of spiritual direction to help guide those who think they may have received a call to become a pastor. If you are interested in this career, first, pray on it. Then make an appointment to speak with your local pastor or another spiritual leader in your community. This person can help you discern the calling on your life.
The process of accepting a calling to become a pastor, minister, or another leader of the Christian church isn’t exactly the same for every future member of the clergy. For example, those who are part of a congregation within the Southern Baptist Convention are expected to receive an inward call where God speaks to that person, and the future pastor feels compelled to serve in the ministry.
For Southern Baptists, the process also includes an external call, which is where the person’s congregation recognizes and affirms his faith. It’s worth noting that some Southern Baptist congregations, as well as the congregations of other denominations, only ordain men as pastors, but women who are members of a church that doesn’t ordain women may still find rewarding work for their calling in the church in areas like childhood education.
Meanwhile, the process of discernment for the Presbyterian Church USA places a significant amount of emphasis on the initial discernment of the future clergy member. In its publication called Discerning Your Calling and Your Gifts for Ministry of Word and Sacrament the Presbyterian Church recognizes four theological assumptions about discernment as published by one of the church’s reverends. Those assumptions include the fact that God is present and active in a person’s daily life and that his or her greatest fulfillment will come from pursuing a life that matches God’s will. Assumptions also include full acceptance to a spiritual calling to the ministry that uses all of the future minister’s mental faculties, as well as the knowledge that the Holy Spirit guides those who are called to the church toward a life of goodness.
Who Makes a Good Pastor?
One of the important steps in becoming a pastor and developing into an effective leader in the church is recognizing the characteristics that make a good pastor, minister, or another Christian leader. One may experience discernment early in life but may not develop the characteristics and life experience necessary to become a pastor until much later as an adult.
Further, there are several characteristics that many consider being a benefit to those who want to lead in the church. Those characteristics include having deep faith and spirituality that transcends the earthly traditions of the church, as well as intelligence and an empathetic personality. Pastors must even have skills in communication because the responsibility to write effective, understandable, and relatable sermons falls on the shoulders of the church’s pastor.
Pastors must often act as a conduit for their congregation’s faith by delivering the tenets of the Bible in such a way that they are comprehensible to the average church participant. Pastors must act as scholars of the Bible and share the meaning of God’s word in every service, as well as in day-to-day life. A pastor must have a ceaseless drive to share the faith with his or her congregation both inside and outside Sunday services.
Preparing to Become a Pastor
The educational qualifications to become a pastor are somewhat different for each denomination of Christianity, but virtually all future pastors can benefit from engaging in similar tasks to prepare for their training and college education. One valuable step is to become increasingly involved in church activities, as well as attend any Bible education sessions offered by the church.
Not only can a future pastor participate in church-led Bible classes before he or she begins an official ministry degree program, but it may also be a benefit to engage in one-on-one sessions with a local church leader. Some ordination processes also require that pastors are approved by their church’s congregation, so becoming an active member in the church before going to school can help the pastor connect on a personal level with church members.
Taking some free online classes in areas like English grammar, writing, spelling, and reading may also help the process. Many degree programs for ministers and pastors are offered at the graduate level, so adequate preparation may even require that a future pastor enrolls in a bachelor’s degree program. Church leadership positions often require a Master of Divinity, so the preparation to become a pastor might require enrollment in a Bachelor of Religious Studies or a similar program.
Education Timelines & Options
There are nearly as many different educational programs for future pastors as there are Christian denominations in the United States. Some churches don’t require any formal education prior to ordination, although most will at least require informal mentorships and spiritual direction from an experienced pastor or team of church leaders. Others require extensive theological and biblical literature studies.
Most larger denominations require pastors to have a bachelor’s degree in theology, biblical literature, pastoral studies, or a related subject. After graduation, these students are often given positions as youth pastors, pastoral assistants, or interim pastors while they continue their studies. Many churches place specific seminary requirements on those seeking ordination. These requirements may include home-study courses prepared or approved by the denomination. Other times the requirements include graduate studies at a seminary or university.
As an example, becoming a Pentecostal minister often requires Bible college and time spent with an active minister, but there are more than 700 denominations of the Pentecostal movement in the United States, and the specific requirements may differ slightly for each church location. It may be beneficial for the future pastor to speak with church leadership to determine the necessary educational steps.
Studying religion in college may represent one of the most interesting facets of how to become a pastor. In many cases, a future pastor who attends a large university that has a wide array of secular degrees, as well as a department for theological studies, will interact with other students who may not have an “end goal” of becoming a minister or pastor.
The study of religion is a fascinating subject, from a historical point of view, and the process of earning a degree may be one of the best ways a pastor has in gaining a scholarly view of Christianity, as well as the communication tools that are necessary to be an effective church leader. Common graduate degrees that a pastor might want to consider after he or she has earned a bachelor’s degree include a Master of Arts in Christian Ministry, a Master of Divinity, or a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership.
There are also some opportunities for those who have completed Bible college to enroll in singular classes or earn certificates that will help them become working ministers. For example, a pastor might want to earn a Certificate of Theological Education that will offer classes like Church History & Theology, Preaching, Christian Worship, Pastoral Care, and Christian Ethics. Selecting a degree, certificate, or another educational program in church leadership is recommended for anyone who wants to eventually become a pastor.
Ordination & Finding a Church
In most church organizations, ordination isn’t automatic upon completion of a degree program or course of study. Some organizations, such as the Universal Life Church, will provide ordinations recognized by the U.S. government to individuals with no training necessary. Other churches have panels much like those faced by doctoral students that screen and recommend candidates for ordination.
In order to perform weddings and administer the sacraments, an individual generally needs to be ordained. However, many churches allow interns and those preparing for ordination to preach, teach, care for the sick, and lead activities at the church.
For most future pastors, there are two main processes available to begin practicing as ministers or pastors of Christianity. One option is to become ordained through an online process that may feature ordination from a non-denominational Christian organization or from a group like the University Life Church. It’s actually possible to become an ordained minister who can perform marriages and participate in other church officiating ceremonies via a simple online ordination process.
However, becoming a pastor who conducts Sunday services for a major church like the Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or one of the man Pentecostal denominations, generally requires much more time spent in school, as well as ordination through the church by church leaders or through a recognized ordination process. There are also some states that require licensing for active clergy members.
As an example, becoming ordained as an Episcopal priest requires education at a seminary, as well as consistent communication through Ember Day letters with their local bishop throughout the education process. The ordination process requires regular visits with representatives from the diocese, as well as an official application to the Commission on Ministry and Standing Committee.
Future leaders of the Episcopal Church will usually need to serve as a candidate for six months before they are eligible to take the General Ordination Exam near the conclusion of their seminary studies. Students must write essay questions on seven canonical areas of the Holy Scriptures that include church history, Christian ethics, liturgics, and other areas. Eventually, a deacon of the Episcopal Church will be able to seek ordination from the Commission on Ministry, their local bishop, and the Standing Committee.
Duties Outside the Church
The role of a pastor often extends far outside the Sunday services that he or she might offer each week. Some of the responsibilities of a pastor include making home visits to congregants who are unable to attend services because of medical issues or advanced age, as well as performing marriages and conducting funeral services for the recently deceased.
Pastors may act as teachers at seminary who provide instruction for future clergy members, or they might work as teachers of children in their congregation who participate in Sunday school each week. Pastors may even work in secular jobs when there is a need to earn money outside the church. Exceptionally small churches and Christian organizations with just a few dozen members may not have the financial wealth available to give their pastor a full salary so it is not uncommon to see a pastor have a “side gig” such as painting houses, fixing computers, or even selling real estate.
The concept of church planting is also something that working pastors might work toward when they’re not conducting services and performing pastoral duties within the church. Church planting is the act of creating a new local church in a region where there isn’t a church presence. Church planting may involve a new worship center or the building of a new congregation. The Southern Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board are groups that actively pursue church planting activities.
Income Expectations as a Pastor
Many members of the clergy don’t think about their potential income until they begin working as pastors because their call to Christ is their primary concern. However, income and finances are topics that should be discussed at a certain point. Except for priests of the Catholic Church, many church leaders do get married and start families, so it’s necessary for pastors to provide financially for their spouses and children.
Therefore, discussing income expectations as a pastor is an appropriate conversation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that members of the clergy can reasonably expect to earn a median annual wage of $53,290 per year, which is a mean hourly wage of $25.62. The highest earners in the clergy will reach an income of around $85,000, and the newest members with the lowest incomes will earn around $26,000 each year.
The BLS indicates that members of the clergy actually have many industries available to them for work. Most clergy members will work for religious organizations, but there are also employment opportunities for pastors within medical facilities and hospitals and with home health care services. Pastors may also work for elementary and secondary schools or for nursing care facilities.
For future pastors who are cognizant of the need to provide for their families and wish to pursue work in the highest-paying industries, the most impressive incomes usually come from work in surgical hospitals and for assisted living facilities for the elderly. States where pastors may find the highest wages include California, Oregon, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania.
There is no single method to becoming a pastor, and the church in which a future pastor grew up will usually have a significant impact on the process of becoming an ordained minister, a pastor, or another member of the clergy. The one area where all pastors can agree is in the fact that they are all called to bring the words of God and Christ to the world.
Pastors may work for a small congregation where they get to know each and every member over the course of several decades, or they may work as a chaplain for a hospital where they meet thousands of people over the course of their pastoral careers. Working as a pastor probably won’t make the average clergy member rich in possessions, but it will make that person rich in the Holy Spirit and the Christian faith. Figuring out how to become a pastor will be different for each future member of the church, but the process will always be a rewarding one.
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