Pastoral Degrees: Associate's, Bachelor's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a pastoral degree program? Read about pastoral degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate and bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Associate and Bachelor's in Pastoral Studies: Degrees at a Glance

For those called to Christian ministry, a degree program in pastoral studies can provide foundational education in Biblical and theological studies as well as guidance in spiritual formation. Additional coursework is designed to prepare students for practical aspects of the role, including teaching and ministry training.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in clergy positions will be about 18%, about as fast as average for all industries, in the years 2010-2020. For religious education directors, growth was expected to be 17% in the same years.

Associate Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals interested in becoming pastors of churches who are beginning their educational process Individuals either beginning or continuing their education to take the role of a pastor
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Pastor ($44,000 - based on salary for all clergy)*
- Missionary ($26,000)*
Same as associate, plus:
- Religious education director ($36,000)*
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 4 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 16 courses
- Internship or service
- Roughly 32 courses
- possible language requirement
- Internship or service
Prerequisites High school diploma High school diploma
Online Availability Yes Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Associate Degree in Pastoral Studies

Prospective students looking to begin their education may consider an associate degree in pastoral studies. While for some denominations and congregations this degree may provide the necessary background to function as a church pastor, in other cases, a higher-level degree will be necessary. Some churches may require a bachelor's degree or even a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) for ordination. You are recommended to discuss these requirements with church and denominational leaders to determine the suitability of specific training programs. Pastoral training programs may sometimes be found under other titles as well, or as concentrations that are part of larger programs.

Pros and Cons


  • For some denominations, an associate degree in pastoral studies fulfills educational requirements for pastoral positions.
  • As many of these associate degrees are offered by church-affiliated colleges, coursework can provide training specifically tailored to the denomination.
  • Pastoral studies programs not only provide religious and vocational training, but often offer students guidance in spiritual formation.


  • Denominationally focused training may limit the scope of the job search for students over the course of a developing career.
  • Many churches require that applicants for pastoral positions have completed education beyond the associate level.
  • Positions for directors of religious education generally require at least a bachelor's degree, though this may vary by denomination and position.

Courses and Requirements

Associate degree programs in pastoral studies provide a basic understanding of theology, leadership and administration. Additionally, they may require internships and other practical experience in the field as part of both spiritual formation and vocational training. Courses cover such topics as:

  • Administrating Christian ministry
  • Bible study
  • Biblical approaches to counseling, marriage and family
  • Christian theology
  • New Testament
  • Old Testament
  • Practical ministry
  • Spiritual formation
  • Stewardship, evangelism and discipleship
  • The Gospels and the life of Christ
  • Understanding Christian education

Online Degree Options

Some who are called to a vocation as a spiritual leader find the need to balance this goal with career and family duties. For these students, online degrees in pastoral studies are available. As with any religious vocational program, clear communication with church and denomination leaders may be necessary to determine if a program of study is theologically and educationally appropriate.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you're looking to stand out with a degree in pastoral studies, you may want to take advantage of the opportunities for service and leadership provided by the institution. As training for ministerial positions considers spiritual formation, focusing on developing close professional relationships with mentors who have experience in the field may be of benefit. Developing relationships with religious leaders can provide both guidance and the opportunity to earn excellent recommendations as the students move either to further educational opportunities or into professional church service.

Bachelor's Degree in Pastoral Studies

If you either are beginning your education or have already completed an associate degree and are planning on continuing to a 4-year program, then a bachelor's in pastoral studies can provide you with the firm theological foundation and vocational skills necessary to either enter an M.Div. program or seek a role as a pastor or religious educator. These degrees are more in-depth than the associate degrees, and may include Old Testament language requirements.

Pros and Cons


  • Pastoral studies degree programs can function as preparation for both leadership positions and graduate theology programs.
  • These programs are often offered at denomination-specific schools that provide a theologically homogeneous environment for spiritual formation.
  • The internships and service opportunities provided by pastoral studies programs assist in both career development and spiritual formation.


  • Students from denominations different from the school should make certain that the programs they are considering are in theological harmony with their own beliefs.
  • Because spiritual formation is part of the program, character and leadership capabilities will always be on display.
  • In some states, religious schools may apply for a waiver of accreditation for religious degrees, so students should be careful to check the accreditation status of programs carefully.

Courses and Requirements

The coursework for a bachelor's degree in pastoral studies is similar to that for the associate degree, but focuses more on theological questions and providing students with the background for Biblical analysis. As with the associate degree, these programs balance practical applications with theological considerations.

  • Church service and ministry
  • Denominational history
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Israel: geography and history
  • History of Christian thought
  • History of the Church
  • Missions and evangelical thought
  • Religious education and Biblical curriculum
  • Spiritual counseling principles and practice
  • Vocation, administration and leadership

Online Degree Options

Pastoral programs that educate at the bachelor's level are available online. As with all of these programs, you should take care to make certain that the theological approach is consistent both with your own beliefs and that of the community you hope to serve. As online courses may not in all cases provide face-to-face mentorship, you should work with your own church leadership to provide both internship experience and leadership opportunities.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you're wishing to stand out in a pastoral bachelor's degree program, you may want to put effort into developing mentoring relationships with religious leaders. Additionally, you should seek to show leadership among students both on campus and during service activities. Since religious leadership is considered a combination of skill and character, if you're seeking to become a spiritual leader you should strive to act in ways consistent with your beliefs at all times.

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