Be a Licensed Minister: Licensure and Education Information

Learn how to become a licensed minister. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information and experience you will need to start a career as a licensed minister.

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Do I Want to Be a Licensed Minister?

Licensed ministers are responsible for conducting the worship ceremonies in Christian congregations. Such individuals are typically recognized by the state as being qualified to carry out marriages, baptisms, funerals and other rituals that may have legal implications as well as religious significance. They also provide pastoral care to the people in their congregations. Being depended upon by church members for faith-related guidance may be emotionally draining, but ministers might also reap the rewards of seeing their congregants blossoming spiritually.

Job Requirements

Licensed ministers may prepare for this field by attending seminary or another institution offering postgraduate religious instruction. Depending on the denomination served, licensed ministers may also be referred to as priests, pastors, preachers, curates, rectors or a variety of other names. Guidelines on how to become a licensed minister will differ both by denomination and by state. The following table describes the core requirements for a career as a licensed minister.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Will vary by denomination, but often requires completion of a master's degree*
Degree Field(s) Divinity**
Licensure and/or Certification Each denomination has a different procedure for ordaining licensed ministers; candidates must also comply with state licensing procedures to perform weddings and other legally binding functions***, ****
Experience Will vary by congregation*****
Key Skills Service orientation, active listening, instructing, social perceptiveness, speaking, reading comprehension, critical thinking, negotiation, persuasion, judgment and decision making*
Additional Requirements Some denominations require that a candidate for ordination be examined and approved by a governing council before the process of becoming a licensed minister can begin****

Sources: *ONet Online, **Dallas Theological Seminary, ***The State of Tennessee, ****Survey of ordination requirements for a variety of denominations in October 2012, *****Survey of job postings in October 2012.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A survey of job postings for ministers of different denominations in October of 2012 revealed that most congregations require their ministers to have at least a bachelor's degree; others require a master's of divinity, for which a bachelor's is a prerequisite. Licensed ministers may earn their bachelor's in any field, but a bachelor's degree in ministry or divinity may be particularly effective for individuals preparing for the ordination process. A bachelor's program in divinity will typically offer courses in the Bible, theology, biblical geography, rhetoric, Greek, Latin, church history and ecclesiology.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in lay ministry activities. Persons wishing to become licensed ministers will typically belong to a particular congregation and participate in church activities, such as prayer groups, missionary work, Bible studies and charity events. Some churches invite lay members to serve on boards that oversee stewardship, evangelism or Christian education. Many denominations that ordain licensed ministers will examine the life and activities of a candidate in order to evaluate his or her dedication to the church; whether or not an individual is allowed to begin the ordination process may depend upon his or her history of lay ministry activity.

Step 2: Complete a Master's Program at a Seminary

While different denominations vary in the amount of education preparation they require from their licensed ministers, many congregations ask that prospective candidates complete a master's degree in divinity at a seminary. Some seminaries offer training that is applicable to many denominations, while other schools are much more focused on the demands of a particular denomination. The choice of which seminary to attend is particularly important; many congregations do not accept the academic training offered by a school dedicated to a denomination other than their own. Students in a master's degree program in divinity will typically take multiple in-depth courses on various aspects of the Bible in addition to classes in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Other courses may provide in-depth discussion of theological principles or provide instruction on effective pastoral counseling methods.

Success Tip:

  • Complete the additional academic training required to be licensed for a particular area of pastoral counseling. Licensed ministers often serve as advisors to troubled individuals; for this reason, states frequently require that ministers receive specialized training in the pastoral field that is to be their primary concentration. This specialized training may involve completion of courses in mental health issues, psychology or counseling. Additional coursework may also prepare pastors to work with a particular age group or in a particular church activity requiring technical skill, such as music. Requirements will differ by denomination and by state; local governing bodies can provide additional information. Prospective ministers should also research the state licenses required to perform legally binding weddings and other essential functions of church ministry that have legal ramifications.

Step 3: Complete the Ordination Process of a Particular Denomination

Prospective licensed ministers must typically choose to complete their ordination process in the tradition of a particular denomination; such licensing procedures are often not transferable from one denomination to another. The ordination process of each denomination will be different from that of another, but will often include a year of ministry at a subordinate level under the supervision of a licensed pastor. Candidates may also be asked to offer up declarations of faith, discuss the spiritual journey that led them to the ministry, or explain their philosophical positions on pressing church issues that affect church policy. For some denominations, the prospective minister participating in the ordination process is essentially taking part in an internship that is expected to end with placement in a full-time position.

Success Tip:

  • Consider a doctorate. Licensed ministers interested in a career that involves intense scholarly research or teaching at the collegiate level may be interested in seeking a doctoral degree in divinity. Such programs typically require coursework in comparative religions, anthropology and theology as well as a working knowledge of at least two foreign languages. Doctoral candidates will pass a series of qualifying exams and complete a dissertation on a preferred field of theological research.
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