Maybe you feel called to the ordained ministry, or maybe you are just wondering what your pastors have to go through to put “Reverend” in front of their names. Here is what ordination entails.
Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that you have received a call to ordained ministry. Since ordained ministry involves serving other people, others should be able to discern and test your call. For example, you might be in great demand as a lay preacher, and people often tell you that you should be a minister. So you decide to pursue ordained ministry. What does it involve? What lies ahead?
(In reality, few people make a calm and considered decision to pursue ordained ministry. Most often, they feel like they were sucked into it.)
Here is the process in very general terms. It is roughly what I had to go through, and in talking to classmates in seminary from other denominations, I found that it is generally true for everyone in for all major Protestant bodies, the Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in the United States and Canada.
Ask your pastor for specific information about the ordination process in your denomination.
To be ordained, you need a seminary degree, and to be admitted to the degree program, you need to be sponsored by your denomination.
In general, the way to start is to have a conversation with your pastor. If your pastor discerns your call and is willing to support you, you’ll go before a board or committee in your local church to get their support. They may form a support group for you.
The local church recommends you to a denominational committee that is responsible for ordinations. Generally this committee is on the regional level in your diocese, presbytery, synod, or annual conference—whatever your denomination calls it. They interview you, and if they decide to sponsor you for seminary, they may assign you a mentor, and they may require you to report to them periodically about your progress. They may also require you to be screened by a psychologist (whom they supply). Some denominations run a police report.
For some people, the process ends here. For example, the committee is likely to reject these types of people:
- People who have a mystical feeling that God has chosen them and who want ordination simply as a trophy to hang on the wall. They are rejected because ministry is service to others.
- People who have failed at everything in life and think that ministry is an easy job in which all they have to do is be admired and loved by a congregation. They are rejected because they are unlikely to succeed, because they do not understand what they are getting into, and because ministry is a difficult job.
- People who are suffering from massive misconceptions about what ministry is. They are rejected because they don’t know what they are getting into and therefore must not be called.
- People who are very obviously deficient in people skills. They are rejected because ministry consists almost entirely of people skills.
- People who have a criminal record or a record of abusive behavior, because they are not qualified and because they pose a significant legal risk to the denomination.
You need to disclose everything to the committee. If you have a personal problem that you have faced head-on and resolved and it poses no liability risk to the denomination, it may not be a problem. They may see it as a character strength that you have overcome adversity.
If you make it through this part, they may appoint a mentor or a support group to guide you through the process, to help you avoid burn-out, and to help you bail out, if it at any point it appears that you won’t make it.
The committee also approves you as a seminarian. You need this approval to get into the right degree program at the seminary.
Most denominations require that you have a Master of Divinity degree from a seminary that is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. In special cases, they may allow other degrees, but the Master of Divinity degree gives you the best preparation, so you should shoot for that if it is at all possible.
In most cases, it is not necessary to go to a seminary that is affiliated with your denomination. For example, I am ordained in the Disciples of Christ, but I obtained my degree from a United Methodist seminary, one of my courses was at an Episcopal seminary, and another was taught by a Catholic instructor at a Baptist seminary. I had classmates from a dozen different denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Seventh-Day Adventist. What is important is the accreditation, not the affiliation.
To enter the Master of Divinity degree program, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree, a satisfactory transcript from your undergraduate school, letters of recommendation, and sponsorship by your denomination’s ordination authority.
If you have a masters or doctorate degree in another field, it generally won’t count for much in seminary. There is a faint possibility that you might be exempted from certain prerequisites, but you’ll still have to complete the same number of credit hours (usually 90 to 110, depending on the seminary).
It’s unlikely, but if your denomination should withdraw its support from you during your course of studies, the seminary drops you from the Master of Divinity program. If your seminary offers a non-ordination degree, such as a Master of Arts in theology, they may allow you to transfer credits to one of the other degree programs. If they do not offer a non-ordination degree, you may be able to transfer your credits to another accredited seminary that does.
In fact, if you decide you don’t like the seminary you are attending, you might be able to transfer to another accredited seminary to finish your degree.
The Master of Divinity Degree Program
The Master of Divinity program includes courses in the Old and New Testaments, in biblical interpretation, in preaching, in biblical languages, in the history and practice of Christian worship, in counseling, in curriculum development, in church history, in sociology, in ethics, in theology, in music or art, in preaching, and in non-profit administration, among other subjects. The degree program includes so many subject areas that you can actually declare a major!
The seminary also requires an internship, during which you work at a local church, a charity, or a chaplaincy at a hospital part-time. It’s possible for a Presbyterian student at an Episcopal seminary to do an internship in a Baptist church. They don’t let you out of seminary without giving you some practical experience under supervision.
Unlike academic degrees, the Master of Divinity program does not require you to write and defend a thesis, but it does require you to undergo an internship and usually a practicum or two.
How Long it Takes
In some schools it is possible to finish the Master of Divinity degree in three years if you live on campus or if you are a student pastor. For most full-time students in most seminaries, it takes four years; and it can take part-time students as many as eight years.
In my case, I worked full-time while I attended full-time, and finished the degree in four years.
Some denominations may allow some people in special situations to become ordained with a less rigorous degree, but if you want the best and most comprehensive preparation for ministry, go for the Master of Divinity degree.
Other Things that Happen during Seminary
During the time you are in seminary, the denominational committee responsible for ordinations may require you to undergo psychological and personality testing and to have supplemental training, such as sex-abuse training, that is mandated by their liability insurance company. At this point their main purpose is not to screen you, but to help you understand yourself so you can minister more effectively.
Most denominations require you to undergo Clinical Pastoral Education. It might be part of your seminary’s curriculum, or you might have to do it separately.
The Final Stage
At the end, you generally have to write an ordination paper and discuss it at your final ordination interview. At that meeting, they decide whether to ordain you. If you have gotten this far, you’ll most likely make it. The purpose of all that mentoring and stuff was to prevent you from getting this far without succeeding.
After all that, you are ordained at a special ordination service. The rough outline of the service is the same in all denominations.
In some denominations, the process does not end there. For example, United Methodists still have a probationary period they have to complete before they are fully and finally ordained.
Why all This Fuss?
At this point, you might wonder what all this fuss is about. After all, you are a Bible whiz and everyone thinks you are called, so why go through all this? The ordained ministry is not about you, it is about the people you serve. Ordination occurs within the context of the church, and the purpose of this process is to equip you to succeed.
Shortcuts to Ordination
There are always shortcuts. For example, you can get a doctorate degree from an unaccredited school for your “life experience”—but if you use that degree to get a job, you may find yourself on the street as soon as your employer finds out. You can also declare your bedroom an independent country and make yourself president for life—but don’t expect to join the United Nations any time soon.
So there are shortcuts for ordination, too. I don’t recommend any of them. You can get “ordained” by a website—their only requirement is that you pay a fee. While you are there you can get them to canonize you as a saint or certify you as a shaman, too. Or you could find an independent church that ordains you on the spot. Or you could gather 30 of your friends every Sunday for Bible study in your living room and have them ordain you. Or you could just ordain yourself, for that matter. If you take any of these shortcuts and later decide to affiliate with a mainstream denomination, you may find it very difficult or even impossible to get them to take you seriously.