Should Youth Ministers Do Seminary?

I read the same tweet that Walt Meuller read, which was sent by the highly influential pastor Rick Warren, which said:   “It takes about 10 yrs of local church pastoring to lose the arrogance u pick up in seminary, otherwise u likely won’t lose it.”  Walt blogged on his thoughts on the possible link between seminary and arrogance here: http://learningmylines.blogspot.com/2009/10/rick-warren-and-seminary.html – it is a very good blog for those thinking about going to seminary.  Walt really breaks with Rick’s notion that arrogance comes from the knowledge of Seminary, and rather states that pride and arrogance, already embedded in the heart of the seminarian, merely comes out as they are propped (or puffed) up by all the data flowing into and often out of the brain.

But I want to tackle the question for those in youth ministry who are struggling with the decision of whether or not to do seminary.  It is a harder decision for the youth worker, because most churches do not require us to have a Master of Theology/Divinity or even a Masters at all.  Because the bias is towards younger ministers, often youth ministry comes directly out of the undergrad experience, with fresh blood constantly flowing into and unfortunately quickly out of the field of professional youth ministry.  But if youth ministry is to be a Profession, we need to take a serious  look into the pros and cons of the Seminary experience, and whether or not it benefits more than detracts from the practical aspect of youth ministry.

Trying to play the devil’s advocate, why would seminary be a bad thing for the youth worker?

(1) A common complaint is that seminary can burn one out spiritually, and steer the potential youth worker towards scholarly work rather than practical ministry. Especially in highly academic schools like Gordon-Conwell, where I attended and graduated, it is intimidating to tell someone that you’re life’s purpose is to work with youth – your whole life – when a good portion of your peers are talking Ph’D’s and trying to emulate the professors.  As the practical theologian, you really have to hold your ground and have great discipline, as you balance your work load with the relationships and shepherding of yourself and your flock of youth.  But that is a matter of wrestling with your own identity and pride, and the professional youth worker will end up refined and more determined despite the sometimes lonely path of seminary.  If anything, the continued force of praxis (working out your theology and studies in the context of ministry) will thrust your insights and theology further along than those who have not stepped out of the books.  You live your theology and are testing the faults, working through the inconsistencies.  You will be stronger.

(2) Another complaint is that by incurring Seminary debt and taking the next three to four years, you will not be able to support yourself in youth ministry after seminary. Though it is true of youth ministry as a field, that you are competing with young and often less debt burdened men and women, who can take lower salaries, it is not true that you won’t be able to find a church that will be able to support your ministry.  There are churches all across the country that are somewhat burned by young ministers who were testing their theories without proper hind or forsight as to the implications theologically and practically. These same ministers who only stay less than two years at a ministry, leaving students who have an 8 year cycle at a church, off balance spiritually, and hungry for stability that perhaps a more experienced and tested youth minister/director might bring.  When families desire to invest in their children spiritually after a time of trouble, they often put pressure on their church boards, committees, ministers, and congregations to bring on a fully supported, educated, and identity stable minister who will be able to provide vision and stability for 10 – 20 years.  They realize that this person will likely have a higher debt burden, perhaps have a family, and will need a higher living wage.  By careful research and going through proper channels, and a proper dependence on God for provision, the education is a worthy expense.  As you bring your wisdom to the youth of the congregation and equip whole families, you can convince the people of the churches that Professional youth ministers are worthy of their wages.   Just make sure to reinvest heavily when a congregation invests in you.

(3) There are probably some in the midst of ministry saying, “I am too busy in ministry to stop and take classes.” I think that this can be just as prideful as those who go to Seminary to puff themselves up with knowledge.  I know that Americans take great pride in what they are “doing” and we often have to discover the ability to just  Be with people, just listen, to stop and be silent, to build a hospitable environment, or to realize that sacred space occurs often randomly for human beings.  Work, for many of different generations, is where we find meaning, and often quality takes a bystander role when there are numbers to produce, and vision to sell, volunteers to train, sermons to preach, and music to be practiced and made.  There is always a retreat to plan for, and there are always emails to write, but this busyness becomes an idol.  God doesn’t like idols, even if that idol is our ministry.  If you are too busy to even take one Seminary class, you may be in a dangerous zone.  I’ve known quite a few people who didn’t finish their seminary degrees in the allotted 3 years of full time studying.  Many have taken 12-15 years to complete the work all while doing full time ministry.  Like any discipline, you make the time.

(4) Lastly, it seems logical to say that Youth Ministers will be come less relevant in their time in seminary, and thus, less effective in reaching out to youth.  But is this really true? It is my inclination, and doing a quick think through of my acquaintances during seminary, to respond that whether one goes to seminary or not, some people are just “Cool” to youth, and some people are “Uncool.”  Long before one goes to seminary, one has been formed in their identity, and will either continue in their “Coolness” or “Uncoolness”.  The problem with this thinking in general, however, is that one does not need to be Cool to do youth ministry.  One can be completely effective as a youth director by coordinating a team of adult leaders who are all on different points in the scales of Relevance.  We would think that everyone on the youth team needs to be young and Cool, but that’s not true.  Why?  Because most students in your schools are not “Cool” either.  You need Uncool leaders (perhaps yourself) to relate and lead those in all castes of your youth.  In my past I’ve seen Grandfather figures give wisdom to those seeking wisdom, I’ve seen business execs impart courage and confidence in games of basketball, I’ve seen complete oddballs rounding up the strange youth among us for impromptu games of hilarity and fun.  All these things are contagious and Seminary doesn’t change who we are, nor should it.  If anything, Seminary should test you and further affirm who you are.  It is refining.

So what is the positive side to this?  Pondering this can be overwhelming at times.  But we can remind ourselves that all youth ministers should be life long learners, always finding out our dead zones and deciding to fill them up with the life of God’s wisdom and the learned experience of the community. Seminary does something that often we find hard to do in our own lives, and that is creating a learned pause for deep thought and study.  It forces us to put aside a sacred space/time with people devoted to your development, to discipline ourselves in contemplation and adoration of the God who made us.  Like all disciplines in life, Seminary needs to be done in Faith, despite the cost analysis of taking on the experience.  You cannot put a value to the experience of being completely worn out, pushed to your limits, and being placed prostrate before your Creator, crying, like Job: “You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I – and  I was talking about things far too wonderful for me. You said, ‘Listen and I will speak!  I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.’ I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.  I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.’”  Like Walt Meuller mentions in his blog: You learn what you do not know, and are humbled by that.

So back to the original question that titles this blog: “Should Youth Ministers Do Seminary?”  Absolutely, but more than just doing Seminary, we are free to experience what God has for us in that sacred space.

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