Do I Need College Education In Youth Ministry?

Just last week, a couple of youth workers and myself were asked this question on twitter:

Anyone have info on the importance of a college education for a career in YM?

I gave a quick answer at the time, but here is a slightly longer answer…

1) Yes and No: If you are in full or part-time paid ministry I would say “yes”. If you are a volunteer my answer is “no”. However, I would challenge you to educate yourself and understand God’s Word, youth culture, and ministry skills as best as your time allows. Leaders should be learners, even if you are a volunteer. Volunteers have a huge impact on students. In my ministry, my volunteers are the heroes who truly are in the trenches investing in students. It’s imperative they are growing and learning…

2) College Gives Greater Theological Grounding: Being in full-time ministry, I have found that college forced me to get grounded theologically and gain valuable hermeneutical skills to teach and apply the Bible. I am not sure I would have forced myself otherwise?

3) College Gives Greater Youth Ministry Skills: No matter how much many would debate the value of theoretical college over practical real world youth ministry, there is still a great value in studying the “how’s and why’s” of youth ministry. In fact, many colleges use text books that are written by in the trenches veterans. Who wouldn’t want to learn from Duffy Robins and Doug Fields?

4) Youth Ministry Needs Greater Professionalism: In today’s world we need skilled and trained people to work with teenagers who are facing all kinds of challenges. You can’t just jump in the deep-end of ministry these days. We need to be on our best game to survive, thrive and be able to invest in students effectively.

5) Churches Expect a College Degree: I know a good friend who has no formal youth ministry degree and he is perhaps one of the greatest youth workers I know. However, he is the exception, I believe. I know many incredible youth workers who could have got by without the formal degree, but that is not the world in which churches live in. Having credentials is one of the main ways churches can know that we have had an official level of training. Therefore, we need to accept this reality and embrace this as a necessary step.

6) “Jesus, didn’t have a degree, why do I need one” : He is the Son of God. End of Story

7) “Jesus disciples didn’t have a degree, why do I need one”: They practically received a Ph.D in three years they spent with Jesus.

8) “I just think it’s dumb, that I have to get a degree to work in full-time ministry” : Ask yourself why you think it’s dumb? Is it dumb, or do you just not like the reality? Is it dumb, or do you like short cuts? Just wondering?

How has a college degree helped your ministry? 

Phil <><

28 Responses to Do I Need College Education In Youth Ministry?

  1. Tom Shriver November 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I needed this, Phil. Thank you very much for the depth you put into answering this question.

  2. Phil Bell November 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

    Tom, I am glad this was a help to you. It’s a hard reality to go through school or go back to school when simply want to love students and invest in their lives. But, it is essential to get skilled to help them navigate through challenges as well as deepen their faith.

  3. Ginny Olson November 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    Well said Phil! I’m curious what your thoughts are about the number of churches who are now requiring MDivs for youth pastors.

  4. Brian M November 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    I’m in agreement for each of those questions, I’m a little under 1/2 way on my Bachelor’s degree, while working at a church part time. While I’m not actively planning on doing a master’s afterwards, it is a possibility. I’ve also found that the times when I slack off on my schooling, usually means my ministry is suffering as well. It’s not a teeter-totter.

  5. Benjer McVeigh November 30, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    While there are exceptions, I think yes, even if it’s not a theological degree. There are skills one (should) learn in college that help you do the “job” part of working at a church: writing skills, meeting deadlines, learning how to learn, etc. I didn’t really learn how to work hard until I got to college, and suddenly just showing up and using my brains to float through didn’t quite cut it. Again, there are exceptions, but in general, that’s my take.

    In terms of a theological degree: That, I don’t think is as necessary. I’m very thankful for my time at seminary (M.Div.), but there are other ways to be trained as a pastor. For me, the biggest question is how we train pastors who have never been trained formally?

  6. Phil Bell December 1, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    Ginny, I would say that a good bachelors should be sufficient for youth ministry in order to do the job competently. However, I would also encourage pastors to be seeking to take graduate credits, (when the timing is right), in order to continue development in crucial areas. It’s also a smart move in terms to of career development later on.

    From what I have seen, a bachelors does adequately equip youth workers with the foundations, but it is experience that helps them become more effective with time.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on this? I would imagine you have seen first-hand the realities of greater education having been at North Park for a while. I would love to hear your thoughts! 🙂

  7. Phil Bell December 1, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    Brian and Benjer, I agree, there is great value in the discipline of getting through school and being forced to consider philosophy of ministry and many pertinent theological issues. A degree creates some good opportunities to grow and be stretched in these areas.

  8. Sarah Jean December 2, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    “Jesus, didn’t have a degree, why do I need one” : He is the Son of God. End of Story”

    WIN for Phil!

  9. Brian Seidel December 2, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    I agree with you and those that have already commented. I definitely believe that experience and formal education need to work together, it is not an either/or thing. I have a bachelors in youth ministry, and I have no plans of going to seminary. I have continued to challenge myself and learn through conferences, networking, and personal reading which has worked well for me.

    I do not think there is a blanket right answer to this. I know incredible youth workers that have zero formal education beyond high school, as well as incredible youth workers who have seminary degrees and beyond. The right answer does depend on a lot of variables and might be different for each person.

  10. Rachel December 5, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    I think there’s a difference between ‘needing’ a degree and what would be ‘preferable’. I come from a country (Holland) where there simply wasn’t a degree in youth ministry available till a few years ago. That pretty much ruled out getting one 🙂 As for theology degrees, sure they existed and still do, but since the number of paid positions in youth ministry is minimal, it’s not seen as a ‘career option’. People who study theology usually don’t go into youth ministry. Also, studying part time is a huge challenge, as many degrees aren’t offered part time and you don’t pay per credit or course taken, but per year. Paying full time and only doing a few courses therefore isn’t something many people can afford, especially in a church salary. As a result, most of the youth workers in Holland don’t have a theological degree and I’m one of them. Have I missed it? As for the theology part, yes I have and I’m actually seriously considering getting one now. As for the youth ministry part, not so much. Read a whole stack of books myself, attended some conferences, used the skills I acquired in the two degrees that I do have (teaching degree in history and one in human resources management) and mainly learned a lot by trial and error…

    The reason I’m writing all this is to offer a bit of a different perspective on this question, as it may be answered completely differently outside of the American context…

  11. Phil Bell December 5, 2011 at 5:16 pm #

    Rachel, I love your perspective and completely I understand! I am from the UK and I ended up coming to the U.S.A to study and work in full-time ministry due to lack of opportunities to work and study youth ministry in the UK.

    I think what you are doing is the best way to learn, grow, and develop your youth ministry skills as well as theological grounding. Like I said, we should all be looking to grow and learn no matter what. As leaders we should all be learners. In your context, it’s the best way for sure.

    Thanks for a different viewpoint, it is very much appreciated!

    Phil <

    • marty January 31, 2015 at 12:08 pm #

      Do you really believe that human teaching and human standards really apply to the spiritual realm of God?

      Taking advise and studying the word are essential. But living and walking with Christ and listening to the Holy Spirit are the key.

      Communication skills are important but God’s prompting is really the key nothing else.

      The fact that people have to jump threw human ideas to qualify to teach any age group is ridiculous.

      No one will ever get to were they are ready for anything by themself. We need God to speak.
      Thats why we can read the bible a million time and continue to learn.

      Dont get me wrong there is a place for bible experts……. But we are only helping poeple in there walk with God or explaining his love and desire to have a relationship with them. Through the grace of Jesus dieing on the cross for our sin. And I believe the most important part is our relationship with God and our willingness. There is plenty of resources out there for any loving follower who is good with people and kids to do the job. Let’s face it if your not in it for God and his kingdom there are higher paying jobs at McDonald’s.

  12. Gwenette Longshore January 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    I have a son that is 18 years old. He had a brain tumor at the age of three and a stroke following. He is not wired for college but has worked very hard to learn about the bible. He reads it at least 2 hours a day and goes and checks on elderly and needy people in the community. He would give anyone the shirt off his back and has so much knowledge about the bible. He wants to go into ministry and serve for the rest of his life. He walks with a limp and has no use of his left hand but that does not slow him down from serving. He is heart broken that he can`t go to college because of issues as a result from brain damage that causes problems with math and problem solving. I pray for him and he needs encouragement. He has been told he needs seminary to go into ministry. I know God has a plan for him ,but it is still hard.

  13. youthworktalk January 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    Gwenette, Thank you for sharing this perspective. It shows that although there is a “way” of doing things as far as the formal church is concerned, I believe God can do anything for you Son to help him find the place in ministry that God intends. Yes, I will would affirm again that the church as a whole wants and likes college education, but it doesn’t mean that people can be called by God cannot be called to a church to serve without a degree… I have a good friend who went into full-time ministry at 40 without a degree. He is the exception, but nonetheless, he is in ministry.

    Now to Him who is able to immeasurably more than we could ever ask of imagine according to His power that works in us.

    Thanks again for sharing this perspective. It shows that it is never clear cut and simple. God has a plan without or without college!

    Phil <><

  14. Gwenette Longshore January 24, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    Thank you so much for your input. My son said he is offering God all he has and will do whatever it takes to serve him. He told me he will work any job , just as long as he is able to serve God. He said he could work a regular day job that could afford a living to concentrate on serving God. He is already serving in so many ministries and has been very blessed. He may not ever get money for his service but God will get the Glory. I am thankful for you taking time to encourage and be honest with your answers to help so many with questions. God bless you!

  15. Buster July 11, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    I respect and understand your answers. Ultimately in respect to my certain circumstances I am not able to be a volunteer at least not in future reference. I was an advertising arts/ graphic designs major who now works at a major auto mobile manufacturer plant as a team leader who has built a career in it but has this unconditional calling to be a youth minister. I have denied it for many years through my graphic design career and many others including the present but ultimately I am still drawn to the calling. I have a lifetime of experience to offer with unlimited understanding and forgiveness thanks to our loving savior but I’m only a weak and well uninformed individual when it comes to seminary studies. I can not spend two to four years in studies due to the fact I pay child support and that is an ultimate reason for myself to not leave my current line of work but I’m not happy with what I am doing and I understand the impact I could have as a youth minister through the awesome redeeming grace that god has given me. I could use some guidance. I am willing but am afraid but am willing to allow God to direct my footsteps to go wherever there may and trust me when I say fear I mean fear an unlimited uncontrolible fear when you get to be thirty and you have a set plan that is unfortunately wrong in the sense that you know deep down that is not what God is not what he wants that he wants you you to be totally shaken up and for him to direct your path. I’m afraid though especially since how poor I struggle with committing with my first several degrees.

  16. Buster July 11, 2012 at 1:25 am #

    I feel god is calling me but I’m afraid to respond because of an underlying fear that the ultimate commitment consists of so many years of seminary and so forth. I am willing but finances are not in the long run if there are alternatives like online studies that I can do while I’m working would be a blessing but I understand if there aren’t cause I fully understand being there in person and how it truly benifits especially when I consider time spent with my child which I don’t get very often due to how I work now. Please help my brother in Christ.

  17. Kerry Lucas November 5, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    It simply sounds to me that you put mans accomplishments and mans eduation and training over God’s Calling. God doesn’t call the proud and education he calls the meek and humble, with Love in their heart and a yearning for Christ. High education as a means to learn more is a fine concept, however it has corrupted the God’s church. God’s Word and God’s Love is not so complicated that you need a 4 yr degree to tell someone or many people about Christ.

  18. Red November 12, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

    Thanks so much for putting this us up, it has helped me bunches.
    Thanks again.

  19. Phil Bell November 12, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    Kerry, I disagree… When it comes to youth ministry, it is not simply sharing the gospel and teaching the word… It is understanding youth culture, understanding and partnering with parents, working with resources and being a good steward, it is learning to counsel teens in times or triumph and tragedy, it is learning to plan a calendar, events and a discipleship plan that is effective, it is understanding laws and legalities of working with teens, etc etc etc… I could go on… Youth ministry in the world our students live in requires us to know so much more…

    In addition, a degree does not guarantee that a person has what it takes, but it helps a church to know that a person has studied at a higher level…

    I am so sad that you think education and professionalism in the church has corrupted the church… I need to remind you that sin and man has corrupted the church and always has… So sorry you feel this way…

  20. Phil Bell November 12, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    Red, I am so glad this post helped you a lot. A youth ministry degree is a great help, but not a requirement. I am currently working on a masters and much of it I already know. However, being in a masters program is helping study His word and his ministry more than I would have done on my own. If you go in with the right mindset, you will gain a lot from studies.

    Phil <><

  21. Aaron Helman November 12, 2012 at 9:39 pm #

    I have a degree, although not a YM degree. I hold a business degree from Indiana University.

    I think number 4 is massively important. While there are other ways to gain professional skills (military service, long-term employment), it would be tough for me to turn a youth ministry over to a 21-year-old who didn’t have a degree.

    I’d have to wonder where else he would have gained the skills needed to think long-term, lead people, and build a healthy program.

  22. Phil Bell November 12, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    Aaron, I agree. These days there is so much to learn in order to lead a ministry and navigate students well! While people like me don’t particularly like formal education, I have to admit that it has helped me grow and become a better leader and equipper of people. In the church today, it’s so important to have a good foundation of leadership and stewardship. Your business degree combined with a devotion to teaching God’s Word is an effective combination!

  23. Justin Herman November 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    I have some very strong thoughts on this. I love YM and felt very called to it by God, not just to hang out and have fun but to influence and go deep with with students the same way my (college trained) youth pastor went deep with me.

    I have seen some Youth Pastor with our any education, practical or theological make some pretty HUGE blunders rather it be poor leadership, poor training of volunteers and poor view of Parents and Volunteers as they relate to Ministry. Also some teaching that was either just quoting Driscol or some other cool pastor and lack the skill or pedigree to lead THEIR ministry that they just want to recreate another churches vision and sermons and strategy at their church.

    Furthermore, I really dislike when some one uses the “Gods Calling” argument… Every youth pastor should be called, that should be a given. I am very close with some great Doctors who are my age in Southern California. Who would ever go to a Doctor with no training, that just said “I feel Called” No one would, that is NUTS. Some will say that it didn’t start with med school, that doctors used to apprentice under other doctors. That is true, they were doctors with no real education… That was until there was the ability to get formal education. Now that is the industry standard. And we are talking about physical doctors to take care of our Physical Health.
    How much more important is our spiritual health. Let me answer, ITS WAY MORE IMPORTANT… “feeling called” does not cut it to me. That calling is the beginning of your journey, not the end of it, and that journey has to go through formal education.

    Lastly I have some great friends that have no formal education in ministry, they are successful, some work in big church, some dropped out of college to just start “Doing” the ministry, some are still in it, some failed out, some were fired cause they were teaching heresy. NOT cause they are heretics, but because there is no education. When i look at resumes to do any hiring i look at education first, that is the FIRST thing i do to thin the pile. Does that mean i would never hire those good friends of mine?, yes, i wouldn’t. I love them, i love what they do, i think of some as best friends… but educations tells me 3 things.
    1.) you don’t rest on your calling, you seek to sharpen and get better
    2.) you can start and finish something… getting a degree is not easy.
    3.) There is a group of people some where that gave their seal of approval on you from a school that is accredited… so if i don’t know you i can see that some one is vouching for you.

    Education is not scary, it wont hurt you, it will improve your ministry. Just do it!!!

  24. Justin Herman November 12, 2012 at 10:46 pm #

    Written with love from m IPHONE… think of how much time that took

  25. Phil Bell November 12, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Justin, you definitely get the award for longest iPhone comment in the history of! This doesn’t mean you automatically win something! Haha!

    Phil <

  26. Dale Davis July 3, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    I agree with most of what you said, I also believe many churches today, are looking for a big resume or a piece of paper showing where someone went to college. Whatever happened to “God’s Call” for a person. What if you don’t have the finances to go to college, but you believe that God has called you into the ministry? You said “churches expect a college degree”. I don’ t have a problem with someone going to college and getting that degree, but I think we have left the leading of God, and just trust a college degree or resume. Many have a degree and are necessarily called, and then we have some who are called and know they are and lack the degree. Which one would be the better fit?

  27. Austin June 26, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

    So now that you’ve written this article/ post over 4 years and a few months ago have your thoughts changed?

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