A Complete Guide to Career Paths in Christian Leadership

Christian leadership career at work with youth

Respected Christian colleges around the country offer the promise of preparing you for a career in Christian leadership. And as you begin to look into both the concept and the real-world role of Christian leaders, you will soon discover that the paths to God's service are as varied as the many types of ministries that exist in the world.

Your role in God's service could be to found a ministry, building it into a megachurch where you serve as senior pastor reaching thousands of congregants each week. Perhaps you see yourself walking a humbler and more solitary path in one of the original Christian traditions, serving as a lone missionary evangelizing in local communities or distant lands. Maybe you’ve always wanted to take up the mantle of Christian leadership as a youth pastor for the very same church you’ve attended since childhood. 

No matter what the calling to Christian leadership might look like for you, a proper education in scripture and practical pastoring is very likely in your future.

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But what is a Christian leadership career? Does it require ordination? Does it mean only ministers and pastors? Are church elders considered leaders, or advisors?

What is Christian leadership?

Make no mistake, any Christian can be a leader. They must be. Those with faith are called to step up in the most trying times, against the most challenging odds. That’s what faith is, and that is what Christ calls on you to do.

So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.

But there are also those who are called to step forward daily, to devote themselves and their lives to the Great Commission, spreading the Gospel to all peoples and all nations. This is a kind of leadership that is more about life than about circumstance. Chaplains, pastors, missionaries, and others take that path.

Being called is a mysterious process that is unique to everyone. You may have known since childhood that you are destined for church leadership, laying your plans to attend Bible college since you were in high school. Or it may occur to you in an instant after you are already well along your path, an affirmation that your experiences have been moving you in the right direction, and that now is the time to get the Christ-centered education you need.

All Christians Can Be Leaders, But Not All Christian Jobs Are Christian Leadership Jobs

You can think of Christian careers as falling into a couple of different kinds of groups. They are all important, as is any calling from God. But some of them are in supporting roles.

Biblical languagesChristian counseling, theology, apologetics – these are educational domains for academic or service roles. Christians with a lot of expertise as academics and researchers may be leaders in their own way, of course, but that isn't what most of us have in mind when we think of Christian leadership.

In the most fundamental sense, Christian leadership involves taking on an active role in the leadership of a church. That means careers in Christian leadership almost always come with one of these titles:

These are typically not only roles, but also jobs within the church or other faith-based organization.

What is a Church?

Christian religious group praying outsideWhen you are talking about leadership in the church, it’s important to understand that church itself is a word with several different meanings between and even within different Christian denominations.

The Universal Church - All Christians everywhere are members of the church by virtue of their beliefs. As a part of the body of Christ, they are unanimous in their worship in Christ.

The Congregation - Any group of regularly meeting Christians can also be a church.

The Building - In practical use, many people refer to the gathering place for the congregation itself as a church.

There are also doctrines that divide the visible and the invisible churches, or define a believers’ church, where rebirth and baptism connect you to all other such individuals.

Of course, how you define church leadership depends on which of these bodies you may be talking about at the time.

You don’t need to have a paying job to be a Christian leader. But for many Christian leaders, that calling will become their career and provide the source of income to support their families and themselves.

What Christian Leadership Really Means

1 Timothy 3 spells out most of the qualifications required of Christian leaders. For the most part, however, they are qualities that should be embraced by any Christian:

  • Blameless
  • Temperate
  • Sober
  • Honest

They should have experience, have faith, and have families who are likewise.

But other characteristics emerge from Scripture that go further toward describing Christian leaders.

Christian leaders are also servants. Jesus refers to them as shepherds, caring for their flock. They nourish, guide them out of danger, correct, and protect them. As Christ washed the feet of his disciples, a Christian leader will not shrink from performing the lowest of tasks if it benefits their congregation.

Christian leaders act from love. The services that leaders perform must not be for greed of filthy lucre, or even from pride. Instead, they must be driven by love, of both God and congregation.

Christian leaders exhibit integrity. A shepherd has great responsibility, but also power. But this is always exercised in the service of the Lord, not in self-interest. Respect for the laws of God and men should be foremost in their mind.

Christian leaders act with piety. Christian leaders do not act solely on their own judgements, but must ever be guided by the Word of God.

These qualities are not restricted to official positions in the church. Anyone may exhibit them, and most Christians do so from time to time. But dedicating your whole heart and life to this path is something that few can accomplish.

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Christian leadership isn’t always a job, but there are certainly many official positions out there for Christian leaders. But having the ethos to fulfill those roles humbly and in line with God’s will is the most important qualification for all of them.

Christian Leadership Can Be Taught Through Bible College

Another thing Christian leadership careers have in common: you need a college education to get them.

There are different reasons for that. One is that they are often jobs as well as callings, and the organizations that hire people to those jobs require qualifications.

Another reason is that the Bible tells us so.

A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall.

There are many ways to move from inexperience to experience. In our world, though, one of the surest paths to knowledge and practice as a pastor without falling into temptation is through a degree program where you are mentored and shepherded under the guidance of a trusted Christian leader.

It’s no accident that every Christian degree comes with coursework in Spiritual formation… 

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
but whoever hates correction is stupid.

The church has always valued education. In fact, some of the earliest universities were formed for the express purpose of educating clergy. But that education was in a lot more than just practical, worldly matters. Christian leaders offer comfort and hope leading to salvation and eternal life. That higher truth comes through contemplation and study of Scripture, a strong emphasis in most Christian degrees today.

The Hierarchy of Christian Leadership in The Church

Christian leaders make Christianity stronger through organization. But the hierarchy and titles in different denominations do not always line up. In fact, the Christian beliefs in different denominations, and their interpretation of the Great Commission, may not allow for agreement on whether or not a church should have a hierarchy at all.

The Bible itself lays out Christ as head of the church, with elders, deacons, and apostles below. No additional structure is outlined in Scripture.

In practical terms, though, there’s always going to be someone at the top of the phone tree. God made humans as hierarchical creatures, comfortable in small groups, working together with guidance and example.

When You Talk About Church Leadership, You Are Talking About Polity

Children's church eventPolity is a word that describes a form or process of governance. Theologians use it to talk about how different denominations organize their leadership structures. They have identified several different types:

Episcopal polity - This is the form of church governance in which a bishop or college of bishops govern the church. Perhaps the most famous form of episcopal polity is found in the Roman Catholic church, in which the pope serves as the bishop of bishops. However, this form of church governance can be found in the Anglican church and several other denominations.

Presbyterian polity - These churches are led by a committee or congress, made up of a number of different elders or presbyters. There can be several layers of these committees in large denominations, leading up to national or even international leadership bodies. Members may be elected or appointed as elders.

Congregational polity - These churches are, in theory, governed entirely by the congregation itself. In some cases, this may mean the organization has no designated leaders at all. In other cases, pastors, elders, or deacons may be elected by the congregation, and remain accountable to them.

Church polity affects what kind of formal leadership roles are available in different denominations. But don’t worry—in every kind of Christianity, there is room for real, well-educated leaders to step forth.

How different denominations describe those roles, whether formal or not, can be pretty confusing. Some claim to follow one polity, but in practical terms, actually reflect another. Many of them will use a particular title in completely different ways—a deacon in some denominations is a lay leader, sometimes even a teenager, where a deacon in other denominations is a formally ordained minister, with the advanced education and experience that role requires.

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The Career Paths and Tittles Associated With Christian Leadership

Your path to Christian leadership jobs will be your own. But if you are like most church leaders, you will begin in a small way, in your own congregation as a volunteer or part-time lay-leader.

Lay Leader, Reader, or Preacher

Sharing spiritual truth with friendThese roles don’t usually require any formal education. But an associate’s degree in ministry or pastoral studies makes you much more effective and much better prepared. The basic education in church history, Scripture, and formal theology gives you the knowledge you need to minister, while essential liberal studies teaching in English and social studies helps you communicate better.

With the approval of your peers and others in the leadership of your church, you might just find that you are pretty good at ministry. You might make connections, offer comfort, and feel comfortable yourself testifying to others.

And that is likely to lead you to the next level of Christian leadership role. The next step is a more formal one, and usually marks the beginning of your formal training for ordination and future leadership. These are often part-time roles but have a more permanent place in the church hierarchy, and are frequently paid positions.

Deacon, Preacher, or Unordained Pastor

Many denominations have a sort of transitional pastoral leadership position. The name for these roles vary, but they allow real experience in the ministry without going through formal ordination. They are assistant pastor roles, almost always under the supervision of a senior pastor, and can encompass youth ministry, leading prayer or support groups, or taking on some other church administrative or outreach responsibilities.

It’s most common to come to these roles already holding a bachelor’s degree in some Christian specialty area. The additional education from a four-year degree offers important advantages to you at this level. You will probably have some training in counseling. You’ll have a much better knowledge of Scripture. And you likely received some specialized instruction in some particular areas of ministry, from evangelism to missiology.

A bachelor’s degree is also key to the next step in your path to Christian leadership… it’s required for entry to master’s-level studies in divinity. And, in many denominations, that’s a necessity for ordination at the next level of Christian leadership:

Ordained Pastor or Minister

Becoming a fully-fledged pastor means becoming ordained, consecrated as a formal servant-leader in your denomination. It’s a position of great independence and responsibility.

What the Bible Has to Say About Ordination

Young woman praying at homeOrdination is a function laid out in the Bible, although with enough ambiguity that the standards differ from denomination to denomination. But this much is clear:

God calls people to his ministry and qualifies them for that role with gifts. It’s incumbent on the members of the church to recognize those individuals and their calling, and to anoint them through ceremony in that service.

Thus, the rites of ordination in modern Christianity.

Different denominations hold different standards, have different ceremonies, and invoke different rites and privileges to the ordained.

Most commonly, a candidate for ordination must:

  • Be a member in good standing of their church for some period of time before seeking ordination
  • Be endorsed by elders or congregation
  • Undergo an interview with a committee or other church leadership
  • Earn a master’s degree in divinity, or another master’s degree with the requisite coursework for the doctrine of their denomination

With those qualifications, you may take the ordination exams laid out by the church. These can be both written and oral exams, lasting for hours and probing both liturgical knowledge and personal spiritual qualities.

The ceremonies of ordination also vary, from extensive sacraments to a basic handshake and some paperwork.

That’s why most denominations require a Master of Divinity or similar graduate degree as a base of qualification. There will be many tests and interviews, as well, establishing your commitment and capabilities. But the MDiv will prepare you well to pass each of them.

There’s no real distinction in most denominations between pastor and senior pastor jobs. But like all jobs, you will grow as you serve, and it’s natural to take on additional responsibility for larger and larger congregations as you do so.

Your education will probably also continue as you serve. Many ordained pastors go back to school for additional master’s degrees in fields they want to improve in. Some even go on to doctoral studies, become experts and teachers as well as leaders.

With the right skills and knowledge, you might eventually find yourself ascending to the highest levels of Church leadership:

Elder, Bishop, Cardinal, or Supervisor

Man in robe praying in front of churchEpiscopalian and Presbyterian polities both come together at regional or national levels, coordinated by individuals or committees made up of Christian leaders in the most senior roles. You may be appointed or elected. Your training and education may matter, but even more important is your record of service and leadership in other roles.

Other denominations have a more formal structure, where groups of bishops or cardinals decide on appointments and promotions.

Education becomes less important at these levels than service, but a more advanced education and scriptural knowledge always puts you in a position to reach people more effectively with the message of the Gospel. It’s quite common for those serving at these levels to have Christian doctorates, or multiple master’s degrees, building their theoretical knowledge of doctrine and worship. It takes tremendous wisdom and knowledge to handle some of the complex questions of doctrinal and moral leadership that arise for this select group of Christian leaders.

Christian Leadership is Ultimately Between You and the Lord

This all lays out the process of becoming a Christian leader as if it’s a ladder. The reality, however, is that it is more like life itself. There are often twists and turns, ups and downs, maybe unexpected trials. And as you get further into leadership roles, you are not really ascending. Instead, you are finding yourself serving more and more people, with a greater weight of responsibility on you at every point.

But also like life, your destination is inevitable. God would not have started you on the path without the certainty that you were the right person for it. You’ll wake up every day knowing that truth, and working harder all the time to be worthy of it.

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