Are youth ministry degrees practical?

College-CostsAs someone with a bachelors degree in Student Ministry, this is probably a seemingly strange post to write. The truth is, I love my degree and the courses that formed it. I learned a LOT. My professors did an amazing job equipping us for ministry. And in all honesty, when I was searching for a first church, even though I thought I had a great resume … over and over what I heard was that their interest in me as a potential candidate was triggered by me being a Gordon College student ministry graduate.

Fourteen years later, however, I find myself wondering more and more at the practicality of a student ministry degree. These are a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my mind …

  • 50% of pastors have left the ministry within five years, the numbers grow as the years grow, and only one out of ten actually retires as a pastor. A youth ministry degree is incredibly specific … and incredibly impractical in any other context. Other surveys speak of the number of pastors who feel trapped in ministry because they are not qualified for other jobs. Not that I would ever want people to train for ministry with an expectation of failure, but recognizing the high rate of ministry burnout does seem to indicate that there is something missing in our ministry training, and at the very least having a double major may set someone up for better stability down the road.
  • In the 80’s and 90’s, it seemed like every church out there was hiring youth pastors. Which also led to the increase in schools offering youth ministry related degrees. However, with the turn in the economy over the last decade, the financial realities for churches has changed. In addition, the giving trends in upcoming generations is lower than previous ones. This is not a bad thing, this is simply the reality of the times. What this translates to, however, is fewer youth ministry jobs. The churches that could once afford a full time youth pastor are becoming fewer. This will only increase as the years go by, and in all likelihood, only the larger churches (cutting out about 90% or more of churches in the US) will be the ones that can afford a full time youth pastor. This is why work being done by guys like Mark DeVries and his Joseph Project are critical; in short, helping youth pastors to be bi-vocational, or even helping them to have a job that supports their desire to be a volunteer youth leader.
  • Is it responsible for Christian colleges to encourage young men and women to take on incredible amounts of debt to go into an increasingly limited field of paid ministry where the salary is often times inadequate to manage that debt? Many will be paying for a student ministry degree years after moving on from student ministry to other careers (because of burnout) or other ministry related positions. Of course, this is my frustration with ministry degrees in general; churches expect increasing levels of education for positions that make financing that education difficult at best. Imagine if young men and women were trained for ministry through apprenticeship programs under experienced ministry leaders with teaching content and practical experience – imagine the freedom they would have to minister wherever God called them to be once they completed it with no debt!
  • Ageism is alive and well in the church, however unintentional it may be. If a man or woman commits their lives to teaching tenth grade history until their retirement, it is a respectable career choice. And yet, spend too long teaching teenagers about God and questions start percolating about whether or not you are too old to be working with teens, why you aren’t more ambitious, why you’re settling, etc. The reality is, the best youth ministers are in their forties and fifties – often times parents of teens themselves, or have already lived through that stage of life. Their connection to the kids becomes more of a paternal relationship as opposed to the hip older friend, and their ability to relate to and connect with parents and minister to families is at its best. And the truth is, when a church has a youth pastor long enough to hit that stage of life, they love the fruit of that ministry … but I have heard enough of my peers express their frustration that it is next to impossible to find a church willing to hire a youth pastor in their forties. Is it practical to get a degree in a field you will be ‘too old for’ by the time you’re 40?

I would love to hear what other youth ministry types think. Ultimately, I love what I learned through my youth ministry major, but I wonder if there aren’t better, more practical ways to transmit that information.

One thought on “Are youth ministry degrees practical?

  1. As a fellow youth minister and someone finishing up seminary I don’t believe they are practical. This is why I pursued a M.A. in Children and Family Ministry. I believe the idea of working with families is a lot more practical, and also for flexibility as we progress in our ministry careers. It also appears that churches are hiring more family style ministers than simply youth ministers. Also, as a youth director I want the children’s ministry program that feeds into the youth department to be top notch. Being able to understand other ages is extremely important, and makes us better holistic ministers.

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