03/12/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated May 12, 2013

How Important Is a Religious Leader's Education?

University professors often make their curricula vitae, or CVs, available to download on their school-hosted, online biographies. Business executives tend to list the degrees they have earned on their Linkedin profiles. Political candidates almost always develop websites that display their scholastic achievements. These secular leaders publicly publish their educational credentials for the benefit of those they may lead. Knowing where, how, with whom, and to what extent the people that guide others' lives have been educated makes sense before choosing to learn from them. But when it comes to religious or spiritual guidance, followers may not put as much credence behind those didactic degrees.

"I think what a church leader has done is more important than the pedigree of [his] education," says Tamre Mullins, a 31-year-old marketing manager from Indianapolis, Ind. Her Catholic priest's "homilies are extremely engaging, and he connects very well to the congregation." These qualities are "more important than where he attended seminary," she says.

A.J. Viola, a 28-year-old community pastor in Raleigh, N.C., feels similarly. He says, "I tend to value experiential education over book education because ... that adds much more validity to anything a leader has to say." Viola earned a bachelors degree in religious studies from Lees-McRae College and attended Emmanuel Christian Seminary for a year and a half before leaving without finishing his degree. He now helps to lead Lifepointe Church, a non-denominational Christian church that holds worship services at multiple locations in Raleigh. Viola says, "[T]he secular world pays a lot of attention to what your educational background is as opposed to what you can actually do. The religious community, in my limited experience, tends to focus more on your experience and drive."

But not all members of the world's religious communities believe real-world practice and ambition, as opposed to formal education, is necessarily better for their faiths. Mary Elting, a 28-year-old post-doctoral scholar in San Francisco, Calif., struggles with the issue. "On one hand, I feel that education is generally an important component of being a 'good citizen' of any community and is increasingly important in our time. On the other hand, the term 'educational background' sounds to me like it's referring to a list of credentials, which doesn't seem to me like a particularly effective way to evaluate a church leader," she says.

Elting believes the time, place and type of community all factor into the needed knowledge base of a church. "[A] church leader ... that is particularly focused on addressing issues of social justice may have different needs than a leader [who] is trying to navigate a time of particular theological conflict," she says.

Similarly, Uttam Dubal, a 33-year-old attorney also located in San Francisco, believes the education of spiritual leaders largely depends on their positions within a faith's hierarchy. Dubal, who has practiced Swaminarayan Hinduism his entire life, says that at the highest level of leaders, such as his guru or the pope, the "particular individual is revered and respected for his personal character. Nothing more." Dubal needs a level of comfort with his guru this is possible only "when the leader has a pure and spotless character. ... Education is a non-factor for what I seek in a spiritual leader." But when it comes to local religious leaders, "education is important ... because they have to make decisions" related to logistics and finances, Dubal says. "That being said, if their character is pure enough, even then, education becomes much less [of] a factor."

That factor is of great importance, however, to Katie Adkins, a 29-year-old assistant museum curator in Durham, N.C., and her father, the Rev. Dr. David Adkins, a 66-year-old Baptist pastor in Martinsville, Va. The younger Adkins considers the educational background of religious leaders important, in part, "because of where I went to church and who my father is." She says he's not simply a minister who can recite Bible verses and tell people how to live their lives. "He is a questioning person -- really, a scientist at heart. In his sermons, he analyzes the Scripture, dissects it, gets to the meat of the ideas, and relates it to other religions and subjects in new, thought-provoking ways."

Her father, who has both Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degrees, agrees with his daughter. "If clergy are not equipped with the tools to think analytically and with adequate acquaintance with the tradition and best scholarship available, they will just spin their wheels either in their own prejudices or the values and perspectives of the culture around them," he says. "Education prevents provincialism [and] enables one to engage in the discussions which shape the development of zeitgeist."

Regardless of where on the spectrum of significance a person places a religious leader's educational background, most people appear to treat academic credentials of the secular community in the same manner. Despite the prevalence of "new tech billionaires never finish[ing] college," the Rev. Dr. Adkins says, "formal education still has a role to play, even if it is not in itself a total answer to how to be a good leader or a good teacher or, for that matter, a good person." In other words, he places a great weight on the formal education of both secular and spiritual leaders.

Barbara Dobner, a 64-year-old homemaker and part-time office worker in Raleigh, N.C., hopes she doesn't hold the two types of leaders to different academic standards. She believes a church leader's education is "important to show the journey he or she has traveled to become a person of faith and a church leader," and she similarly likes to understand how education impacted the church leader's success. Dobner analogizes this to her researching physicians. She asks, "Did my doctor complete his or her residency somewhere I am familiar with, and does that hospital have a good reputation?"

And while today's secular society generally promotes greater education, in part, to solve contemporary woes, some people believe more lectures aren't the solution in the religious community today. "While education helps in certain ways, I think church leaders should focus more on purifying their character and practicing before they preach," says Dubal. Viola, however, thinks today calls for a different form of training. "I believe education is needed, but not armchair education," he says. "I much more prefer seeing someone struggle through theology while they are elbow deep in the mess of life."

Still, others subscribe to the theory that a leader's formal schooling is more important today than ever before. "The church cedes its influence to cultural forces if it lacks leadership that has been trained to think critically [and] equipped with a historical sense of how we got where we are," says the Rev. Dr. Adkins. "Once again, education alone is not sufficient to guarantee pastoral leadership. But without it, you are a carpenter with a very limited toolkit."