Being a religious leader – such as a priest, rabbi, imam or minister – isn’t a career in the usual sense. It’s usually seen as a ‘vocation’ – a role to which you are drawn or called to serve.
Regardless of your religion or denomination, this article will help you think about what religious leadership involves, consider your suitability and suggest ways you can prepare yourself for ministry. We’ll also look at alternative careers should religious leadership not be right for you.
We’re grateful to Katy Garner for her insights. After working as a priest, she was appointed lead Anglican chaplain for Bath Spa University in September 2023.
What does being a religious leader involve?
Religious leaders have a wide range of duties and these can vary depending on their role. Most take services, which can involve preparing and giving sermons, reading from sacred texts and leading prayers. They conduct ceremonies, such as marriages and funerals, and special religious events or festivals. Most religious leaders also take study/prayer groups.
Religious leaders support people who are struggling with their faith or who are going through difficult times in their lives. As well as giving spiritual guidance, they may co-ordinate practical support.
As a religious leader you would represent your faith within the community. In order to build good relationships, you may work with leaders from other faiths and from community groups.
As in all types of work, you are likely to have to do a certain amount of paperwork. You may also be involved in various committees or councils and get involved in fundraising.
Religious leaders also spend time focusing on their own spirituality.
Not all religious leaders are paid or work full time – some are part-time or get paid per service or session.
Where do religious leaders work?
Most religious leaders are linked to a place of worship, such as a particular church, mosque or synagogue. Some cover more than one congregation or a wider geographical area.
Your work may involve visiting people in their own homes and possibly spending time in hospitals, schools etc. Chaplains (see below) are based in universities, prisons, hospitals and so on. Some religious leaders spend time working overseas.
Would I suit being a religious leader?
You obviously need a strong faith and commitment to the way of life. The work can be demanding – you may be dealing with happy new parents one day and those who are bereaved the next. You must have resilience as well as compassion, patience, discretion and integrity, and the ability to relate to and inspire all sorts of people.
Along with a thorough knowledge and understanding of your religion’s teachings, values and traditions, you need excellent communication and listening skills, and to develop public speaking ability.
“My job is for someone who doesn’t mind a blank canvas each day; someone who is open to experiencing challenges that might not always be comfortable. You need to be happy working alone much of the time and have a strong sense of commitment.”
TIP: Consider helping within your church or another religious centre either in your spare time or perhaps during a gap year (e.g. through an organisation such as Global Connections). Most religious organisations run activities to help people with their faith or to serve their communities (youth clubs, social groups for older people, prayer groups, Sunday schools etc), so there are all sorts of ways in which you can get involved. This may help you find out more about your strengths and decide on your future direction.
Another way to explore whether you have what it takes to be a religious leader is to gain experience through a special programme, such as The Church of England’s Ministry Experience Scheme for those aged 18-30.
Be aware that some religions have restrictions on who can enter certain leadership roles, for instance if you are married or a woman; you may, however, find that there are alternative ways to serve.
How do I become a religious leader?
People enter religious leadership from a wide variety of backgrounds and at all ages. Some – like Katy – have already had other careers.
The process of preparing to become a religious leader depends on your religion/denomination. There may be no set entry requirements to start training apart from commitment to your faith. It can, however, take a few years to prepare for religious leadership and for some faiths the training incudes studying at higher education level, so you may need A-levels/Highers or equivalent.
The training for religious leadership can include a residential programme at a specialist college or training centre where you learn more about your religion and the role of a leader. You may also gain experience within the community, working alongside an experienced leader and being mentored, and/or spend a period in private contemplation.
TIP: Arrange to speak with your own religious leader. Ask them about the steps involved and talk things through generally. They will be able to help you explore whether the work could be right for you or if, indeed, you are ready for it just yet.
Most students take religion as part of the school curriculum. A GCSE/National or A level/Higher course in the subject would give you the chance to learn about different faiths, explore ethical and moral issues, and perhaps clarify your own beliefs.
At university, there are degree and postgraduate courses in, for example, religious studies, theology, divinity, Biblical studies and Islamic studies. Studying religion as an academic subject at school, college or university isn’t usually necessary to become a religious leader, but can be useful.
TIP: If you are considering higher education, make sure that you check the content and entry requirements for any courses of interest – the UCAS website is a good starting point. The focus of courses varies; some cover a range of religions whereas others are concerned with a particular faith.
In England, it’s possible to train to become a Christian minister through a degree apprenticeship for church ministers. You would be prepared for leadership within your church whilst also studying for a degree in theology and ministry.
In Wales, the higher apprenticeship at level 4 in church ministry equips you with the experience and qualification (CertHE in workplace mission and ministry) for Christian ministry within churches, chaplaincy, youth and children’s work or other areas.
Once in employment you will be provided with ongoing support and training for your role.
We asked Katy about her career route…
“I began my working life as a nurse and later trained as a midwife. After having my children I took a degree in chemistry and then a PhD. I think I knew that God was calling me, but I wasn’t sure I could be a priest – how could I stand in a pulpit and preach? I talked to my vicar and was interviewed by two chaplains who gave their opinion on whether they thought I had been called to ordained ministry.
I then worked with a priest from the diocese whose job it was to make sure. This was followed by a bishop’s advisory panel, which involved team presentations, pastoral questions and interviews.
Nine months later, I was at Cuddesdon theological college in Oxford taking a two-year diploma for theology, ministry and mission. This was followed by three years’ training within a parish in Hampshire.
It was only after this that I was fully trained ready to be placed where God called. I worked as a parish priest for four years before becoming a university chaplain.”
What opportunities are there to progress in religious leadership?
Different religions and denominations have different career structures; opportunities vary, but most have a hierarchy of religious leaders. To move to a higher position you may have to be recommended by other leaders and/or there may be a formal process.
In some cases it’s possible to combine religious leadership with humanitarian work, teaching, counselling or other roles in the UK or overseas.
Katy told us…
“I am the first person to be appointed a full-time chaplain at Bath Spa University – the chaplaincy was previously run by great volunteers. I am here to allow students and staff to be curious about faith. I am beginning to develop a group of faith advisors from all faiths and none to form a chaplaincy team to support students and staff. The team is here to journey with people, to support them spiritually, and to rejoice and lament in whatever place they find themselves.
At university, most students are starting to experience life without the direct support from parents and carers, so this is when they begin to form their own views. I see my role as being able to offer an insight into the faiths that are around them, so that they can make informed choices to benefit themselves and our world.”
How can I find out more about religious leadership?
Regardless of your age or stage in life, if you are considering religious leadership, as mentioned above, arrange to have a chat with a leader within your faith organisation. Also see the website for your particular religion or denomination whether that is The Church of England, The Church in Wales, The Church of Scotland or The Church of Ireland, or if you are Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh.
If religious leadership isn’t right for you, there are lots of careers you could consider where you can make a difference in the world, such as youth work, healthcare, community development, counselling and social work – you could even train as a religious studies teacher. Alternatively, you could work for your religious organisation as a volunteer or in a support role – most need people in areas such as finance, administration, fundraising and communications.
For the right person religious leadership can provide the satisfaction of supporting people with their faith and within the community at large. Katy says, “Despite certain challenges, my job is an immense privilege. I work with people who are beginning their own journey in the world and trying to discover their place. Having spent so much of my life in academia, it feels like home to me to be able to support and encourage students and staff in this environment.”
Debbie Steel, January 2024
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information, and a member of the Careers Writers Association and Career Development Institute.