I am often asked why I would want to go to seminary or be ordained when I could do youth ministry without going through all that. What a fair question. If we’re honest, youth ministry is often treated like the “training wheels ministry” that people do during seminary on their way to become “real” pastors. So why would someone who wants to be in youth ministry go through the trouble of seminary and becoming ordained if it’s not required? And the process is long and challenging, so why would you want to become ordained and not be a “real” pastor?
Here’s my story: I grew up active in a small youth group (very small, get you fired today small) in suburban Ohio. Youth group to me was my rock, my safe place, but certainly not what I envisioned as a career choice. When I went to college, my plan was to graduate and rule the business world, so I have a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Economics. About the time I was in my mid-20s and in the throws of ruling the business world (well, at least working an interesting corporate sales job), my husband and I started volunteering with our church’s junior high students. I loved volunteering with the youth. What I didn’t fully expect or even understand, was that not every adult wanted to spend their free time with junior high youth. In fact, this was when I realized that I was being called to youth ministry.
We soon began our family and, as a new mom, I began working “part-time” as a youth director (the quotes are there because we all know there is no such thing as a part time job in youth ministry, right?) New to this profession, I wanted to learn more so I could do a good job, but I was not yet thinking of becoming clergy. Because I wanted to take my training to a deeper level, I enrolled in United Methodist Certification in Youth Ministry classes. United Methodist Certification requires 2 weeks a year of Master’s level classes in things like Theology, Adolescent World, United Methodist Studies, etc. Different from your typical youth ministry continuing education conferences, Certification requires heavy reading, deep discussion and a lot of papers to write. I am a little embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t even understand what the term “theology” meant when I enrolled in class – I was definitely not thinking ordination at this point. At the end of 5 classes, a psychological assessment and more essays, I became officially Certified in the United Methodist Church. I like to say Certification is a step above “lay person” and a few steps below “clergy,” a rarely traveled land in between.
For years I served in youth ministry as a Certified (not ordained) Youth Minister in local churches. From time to time, becoming ordained crossed my mind, but I was afraid of losing my identity or somehow having to be different because I was officially clergy. During the last two years, I began doing youth ministry outside of the church walls. I started a mentoring program called Just One Starfish that pairs up high school youth with at risk elementary school students for one-on-one mentoring. I love the role of bringing people from the church into our local community for service.
Last summer as a mentor at the Texas Youth Academy, I was able to sit in on plenary sessions (lectures) with seminary professors from around the country. Surrounded by a community of youth and adults who were learning and talking deep theological things, I felt as if I had found “my people,” people who love this kind of learning and thinking about God.
I finally began to articulate a call on my life that has probably been there all along, the call to ordination as a United Methodist Deacon. What do I want to do once I’m ordained? I still want to work with youth ministry and do ministries just like Just One Starfish. Which of course, circles back to the question of why go through seminary to do something that I am already doing…
When you are called to a major life decision after prayer and discernment, it is often helpful to have facts and logic on your side. Well, in the United Methodist Church, if you’re going to be ordained, seminary is required, so the “why go to seminary” question is answered for you if you want to become ordained. There are several ministry paths in the United Methodist Church from ordination as an Elder, a Deacon, becoming a licensed local pastor and more. You can read more about choosing your ministry path at the GBHEM site. (Bonus fact that few people know: if you are over 35 and have UM Professional Certification, there is a third track toward ordination education requirements for Deacons that is a little shorter. Worth looking up.)
But why choose ordination?
I am at the beginning of my official tracks toward ordination and I’m going to seminary in the Fall. I mentioned feeling both overwhelmed and excited…At this exact moment, I am leaning toward overwhelm, so perhaps a little exercise of listing pros and cons of ordination will be helpful not only to you, the prospective seminarian (even if you don’t know that yet) and also myself:
The Cons of Becoming Ordained for Youth Ministry
- Seminary will not only not make you rich, it will likely make you poorer. Seminary is required for ordination but attending seminary costs you financially in two ways. There is the hard cost of paying for tuition, fees, books, parking, etc., and there is the cost of money you are not earning while attending school. I am thankful to have a really awesome husband who is supportive of my call to ministry, but it is not a degree plan people choose in order to get financial return on investment.
- You do not need to have a Master’s degree to get hired for a youth ministry position. Let’s be real here, sometimes just being young and cool is enough. Most job postings for youth ministry expect an undergraduate degree, but definitely not a Master’s. In fact, it’s possible that a Master’s degree makes you overqualified for youth ministry in the eyes of most people.
- It will be hard to find work/life/school balance. There will be homework, reading, exams, papers to try to balance with life. You have only a certain amount of hours in a week and that will have to be filled with blocks for reading and studying in addition to the blocks of time you need to spend with family and work. When my husband got his MBA, our entire family’s schedule was impacted by his need to also get schoolwork done. The decision to go to seminary affects your entire family.
- The school work is difficult. You will have to read a lot of heavy books and write long papers. You will be tested on your knowledge. There are things that I don’t know and will have to learn, and then someone will test me on whether or not I have learned it.
- Your faith will be tested. Theology is a tough subject to learn without having some of the ideas of others make an impression on your own beliefs.
The Pros of Becoming Ordained for Youth Ministry
- You can become a better youth minister…in fact, you can officially be called a “minister.” When I was first hired for a part-time youth ministry job, it was with a different denomination. I remember saying the theological differences didn’t really matter because “we all use the same books of games and ideas from [major youth ministry publishers] anyway.” I repent! Youth ministry is so much more than silly games, lessons and keeping teens out of trouble, at least I hope it is. I want to better inspire young people to follow their calling and grow in their faith, including having a grounded understanding of what makes their denomination unique. I believe being grounded in a deep theological training will help me to do that.
- As clergy, you get to be a voice for the future direction of the church. Church committees and conferences require that clergy have a vote. As a Deacon in particular, I like the idea of being able to have my voice heard without necessarily having the fear of a less-than-ideal appointment as a consequence. Want to better the future for youth ministry in our church? I do – so I’m hoping to be able to do my part my having my voice heard in circles that can make change.
- You deepen your knowledge of all things theological – from the Bible to doctrine, polity and history. These are helpful to know on a personal level, yes, but also really helpful in answering questions and thinking about your ministry theologically. You will learn to use five dollar words like “eschatological” and “perichoresis.” My college professor cousin has a shirt that says “Nerd? I prefer the term Intellectual Badass.” I don’t know if “Seminarian? I prefer the term Theological Badass” shirts will really sell well, but I’m just throwing that out there. I realize that only other people who go to seminary will ever find that shirt funny…and that may be optimistic. Anyway, there are perks to being well educated. If you want to have more of your ideas heard and taken seriously in church circles, seminary education helps.
- You get to be a part of a community that also wants to learn more about God. I mentioned earlier that part of my call to ordination came when I was part of a community that was learning and discussing about God. I am excited to be a part of that kind of environment again, of being around “my people.”
There are additional “pros” for me that I realize won’t apply to everyone, but for me I also want to go to seminary and become ordained for the following reasons:
- It’s on my bucket list. I made a list when I was in college of things I wanted to do before I die and “Getting a Master’s Degree” and “Having Another 4.0 Semester” are both on the list. When I made the list, I envisioned an MBA, but life has given me a different path.
- As a woman, I can be ordained as clergy. That’s not the story in every denomination, so the part of me that was raised thinking “anything boys can do, girls can do…” is pleased with being able to do this.
When I consider the pros and cons of ordination, I have decided that it is the path that is right for this stage of my life. I would love to hear from you if you are considering ordination as well, or, if you are ordained, what it is like to be ordained and in youth ministry. I look forward to sharing more of the journey with you.