On the Facebook groups I’m a part of, this seems to be a fairly regular question: “People keep encouraging me to go to seminary. Is it worth it for youth pastors?” As someone who has studied to complete two seminary degrees (M.Div. & D.Min., both at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary), and as someone who has been in fulltime youth ministry for a decade, I think I’m qualified to finally address this question on the blog. What I’ve written below is largely based off my M.Div. since that’s far more common. If you would like to discuss the benefits of a D.Min. please comment on this post and we can dialogue there.
I want to address three common objections before presenting some reasons why I believe seminary is important (not essential, but important) for anyone who is called to lifelong pastoral ministry. After those three objections, you’ll see my list of arguments for why seminary is worth pursuing.
Objection 1: Money
I get it. We don’t make much money, and education is expensive. This is a totally legitimate objection. If you can afford to start taking even one class at a time, do it. Start small, start slow… but start when you’re able.
Objection 2: Bad/Mediocre Youth Pastors Who Have Gone to Seminary But Remained Bad/Mediocre
I hear this one all the time and it’s really frustrating to me. Thinking and writing for seminary is very different from how you would communicate biblical/theological truths in pastoral ministry, especially to teens. I have to agree that it may take a while (a few months for some, a few years for others) to get the seminary mentality replaced with a pastoral mentality.
There are some people who complete seminary will simply never be very “good” youth pastors. Some will be very good youth pastors even though they never attend seminary. Maybe they’re only in youth ministry until they can get called up to the big leagues and they’re looking for resume fodder. Maybe they shouldn’t be in pastoral ministry at all? You’ve met them and you weren’t impressed with their seminary degree.
We don’t want nonChristians to judge all Christians by the inconsistent and sinful behavior of some Christians they’ve known; don’t be guilty of the same thing with seminary.
Objection 3: I’m Too Busy!
We’re all busy. It’s the new national pastime! I know that many youth pastors need to work multiple jobs, so I want to keep that in mind. Again, this is another legitimate objection, but I repeat my counsel from the first section above. Start small, start slow, but start when you can.
Take an honest evaluation of your time and consider what could be cut back in order to make room for education. There are many online programs available if there are no seminary campuses near you (sorry, I don’t have enough knowledge to recommend one or two that stand out above the rest).
Argument 1: Youth Ministry is Pastoral Ministry
If you want to be viewed as a “real pastor,” then view yourself as one first. Don’t look down on your role and expect others to treat you with high regard. Do you want your Senior Pastor to have a seminary degree? What about the Associate Pastor? Why should the Youth Pastor be less important? We all say that youth ministry is one of the most important ministries of the church, but will we back that up by how we prepare for that responsibility and calling?
Argument 2: Youth Ministry is Difficult
Some of the hardest papers I have ever had to write were one-page research papers where I had to cite at least four reference sources. If I went onto a second paper the professor would rip it off and throw it away before she began reading. That meant every word needed to be thoughtfully crafted and the research needed to be crisp and concisely presented. That’s a little bit how youth ministry often works itself out. It may not look like a ton of research and effort went into it, but we know differently.
As youth pastors we deal with ethical issues while counseling students and their families (and trying to mediate between the two!), we teach/preach, do Bible Study and theological study in preparation for our teaching (if you don’t do this… either go to seminary or get out of ministry. Seriously.). On top of that, we try to build a team of youth leaders and equip them to do the work of ministry as well, all while integrating the youth ministry into the overall life of the church. And there’s administration to go along with all of those tasks. It’s not easy work. I don’t want to make it sound more complex than it really is, but I want to point out that being prepared will serve you well.
Argument 3: Teachers are Important
We all need teachers to teach us what we don’t know we don’t know. One of my favorite seminary professors said, “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of ignorance.” The more we know, the more questions we discover. The less we know, the more answers we think we have. If you are relying upon yourself to do all your own study, you’ll probably find yourself reading books by people you already agree with (or mostly agree with) written about topics that are interesting to you.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called upon information that I was forced to learn (because it would be on the test). One of the classes I hated the most (seriously, the review I left that class on the end-0f-semester evaluation was scathing, I really should email that professor and apologize) has turned out to be the most ministry-shaping class I took throughout seminary. I know we like to think we know it all, and if we don’t know it yet then we’ll figure it out; but seminary is an opportunity to humble yourself and learn.
Argument 4: New Perspectives
The other students will teach you as much or more than the professors. I have learned so much more than expected from my friends with different theological persuasions. We still disagree over certain issues, but I understand the strengths and weaknesses of my own views better because of the investigation I’ve had to do to see whether my position stands true.
I’ve also had to wrestle with scholars and peers with whom I greatly and sharply disagree with. These conversations are not fun, but they are greatly beneficial, because they have shown me what issues and doctrines I’m truly passionate about. Sometimes those issues and doctrines were very unexpected and surprising even to myself.
Argument 5: Depth & Breadth
Simply put, the depth of study which seminary provides cannot be easily matched on your own. Putting in the time and effort for in depth study of certain fields will serve you very well for the remainder of your ministry. I routinely call upon my seminary training without even realizing it. Honestly, I probably draw upon my education most with junior high students who aren’t afraid of asking what they think are really stupid questions (but they’re actually very profound questions that scholars have been debating throughout history).
Obviously you won’t be able to become a master of Greek, Hebrew, Church History, Psychology, Educational Theory, Homiletics/Preaching, Old Testament, New Testament, Theology, Ethics and Global Christianity. But when else will you have an opportunity to study such a wide array of knowledge by men and women who have given their professional lives to be experts in their field so they can raise up the next generation of leaders in the Church?
Argument 6: The Habits You Form
I hinted at this in the intro at top of this post, but I am particularly thankful for my D.Min. because of the study habits I needed to cultivate. When we train ourselves to read often, to think deeply, and to write well then we will simply become better communicators when it’s time to open our mouths. The pile of books in my office and in my Kindle library continues to grow, and they grow in a wide array of topics. Maybe this is just me, but I tend to be a goal-oriented person who needs to know what he’s working towards. Without that goal or structure, it’s easy to drift and become lazy. For that reason, the structure of a seminary education has taught me ongoing habits that continue to bless both me and my ministry today.