*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.