You don’t need a degree to be a pastor. But technically, it depends on where you want to be a pastor. Every church has their own criteria to determine if someone is qualified to lead, and for some of them, a degree may be part of that.
In most cases, a degree isn’t an official requirement—it just helps. Churches want to hire people who have a solid grasp of the Bible, theology, and ministry. This can come from formal education, but it doesn’t have to. Still, a seminary degree like a master of divinity provides biblical, theological, and ministerial training, and having credentials gives churches a more objective way to evaluate your qualifications.
Ultimately, your ordination comes from the individual church, not a college, seminary, or body of government. And churches don’t just hand those out.
You have to be called to be a pastor
The first thing you need to ask yourself (and it’s probably one of the first interview questions a church will ask you), is “Why do you want to be a pastor?” Hopefully, you’re looking into this because you already feel that God has called you to preach, teach, and minister to a congregation.
“God’s call has many manifestations,” the United Methodist Church says, “and the Church cannot structure a single test of authenticity. Nevertheless, the experience of the Church and the needs of its ministry require certain qualities of faith, life, and practice from those who seek ordination as deacons and elders.”
Maybe you can recall a particular moment when you realized God was leading you to be a pastor, or a time someone pointed it out to you. Maybe it’s a stirring you’ve felt for a long time. Either way, the process of becoming a pastor is about confirming whether or not God is calling you. And that means people God has already appointed to lead (elders, pastors, etc.) have to affirm your calling.
This looks a little different in every church, because most denominations don’t have formal guidelines, just recommendations. Some churches may simply hire you. Others may give you a license. And some will talk to you about their ordination process.
But most legitimate churches will require extensive meetings, interviews, and conversations about your personal life, theological perspectives, and biblical education (formal or otherwise). You can pay for a license online from a church that may or may not actually meet anywhere or believe anything specific, but that probably won’t get you very far if you want to be a pastor of a church.
Most churches are very selective about who they let lead, and under what conditions.
Is there a difference between being ordained and being licensed?
Some churches make a distinction between licensing a pastor and ordaining one. If a National Baptist church licenses you to be a pastor, for example, it’s essentially a “trial period.” The church is letting you dip your toe in the water and practice leading under the guidance of an ordained pastor.
“Within the Baptist tradition, when an individual expresses a ‘call’ to ministry they are granted a ‘trial’ or initial sermon at the will of the church,” the National Baptist Convention says. “Based on the outcome of that sermon the Church may grant that individual a license to preach. This license affords the person the privilege to exercise and make full proof of their call to ministry.”
Some denominations essentially use license and ordination synonymously, and licensed pastors can legally perform all pastoral duties.
But in denominations like the NBC, licensed ministers “are not permitted to do communion, baptize or commit bodies unless given authority to do so by their local Pastor. They are not legally allowed to perform marriages.”
There may also be a difference in how licenses and ordinations are revoked. In some cases, ordination is almost like tenure—it’s good for life.
“The license is issued by the Church and can be recalled by the Church,” the NBC says in their clergy FAQs. “Once a minister is ordained, he/she may legally perform marriages and can take charge of all Church functions and ordinances without the approval of another minister. The ordination belongs to the minister, and as such cannot be reclaimed by any other Baptist body. This is why it is so important to carefully examine all licentiates before they are ordained. You can correct mistakes when a minister is licensed. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to do so after they are ordained.”
Do you need a degree to be a Baptist pastor?
Baptist denominations all handle ordination a little differently, but here’s how it works in two of the major Baptist traditions.
Southern Baptist Convention
The SBC is adamant that ordination is entirely up to the individual church, and they don’t officially require a degree of any kind.
“Every cooperating Southern Baptist church is autonomous and decides individually whether or not to ordain an individual, or whether to require ordination of its pastor or ministry staff,” the SBC says. “Some cooperating churches may require seminary training from an SBC seminary prior to ordination, while others may not; such a requirement is entirely up to the church.”
The SBC does, however, list some of the common methods Southern Baptist churches will use to evaluate pastoral candidates:
“When a church senses that God has led a person into pastoral ministry, it is a common practice to have a council (usually of pastors) review his testimony of salvation, his pastoral calling from the Lord, and his qualifications (including theological preparation and scriptural qualifications according to 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:7–9) for pastoral ministry. Based upon that interview the church typically decides whether or not ordination would be appropriate.”
National Baptist Convention
Similarly, the National Baptist Convention has no official regulations about qualifications to be a pastor, and leaves it up to individual churches. However, the NBC says most National Baptist churches will likely use guidelines provided in The New Hiscox Guide for Baptist Churches.
“Intellectual capability may not be the first qualification for the ministry,” the book says. “But the ministry demands the best of the mind and skill of those who exercise it. Academic preparation appropriate to the demands of the work and the expectations of the community is necessary . . . The specific requirements may be different from church to church and from denomination to denomination. But all ministers should be willing to meet and desire to exceed such standards for the effectiveness of their ministry . . . Ministry should be built on academic preparation and on continuing commitment to education throughout a ministry . . .”
In other words, you don’t officially need a degree, but most NBC churches will probably expect you to have one.
Do you need a degree to be a Methodist pastor?
The United Methodist Church doesn’t formally require a degree, and their qualifications focus far more on your character and gifting than your education. Their expectations come from The Book of Discipline, which briefly mentions education, but only to say that current ministers are responsible for deciding what kind and level of education is required:
“The United Methodist Church entrusts those persons who are in the ordained ministry with primary responsibility for maintaining standards of education and preparation for ordination.”
Regardless, a seminary degree can help you meet some of the UMC’s basic expectations for ministers. Formal education can train you to “Communicate persuasively the Christian faith in both oral and written form.” An accredited MDiv program should also help you develop expertise in Scripture, theology, church history, and church polity.
Do you need a degree to be a Church of God in Christ pastor?
In their ordination manual, the Church of God in Christ says, “Denominational ordination should affirm that the ordained person has met certain moral, ethical, spiritual, and educational standards and is qualified to practice as a clergyman.”
Historically, each COGIC jurisdiction has had its own process for ordination, as determined by the ordination board. Some of these required Bible college classes and others didn’t. In 2012, COGIC established a national standard and ordination curriculum, which you can read in its entirety here (it’s 216 pages). The manual is written for the ordination board, and covers everything they need ministers to know and believe.
Should you get a degree before becoming a pastor?
If you want to be the best pastor you can be, you need to commit yourself to growing in your:
- Personal relationship with God
- Love and empathy for other people
- Knowledge of Scripture, theology, philosophy, and the church
No degree can determine if God has called you to be a pastor. But a biblical education can equip you to lead a congregation toward Christ. Degree programs can also help you accumulate hands-on ministry experience (through internships and practicums) before you become a pastor. And being trained by experienced ministry professionals and Bible scholars can help compensate for inexperience.
But it’s ultimately up to you and your church to decide if a degree is the right path for you. If you’re currently a member of a church, talk to your pastor or an elder. And if you’re not part of a church right now, finding one and committing to it should definitely be your first step.