Should those called to work in youth ministry be required to attend seminary?
There’s a fight between two combatants that often goes into answering that question: in one corner is $60,000 worth of debt from training and diplomas. In the other stands the 12-year-veteran who’s been in the trenches gaining experience in youth ministry, but has no degrees.
Which should win out? Or is this a false dichotomy?
As youth workers, we’re charged to know God and his Word deeply so we can teach it relevantly in a way that brings hearts to life. In Luke 24 Jesus explains the Scriptures to two disciples on the Emmaus road. Afterward they say, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
To teach something relevantly in a way that genuinely equips a young person to connect with God, you have to know it deeply. To know something deeply, you have to spend time with it. A good seminary seems to be a great place for that to happen.
Should They or Shouldn’t They?
This brings us back to the question about seminary. The answer depends largely on what you think a youth worker is. Many churches assume youth ministry is “ministry lite.” From the outside it can look like underpaid, entertainment-driven purgatory for ministers paying their dues until they’re let out for “real” ministry position. If this is true, seminary isn’t necessary.
Pediatric doctors train for years, as do nurses, counselors, and teachers. We see these as professions requiring the best training. We take them seriously because they’re involved with the care of vulnerable young people. But isn’t that exactly what we do in youth ministry?
Youth ministers aren’t just “playing at ministry.” They work with real persons, not practice dummies. Genuine pastoral ministry happens in Christian youth work, which makes seminary a serious option.
It’s worth asking, then, another question: why would you not train?
If you want to take ministry seriously as a calling, then you have to think of your life in decades rather than years. Preparing for the long haul should mean portioning out time to create a foundation for the decades to come. You can always build experience later, but you can’t build a foundation later—especially when you’re already several floors up.
You can always build experience later, but you can’t build a foundation later—especially when you’re already several floors up.
This takes us to the real question: whom is your ministry for? Ministry is not about us. It’s about Jesus and those we serve. If you have the opportunity, you should take as much time as needed for robust preparation. You owe it to your future congregation to build a solid ministry foundation.
Reasons the Answer Is ‘Yes’
There are plenty of obvious reasons to go to seminary—you’ll know more theology, you’ll learn to preach, you’ll perhaps meet a spouse—but here are a few less frequently articulated reasons:
1. You’ll learn without making a mess.
Nobody gets hurt if you get it wrong on paper.
2. You’ll engage a variety of views.
Considering a spectrum of perspectives helps you to make deliberate choices. And you’ll be less likely to run after every new thing.
3. You’ll learn to be reflective and careful.
Everything gets put under the microscope, making you more considered in your doctrine and practice.
4. You’ll do your thinking in community.
You learn to measure voices in a room and be sharpened by others. This makes you both more teachable and a also better teacher.
5. You’ll ask more questions.
Asking questions allows you to assess both your own ideas and also the ideas that surround you, bringing you to a deeper understanding of important doctrines and practices.
6. You’ll ask better questions.
You learn to draw a straight line between the information you need and the best way to get at it. You become a clearer thinker.
7. You’ll receive formal recognition.
This means you’ve been held accountable to a measured standard. A degree gives your potential employer confidence in your abilities, awareness, and dedication.
8. You’ll stick at it.
Because you invested in a foundation, you’re more likely to stick around for the long haul.
Potential Downsides, But Still Worth It
Yes, there are potential downsides. You might fall into a condition wherein students arrogantly imitate professors’ or older students’ views without having done the work to back it up. Real people become theological targets for practice swings, and hearts get clogged up by a good but sometimes delicate quest for doctrinal accuracy. There may be humane skills you start to unlearn in a vacuum of people who debate theology all day. You might need to learn to be normal again.
Nevertheless, I believe seminary training its worth it. Experience rounds and shapes you over years, but a foundational time of study is a goldmine you’ll draw on forever. It fills gaps you might not be aware of and teaches you to think critically in community.
Few people who say they’ll study later do, and fewer youth workers who begin their career without training stick around. Growing in experience after training tends to be more efficient and results in fewer mistakes than trying to build experience without training. You’ll spend less time scrambling around in the dark.
Seminary or experience? It’s a both/and, not an either/or. But if you have the choice, don’t skip training.