the road less traveled: UM certification in youth ministry

*please note the author’s edit at the end of this article

So I got a call from a couple of members of our Staff-Parish Relations committee last week. They were just checking in with me to find out how my certification process was going–was I finding it rewarding? how long would it be until I was finished? I thanked them for following up.

Get it? See what I did there?

There are probably churches where the person being certified isn’t the only one who has even heard of certification in youth ministry. To be fair–from the time I first heard of certification it took about 3 years to find anyone who could explain to me how to begin the process. It’s tricky. You’re trying to get three independent bodies within Methodism that never talk to each other to talk to each other on your behalf. The General Board of Higher Education & Ministry (GBHEM) has outlined the educational requirements; you simply must find an approved educational institution offering five courses that qualify. Which means making sure that GBHEM has approved the courses. Then all you have to do is get your conference to recognize that you’ve done all of that, and Voila!, you’re certified.

But when you’ve done all of that, the floodgates open and it was all worth it. Right? Well, not exactly. Before I started my own certification process, I had a frank conversation with someone from my conference office.

“Does certification matter at all at the local church level?” I asked.

“No,” was the quick reply. “As long as the number of available youthworkers exceeds the number of available youth ministry positions, the local church for the most part won’t have a good reason to care. In fact, certification could potentially over-qualify you for most youth ministry salaries.”

Well hell, sign me up.

The problem I was having back when I first started looking into it was that I’d outrun most of the training available. The majority of training for youth ministry available nationally (let’s just say any of the conferences that can afford both a mailer and a magazine ad) is geared toward youthworkers who have been in the ministry for 3 about years or LESS. They have moments in those conferences where they might honor in some campy way those who have persevered into double-digit careers, but their content is directed at newbies. No hard feelings; that’s where the money is. I get it.

But what if I want to improve my local church’s ministry in a way that shows that I’ve been around longer than a minute? What if I want to improve me? Early conversations were discouraging. “Well, if you’re looking for that kind of depth of training and instruction, you should probably consider seminary,” was a frequent reply. Seminary? Sure, I’d love to go to seminary–ideally. But here in the real world I know that a seminary degree costs about the same as about half of my house (your house percentage may differ). Presuming I wish to remain in youth ministry, I’d also have to tax my family time and resources to balance family, school and ministry. And if you think you’ll recover the expense of seminary on a youthworker’s salary, you’ve lost your mind.

Beyond all of that, I was a bit staggered that there were so few “in between” options for ministry training. First step: nationally beloved worship leaders, ministry mart, crazy games. Second step, MDiv. Really?

Eventually I stumbled into the right room. For years, Perkins School of Theology (at SMU in Dallas, if you’re unfamiliar) has quietly offered a youth ministry certification program. A few years ago they moved that certification program to run alongside it’s other student ministry program, the Perkins School of Youth Ministry (PSYM). PSYM offers a variety of trainings and features a nationally known keynote (last year it was Brian McLaren; this year it’s Andrew Root) along with a daily worship experience. Certification students get to participate in the the keynote addresses as well as worship.

The real beauty of the Perkins program is that they’ve done the hard work for you; their program is approved start to finish by GBHEM and is now even running on a 5 year cycle so that when you begin you have a clear vision of when you’ll finish. If you’re finding it hard to believe that a five-classes-in-five-years program is progress worth celebrating, track down someone that was certified 10 years ago on their own and ask them about their experience. The future is here.

What’s particularly exciting to me about the process at Perkins is watching the rapid growth the program has experienced over the last few years. When I first started looking into certification years ago I had difficulty finding anyone to talk to about it. This year at Perkins there are 31 youthworkers enrolled in certification. 31 youthworkers whose ministries are benefiting from graduate level instruction. I suppose it could be true that it may never matter at the local church level if you’re certified in UM ministry, but I’m starting to believe that one day it might matter if you’re not.

What are your experiences or conversations about certification? Do you know anyone who has been certified in one of the other available ministry areas? Have you encountered other programs like the one at Perkins? Have you done it on your own?




Hey. So, not quite two years after I wrote this article the conference person referenced within read it. He thanked me for “not mentioning my name as the cold-hearted bastard that squashed your dreams and sold youth certification out as a waste of time” and went on to state that he had been misrepresented in the article. Which turned out to be true.

I was fairly close on his response, but what I had really made a hash of was the question that I had asked him in the first place. The article says that I asked if local churches cared; what I actually asked was if the conference cared. His reply began with the local church, stating that, “as long as the demand for youth workers is higher than the number of available folks, certification is an afterthought for our churches.” He went on to say that when churches decide to get serious about youth ministry turn to the conference after experiencing a hard run of rapid turnover in youth ministers, certification begins to bear importance.

He also said that a lot of youth ministry “lifers” had been certified early on, hoping and believing that one day it would become more important. And maybe it is. By PSYM’s math, there are about 50 youthworkers nationally that are certified. I’m currently sitting in class with 36 more who are in various stages of completing their certification process, which means that in the next few years the national number will roughly double.

Oddly enough, in the two years since I wrote the article my answer to the question, “Is certification worth it?” has changed. Hell no, it’s not worth it. It’s impossibly expensive, takes an incredible amount of effort, and is misunderstood or unheard of by 90% of people within the UMC that you’ll encounter. There’s an order of service in the UM Book of Worship for when you finish that no one knows about. No, it’s not “worth it” in any traditional sense.

But, like my friend at the conference and many others like him whose roots in youth ministry took hold in a time when youth ministry wasn’t worth it, I realize that it’s worth perhaps isn’t for me, but for those who come next. In 20 years when certification is required for youth positions in the Methodist church, the question of worth will have given way to a standard of youth ministry. And that’s why it’s worth it.

Peace to you all again, and apologies & gratitude to my friend at the conference. You should know he’s not a cold-hearted bastard.



  1. I completed the Certificate in Youth Ministry through Fuller Theological Seminary. It was top notch!

    Though the UMC has no idea that I have this as I’m a hired staff member of a UMC.

    So, I could contact the GBHEM and be certified through the UMC? If that really matters. I was more focused on the quality continued growth, but sometimes you gotta play in the system that exists.

  2. I have been to PSYM in Dallas three years in a row (never took the certification course even though I would really like too) a few years ago. Then I left youth ministries and went to another job outside the church. I volunteer all the time with the church and I know I would love to get back into youth ministries. I know that getting this certification would make me feel better inside that I completed it and I know most churches around my area probably wouldnt consider it (for more pay) because like you said most of those churches dont have the money to fork over more $ for being certified (I know most churches @ our area dont pay more than $22K at the most for this job thats with experience). I loved being a youth director and would love to go back one day and get my certification, but never sure if I will because I know it is a little expensive to get which is the worse part about wanting it, but not being able to get. Hopefully within the next few years I can go back to PSYM and go through the training course, but for now I guess I will have to wait. Good Luck and praise God to all the Youth Directors Past, Present and Future for everything you have done in a youths lives…The main reason I went into Youth Ministry is because I have had some pretty awesome roll models in my life.

  3. Shannon LeMaster-Smith

    Pfeiffer University (in Charlotte, NC) partners with Wesley Theological Seminary to offer the classes needed for certification in Youth Ministry. The professors are wonderful and the classes are setup to accommodate for those working full-time. They also offer a Masters in Practical Theology with various areas of specialization.

    I have a B.A. in Christian Education from Pfeiffer, and many of the classes were similar to their Youth Ministry B.A. track. I’m in the same boat when it comes to youth ministry training. It doesn’t seem like there is really that much in-depth training out there for youth ministers who are not new, or who have degrees/certification. While it’s not all about the education or training you’ve had, I do think it makes a difference.

  4. I went to Iliff School of Theology in 1996. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the ordination route or just be certified in youth ministry. I quickly discovered that Iliff was not going to offer all the classes I needed to be certified in the 3 years I planned to be there so I went the ordination route and was ordained a Deacon in 2005 (which I believe is the direction God planned for me all along.)

    You are correct. There needs to be an easier system to getting your certification and I am glad Perkins is doing just that!

  5. Great read. The UMC has a long way to go in improving youth ministry. Very disappointing to say the least.

  6. Good Stuff Kevin – I went through the certification process in the North Carolina Conference and took my classes at Pfeiffer. I did it solely for my own edification but it was an affordable and flexible way to continue my education. It was a pain to get everybody on the same page and at times I wondered if anybody outside of the Universities that offer the classes cared about this program. I agree that there is not a lot of training out there for those of us who’ve been around for a while – one thing folks may want to look into is the new Masters in Christian Practice program at Duke Divinity School. In the end my experience was well worth it – thanks for spreading the word about certification!

  7. Getting to the party a little late here but have loved reading about all of these training opportunities. I certainly agree that current YM is in desperate need of more of these options.

    I would lift up a newer opportunity available through Duke Divinity School. They just started a two-year M.A. in Christian Practice program for folks already working in Youth Ministry (More info at: The MACP program is a cohort model designed for folks to continue working in a youth ministry context while they study. We are entering our second year and I cannot say enough good about it. A little more involved than a shorter conference, but well worth the time and money!

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