Why youth ministry might mean a degree

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve seen the photos streaming through my Facebook feed: minivans packed to the gills, happy preteens and teenagers smiling together, youth pastors and their groups volunteering.

Many of my friends who are pastors and the kids from their congregations recently made the trek out to Detroit. They were there for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s youth gathering. Every three years, the young people of the ELCA (my denomination) meet in a different city to volunteer, worship and socialize with each other.

While youth ministry isn’t for everyone, it can be a rich and rewarding career for those who possess the gifts for it.

Youth ministry is a varied field—you could work in it part-time as a high school student, or you could earn a four-year Master of Divinity and be ordained as a youth pastor. If you’re looking to devote your life to youth ministry, earning a degree could well be worth the effort.

If you’d like to learn more about ministering to youth, you’ve got a few options. The first is a bachelor’s degree in youth work, which is typically obtained at a Christian university. If you’ve already got a bachelor’s, you could earn a certificate instead, which is like a master’s degree but more part-time in focus. Certificates, while somewhat uncommon, are convenient because they take less time and commitment than a full degree.

If you’re looking for something more like a full-time pastor role, then a master’s degree is what you’ll be looking for. That could either come from a two-year program, like a Master of Arts in ministry, or from a full three or four-year program like the Master of Divinity. If you’ve got a strong interest in youth ministry but also hope to do other work, a Master of Divinity could be generalized enough to fit your goals.

Pursuing further education can be beneficial for many reasons. Attending seminary or a divinity school offers a firm theological and biblical background. In pastoral work, there’s so much to know, and going to school to learn more can fill in any gaps you may have. I can say from experience that once I started seminary, I realized how much I didn’t know.

While you’ll always have questions, uncertainties, and ideas you want to explore further when it comes to faith, earning a degree can help you learn to ask those questions in a more meaningful way. You can also bring that renewed vitality to your youth group and share it with them.

Studying youth ministry doesn’t mean that you have to have previous practical experience in that context. Many programs provide opportunities for fieldwork, from traditional church work to student chaplaincies in children’s wings of hospitals. When deciding on a school, look for one that is not only academically rigorous but has a supportive community and hands-on environment.

The role of a youth pastor is challenging and worthwhile. I find that youth ask questions about their faith that adults forget to consider over the years. Children and teenagers think about ideas that we take for granted. If this is a vocation you’d like to consider, then you’ll find that your mind will be opened in new ways, too.