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How to Become an Ordained Clergy

Growth Trends for Related Jobs

Those who grew up going to church or another religious institution are likely familiar with the role of the clergy, ordained professional spiritual leaders who perform religious ceremonies, offer spiritual guidance and share faith-based insights with their congregation. There are a variety of career options for ordained clergy; in addition to acting as a congregational minister, clergy can elect to become religious education directors, theology professors, chaplains or spiritual counselors. The road to becoming a clergy member is different according to your religion and what type of path you want to go down.

Job Description

As defined by Britannica, the clergy is a "body of ordained ministers in a Christian church." In both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church, the term includes the orders of bishop, priest and deacon. Clergy professionals can also include spiritual leaders in the Jewish and Islamic religions.

Clergy members are typically considered to be the leaders or directors of a church, and they are responsible for the spiritual health and growth of all the church's members as well as all aspects of the church and its role in the community. Ordained clergy perform a variety of tasks, including (but not limited to) visiting sick or dying church members, performing basic religious rites, advising congregants on spiritual matters, providing faith-based comfort when needed and sharing their religious insight. Clergy often perform administrative tasks as well, including organizing membership, overseeing church staff and keeping up with building maintenance.

One of the many functions that ordained clergy have is to comfort the sick, either at home or in the hospital. In this scenario, the clergy member acts as a sympathetic listener and source of spiritual and emotional guidance for the sick person. For many people who identify as religious, clergy professionals represent the authority of God during times of severe illness or pain.

In addition to acting as the leader of a church congregation and offering home visits for those in need, professional clergy members may work in hospitals, prisons, the military or in educational environments. Particularly for those clergy members who hold a master's degree or higher in religion, theology or divinity, you may find that a job in an elementary school, high school or university is an excellent fit. In the role of religious educator, teacher or director, professional clergy may teach courses in religion and history and design faith-based programs and events, in addition to providing religious and spiritual guidance to those in need.

Ordained clergy often take jobs in therapy and counseling, providing consistent spiritual guidance to patients. In institutions like the military, prisons and hospitals, clergy usually provide nondenominational religious services. In addition, clergy may take administrative church jobs (especially early on in their careers); some sample administrative duties may include paying church bills, doing general office work (like answering phones and making copies), organizing communication efforts, spearheading new membership initiatives and more.

Education Requirements and Skills

Each religion has specific requirements for ordaining members of clergy, so looking into these requirements should be your first step on the path to becoming a clergy member. With that being said, many clergy professionals hold bachelor's and master's degrees in religious studies, history, theology and other related fields; this is especially true for those clergy who want to work as educators, religious directors or educational leaders in the field.

Those aspiring clergy members who wish to go the master's degree route would do well to consider going to divinity school. There are several top-ranked colleges in the country that have divinity programs with multiple degree options. Graduate divinity schools combine immersive theological study with fieldwork in hospitals, congregations and other places in the community to prepare students for a lifetime acting as a church leader or minister.

Some of the best-ranked divinity schools in the U.S. include Boston College, Yale Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, Duke University, Emory University and Vanderbilt University. Students from a variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds attend divinity school, including those who aren't affiliated with a specific religious tradition. For aspiring clergy professionals, a divinity school degree can enable you to explore the complexities of religious thought, take on challenging questions about the meaning of religion and God and be able to compare the world's religions in a nuanced, knowledgeable way.

Clergy may wish to (or need to, depending on your religion) attend a religious seminary; this is different from divinity school in that seminaries are typically affiliated with a particular religious denomination while divinity or theological schools are not (though occasionally a seminary may be part of a larger university or school that stands alone). A seminary is a school that specifically prepares students to be rabbis, ministers or priests; thus, there are Jewish seminaries, Catholic seminaries and Protestant seminaries. Going to seminary is a good plan for those aspiring clergy who know they want to work as ordained ministers in a church or similar institution.

The foundational degree that most seminaries and divinity schools offer is the Master of Divinity (M.Div), while many also offer a Master of Theology (Th.M), a D.Min. (Doctor of Ministry) or a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degree. Again, both divinity schools and seminaries (or, as they're sometimes referred to, theology schools) teach theology, but a seminary is usually associated with a specific denomination. Seminaries may or may not be part of a larger university system.

In terms of personality requirements and life skills, clergy are typically very empathetic people, with a propensity for speaking with and connecting to others. Clergy are patient, gracious and kind, and they are willing to be a constant source of support for others who wish to express their fears and anxieties; they're adept at discussing painful psychological problems and hearing confessions of all kinds. Clergy are also typically above-average public speakers and listeners who are willing to serve others over themselves.

Especially if they work in education, many clergy professionals speak multiple languages and can either read or speak Latin, Hebrew or Arabic, depending on their religion. Clergy should be knowledgeable about the world's religions and be able to engage with others on matters of spiritual rites, duties and belief systems. Most of all, ordained clergy are deeply religious or spiritual people with a passion for spreading these beliefs to others and discussing the world's religions with a fair, balanced perspective.

Wedding Officiant Requirements

Those who simply want to get ordained to officiate a wedding are in luck. The process to do this is simple and straightforward, regardless of whether you want to become ordained for life or simply become a temporary officiant. In this case, obtaining a clergy certification involves filling out an online form and adhering to instructions.

The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a non-denominational spiritual organization that welcomes anyone who wishes to become ordained, whether you're planning to start your own church or officiate at a friend or family member's wedding. As an ordained member of the ULC, you will possess full legal status to officiate marriage ceremonies. To become a legally ordained minister through the ULC, aspiring officiants must complete the online ordination form, read through the confirmation email and ensure that you've complied with all instructions.

Of course, it's also important to check out the requirements in the state and county where you'll be performing the marriage ceremony, as these requirements do vary. You may need to request official documents from the governor, or you may only need to be ordained by a religious organization like the ULC. Knowing your state's regulations is crucial.

Industry

Although clergy jobs can be found in both secular and faith-based environments, most clergy members work within a religious congregation, running a church, parish or religious activities. Typically, they don't just preside over religious services; they also create church budgets, take church collections and perform other administrative tasks as needed. Clergy may also be responsible for building management, staff supervision and recruiting new members of the church, parish or religious organization.

In addition to working in churches or similar institutions, ordained clergy may make home visits for people. They may also work as college campus ministers, Army chaplains or hospital chaplains. Clergy professionals can also transfer their skills and expertise into several other fields, such as teaching, religious education and directing, social work and other fields that involve spiritual guidance, therapy and psychological counseling.

Years of Experience and Salary

As defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), clergy are formal leaders who "conduct religious worship and perform other spiritual functions associated with beliefs and practices of religious faith or denomination." This category is fairly broad, but there are data available for different industries and organizations. In May of 2017, clergy members across industries made a median annual salary of $47,100 (or $22.65 per hour); this means that half of all clergy members made more than this, while the other half made less.

Salary data and trends for religious leaders differ by industry, according to the BLS. The industry with the highest published employment and wages is religious organizations (with 12.7 percent employment and an annual mean wage of $49,220), followed by general medical and surgical hospitals (with 0.15 employment and an annual mean wage of $52,740) home health care services (with 0.43 percent employment and an annual mean wage of $52,040), nursing care facilities (with0 .11 percent employment and an annual mean wage of $49,910) and elementary and secondary schools (with 0.02 percent employment and an annual mean wage of $43,910).

In addition, the states with the highest employment level in this occupation include New York, California, Oregon, Texas and Michigan. Employment and salary data (from May 2017) are as follows:

  • New York: Employment at 8,130 and annual mean wage at $54,290
  • California: Employment at 5,080 and annual mean wage at $60,070
  • Oregon: Employment at 4,440 and annual mean wage at $50,280  
  • Texas: Employment at 2,920 and annual mean wage at $50,500
  • Michigan: Employment at 2,470 and annual mean wage at $42,070 

Meanwhile, the top-paying states for this profession are as follows (ranked by annual mean wage):

  • District of Columbia: $63,680
  • Washington: $62,050
  • California: $60,070
  • Massachusetts: $59,240
  • Alaska: $56,540

Job Growth Trend

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in the clergy profession will increase by about 8 percent from 2016 to 2026. This is slightly faster than the national average rate across all occupations, which is estimated to be 7 percent. As long as there are religious organizations and similar institutions in America, as well as the need for religious and spiritual guidance, there will be jobs for clergy professionals.

As of 2018, the percentage of workers who are aged 55 and older was 48 percent. More and more clergy members are older, and often, becoming a clergy member is a second, third or fourth career in people's lives. There are fewer and fewer high school graduates that choose this particular career.

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About the Author

Justine Harrington is based in Austin, where she writes about current trends in workplace wellness, co-working, and millennial career culture. Her work has been published in Forbes, USA Today, Fodor's, Marriott Traveler, SAS Airlines, the Austin American-Statesman, Austin Monthly, and dozens of other print and online publications.