To be ordained is to be designated by a religious body with certain responsibilities and qualifications to perform the sacred practices of that religion.
Ordination is required for certain roles in Buddhism, Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, and a majority of Christian denominations. The ordination process for various religious bodies varies in its emphasis, its specific timing, and its particular meaning. However, certain aspects of ordination are common for all, including:
Where does seminary fit in? For those considering ordination, the first stop should be with a denominational representative—a pastor, bishop, church leader, or knowledgeable person—who can advise you about your denomination’s process. Although the choice of seminary will be yours, it is wise to enter the ordination process prior to beginning coursework or in the early months of study. A seminary education is a part of the ordination process. Some seminary students enter the ordination process during their graduate studies; however, completed coursework alone does not expedite the ordination process. Even if you complete seminary successfully, the time frame (typically two-three years) for the ordination process will still be required.
As an ecumenical seminary, Union strives to support our students seeking ordination with our curriculum, our spiritual formation, field education, and denominational partnerships. The seminary does not ordain graduates, but rather helps prepare graduates to be ordained in their respective traditions.
A Sense of Call
In the words of Frederick Buechner, "Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear a further call." To be called is to experience an internal sense of urgency toward a life dedicated to ministry, to God, or to the divine. In many religions and denominations, the internal call must be complemented or validated by the community and its governing bodies before a path toward ordination may be initiated.
Relationship to a Community
Most religious bodies that ordain require an individual to be (or become) an active member of a community in that religious body before beginning the ordination process. Because ordination involves the support, encouragement and mutual discernment of a community, those seeking ordination are generally encouraged to be part of a specific community within their religion for a period of time before the process begins. This community will be a partner with the individual throughout the process. If you are not affiliated with a specific community, you may find information about a representative sample of denominations by reading about the ordination process here and following links to denominational websites.
Together, the individual and the community will assess the basic gifts that the individual brings to the ordination process.
For example, the Episcopal Church offers the following list of foundational gifts for the priestly ministry:
- Sense of self: self-knowledge, psychological health
- Personal integrity: authenticity, trustworthiness, dependability
- Intelligence: intellectual grasp of concepts and practical applications and implications of them.
- Spiritual depth: a tended relationship with God in Christ
- Sense of vocation for the ordained ministry: a call, a beckoning recognized as from God
- Leadership: initiative, vision, willingness to risk, ability to motivate others
- Sense of fitness of things: judgment, boundaries, etc.
- Loyalty to the institution of the Church: a healthy respect for the traditions and authority of the Church from a position of challenge as well as from a position of support.
Specifics for each denomination are included in the Ordination Process steps.
The urgency of a sense of call may lead those entering the ordination process to look for the most direct path to complete that process. However, most denominations and religious bodies have a multi-year ordination process with deep spiritual as well as practical roots. If you are unaffiliated (not a member of a specific religious group or denomination) you may wish to consider the differing approaches to ordination before choosing a community with which to partner during your ordination process.
The following broad steps apply to most ordination processes. These steps run concurrently with the three to four years of a typical seminary education. A topline comparative presentation of several denominations’ ordination processes is also available here.
The terms applied to those seeking ordination and to the steps of the process vary among denominations. The following timeline loosely frames those steps and provides links to details by denomination. It is important to remember that this is a multi-year process designed to coincide with seminary education.
Step 1: Discernment
Although discernment will continue throughout the ordination process and ministry itself, most denominations are very clear about the need for discernment as a first step for those who feel called to ministry.
Personal discernment—Personal discernment is a reflective process, which should be undertaken thoughtfully, with prayer, meditation and the spiritual engagement of your religious practice as well as conversation and consultation with trusted individuals who can respond honestly to your sense of call. During personal discernment an individual examines motives, goals and options related to the perceived call and seeks guidance for ways to respond to it.
It is wise to consider all of the factors that may influence your decision, of which timing may be one, but which also include—your personal faith history and journey, the polity and governance that shapes the process for a particular group or denomination, the vocational direction you perceive may be right for you. In some cases, you may find that your call involves challenges. For example, women may feel called to forms of leadership that are not currently available in their religious group and yet may feel strongly called to be a part of that group. Gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered or gender non-conforming persons may be called to serve in groups that have yet to fully acknowledge or include them.
Discernment in community—This process will be more or less formalized based on the denomination, but will usually involve both the individual and some representative body within their faith tradition.
For example, within protestant denominations that use an “episcopal” form of governance, such as the AME, Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Methodist Churches, the discernment process would be guided by ordained clergy (under the leadership of bishops) who would meet and become familiar with the individual to help assess the sense of call, gifts and talents that each person may bring to the ministry.
In other Reformed traditions, lay and clergy groups are involved in the process throughout. For example in the Presbyterian Church, which is organized as a representative democracy, the session (a council of lay persons called ruling elders) of the individual’s congregation will perform this assessment and nominate the person to the local presbytery for care if they affirm his or her call. Churches that operate more autonomously (Congregationalist and some Baptist churches, for example) may have a less formalized process, but may rely on a pastoral recommendation before a person begins seminary.
Step 2: Inquiry/Exploration
Once the individual and the appropriate body within the church have agreed to commit to the ordination process, it will begin with a period of learning, introductory steps, and preliminary requirements known as inquiry or exploring. At the outset of this stage, the individual and the religious body make a formal commitment to one another (often including a contract). The individual will be asked to provide written statements, interview with the appropriate groups and individuals, and enroll in courses, if he or she is not already enrolled.
During this early phase, individuals will have the opportunity to examine whether the initial call seems to fit with the realities of ordination requirements.
Most denominations require a psychological assessment, which includes career suitability tests, like the Meyers-Briggs standardized exam, and review with a certified psychologist. Some denominations require this assessment prior to entering the process. Others incorporate the assessment in the first phase of development.
Step 3: Candidacy/Affirmation
For some denominations, an individual is known as a candidate throughout the ordination process, for others there is a distinct designation in the earliest stage of the process, such as inquirer, explorer, or postulant. Whether a different term is applied or not, each denomination has steps, examinations and requirements that delineate degrees of preparation for ordination.
Following the initial phase of inquiry and exploration, the individual will be asked to reaffirm his/her commitment to continue the ordination process. As with the previous step, individuals will be asked to provide written and oral affirmations, as well as to demonstrate progress in the form of completed coursework and other prescribed requirements of the inquiry or exploratory phase of the process.
Step 4: Certification and Call
After all coursework, fieldwork, spiritual formation and other requirements have been completed (or completion is reasonably anticipated within a specific period of time) the denomination or group will assess whether a candidate may be certified as prepared for ordination. Certification verifies the candidate’s readiness to seek ordained positions, or to present credentials as a certified candidate for ordination for positions that do not require, but may positively view ordination. Career options are defined in the Career Path section of this website.
Ritual completion/Service of ordination/Call to ministry
Ordination is marked by a ritual or service of ordination in which the candidate must answer questions, take vows, and/or assume responsibilities within the context of the religious community. Different traditions handle the timing and details related to ordination differently. In some cases, candidates are ordained by the denomination in preparation for a call, in others, candidates must receive a call into which they will be ordained.
Union curriculum provides support for ordination by offering foundational and advanced courses that correspond to the requirements of most denominations. In addition, Union is keenly aware of the realities of a multi-faith, multi-religious world, and provides groundbreaking interfaith studies with faculty who are leaders in this critically important arena. Union also accepts credits for certain courses taken to fulfill denominational requirements at other institutions when Union does not provide a comparable course. Your denomination should provide the applicable academic requirements as you begin the ordination process.
A typical Union curriculum for a student in the ordination process might include:
Year 1: Old Testament Introduction, New Testament Introduction, Contemporary Theology, Foundations of Theology, Early Church History, Church History Reformation, Greek or Hebrew (see denominational requirements), required “Cities” courses
Year 2: Preaching and Worship, Biblical Exegesis (taken concurrently), Greek or Hebrew (see above), Field Education (with internship) both semesters, World Religion course, Church History to the Present, electives in a designated area of focus (such as Bible, Christian Ethics, etc), Depth Psychology (required for those participating in CPE)
Year 3: Senior Thesis and/or coursework in specified area of focus
A complete view of Union’s current course offerings will show the specific classes available in the categories shown above.
For denominational information about course requirements, go to the ordination process of Union’s website and follow the denominational links.
Affiliated organizations—Union works in close affiliation with the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as other seminaries that provide courses that complement Union’s basic curriculum. We also work with area mosques, interfaith organizations, community organizations and our partner schools for Social Work, Columbia University and Hunter College.
Auburn Theological Seminary is an educational resource within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that serves the Union community through its programming and its presence. Auburn Media provides media training for seminarians to introduce emerging leaders to a range of media they may need in their ministries in the digital age. For Presbyterian students, Auburn also provides accredited courses in both Polity and Worship and Sacraments that provide deeper understanding of these central aspects of ministry and help students prepare for the correlate ordination exams and meet ordination requirements in their respective presbyteries.
Among its many services to the Presbyterian students at Union, Auburn is a site for ordination exams, which occur twice annually at the end of January and the end of August.
Liturgical and Spiritual Training
Worship leadership is a central concern for students who are seeking ordination as church leaders and pastors. Union’s Worship Office provides hands-on training, resources, and creative exploration of worship through innovative use of Union’s infinitely flexible James Chapel. The chapel is the regular home of Union’s daily weekday student-led chapel services as well as host to large-scale community events. Creative use of other spaces on campus, including the more intimate Lampman Chapel, the quad and the architecturally (and acoustically) remarkable Rotunda are also often used to explore worship possibilities.
In addition, students who are interested in parish ministry (serving in a church) may spend their field placement in a church that will involve them in worship leadership.
Spiritual formation In addition to educational and practical development, students in the ordination process will benefit from a range of experiences designed to support spiritual formation. Union’s spiritual formation team offers ongoing seminars, discussions, and experiences throughout the academic year. In addition, denominations offer (and some require) denominational spiritual formation.
Field education All students at Union will participate in field education, including a structured field placement program during the second (and in some cases third) year of seminary. The invaluable experience of learning by doing, coupled with readings and reflections that provide context and deepen the benefit of field site work, make Union’s Field Education program a critical component of the journey toward ordination—or clarification that ordination is not the path to which you are being called.
Demonstration of Suitability/Certification
Regardless of the process an individual may follow, seeking ordination will allow an individual to stretch and grow in all the areas cited in this section: spiritual, educational and intellectual, practical, liturgical, ethical and psychological challenges and opportunities for transformation abound in the ordination process. All ordaining bodies will require a demonstration of the overall suitability an individual displays at the end of the process.
Examinations will be conducted, references will be requested, and some form of certification will be conferred by the ordaining body. The suitability of the individual will rest upon those foundational gifts and will be built by the ordination process itself.
Call, Ordination, Career Paths
At the completion of the ordination process, including the academic requirements, individuals will re-engage with a call process. This time the call will be to a particular ministry or application of the gifts that have been refined in the ordination process. More information about career options is available in the Career Path section of this website.