The Rev. Rosa Young Singleton didn't have college, but she had a calling.

Singleton started as a youth minister at a nondenominational church in 2000. But when she went back home to Georgetown's St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2013, she was told that she would need a bachelor's degree if she wanted to pursue a pastoral ministry.

Raising two children and working, Singleton enrolled at Allen University and commuted from the Lowcountry to Columbia for classes every week.

"I got weary," she said. "I was like 'Lord, do I really need to go through all of this to preach your gospel?'''

There are many in the faith community who contemplate whether a church has the authority to restrict a person from pursuing God's calling based on their level of education.

Most mainline church denominations require candidates for ministry to obtain a college education and attend seminary if they want to pastor a church. Religious leaders say its a way of preparing preachers for the weighty responsibility of ministry. But they also acknowledge that college can be a stumbling block for some people who want to pursue God's calling but don't have the resources to go to school.


Historically, many church denominations have emphasized education.

Denominations such as the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, whose roots trace back to educated theologians and professors like John Calvin and John Wesley, have always required some sort of formal schooling and training for their ministers. 

That still exists today. In the United Methodist Church, for example, people who want to pastor must have an undergraduate degree from a four-year school and Master of Divinity degree from a seminary or theological school. This requirement is the same for other churches, including American Baptist, AME and Presbyterian. 

Many religious leaders said education is fundamental for church leadership.

The Rev. Dr. William Swinton, who helps oversee the the Palmetto Conference Board of Examiners in the AME Church that ensures ministerial candidates meet educational requirements, said school is necessary.

“It’s never done to discredit people," Swinton said. "It's to be sure that you’re approaching the Scripture with as much insight that you can approach it with.”

Tory Liferidge, who pastors Grace Reformed Episcopal Church in Moncks Corner, gained his bachelor's degree at Duke University and master's degree at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Liferidge said school is an asset for ministers because pastoring requires much more than preaching. To lead a church, one has to be able to manage a budget, administrate, provide counseling and build community partnerships.

"I know pastors who weren’t able to do the work they were anointed to do because they were poor managers," Liferidge said.

Timothy Scoonover, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Moncks Corner who's currently working on a doctorate degree, agrees. Scoonover's denomination requires its ministers to take hospital chaplaincy programs, receive clinical pastoral education, and learn to write statements of faith.

This is because parishioners dealing with crises and traumatic experiences often seek their pastors for guidance.

"It’s a scary thing to step into a flock," Scoonover said.

But for some, college is expensive and sometimes inconvenient.

This is particularly true for ministers in the Charleston region because there are there are no accredited seminaries in the area. Candidates for ministry have to commute to Allen in Columbia, Erskine College in Due West, or other locations around the state for theological training.

Singleton, who's now a pastor in Johnsonville, said while she was in school, she had some peers who couldn't afford the gas to Columbia for theological training.

In some churches, education was not a requirement for ministry because, in part, of racial segregation and limited access to education.

Grace RE, for instance, was formed by newly freed slaves who were not allowed to be trained as ministers in the Reformed Episcopal Church. While some black denominations were also founded by educated ministers, a cultural mindset that college wasn't necessary developed in other black churches, Liferidge said.

“It created this cultural sense that God called me and God will give me the power to preach," he said.

This "calling" is a point of controversy among churches, too.

Generally, the "calling" is one's belief that God is leading them to pursue vocational ministry. Scoonover said the call is both internal and external. He said the internal is someone's inner sense of urgency for ministry, and the external is where the local church helps a person discern in what capacity the person should serve. 

Some argue that the external portion is not necessary because a person's calling is only between them and God. Those persons would view educational requirements as "red tape" rather than a form of preparation, Scoonover said.

But the pastor added that a lot of damage can be done if a person rushes into pastoral leadership without the counsel of others. Religious leaders and formal education can a help a person discern their true calling.

"Just because you feel called to be a pastor, doesn’t mean you're called," Scoonover said. "It takes that confirmation of the local church." 

Other options

While denominations see education as a necessary tool for preachers, they don't want to prohibit people from pursuing their destiny.

Several congregations have provided endowments and scholarships for ministers to attend school. Scoonover said his home church in Tennessee paid for his seminary education.

Denominations have also provided alternative routes for preachers that don't require formal education. In the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, a person can opt to be a commissioned ruling elder who serves in a lesser role than a full-time pastor.

In the AME denomination, ministers can choose to serve as associates where they can still preach, teach and perform other roles of ministry without being required to obtain a college education.

No matter their education, what's important is their relationship with God, religious leaders and church members agreed.

Wendrah McCoy, 25, has a master's degree and attends Morris Street Baptist Church in Charleston.

"Having a degree doesn't make one preacher better than another," she said. "A preacher without a degree can still be more charismatic and relatable to the masses than one with a degree, or vice versa."

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.