Youth Ministry With Formal Training
A few years ago I shared with our church my desire to enroll in a doctoral program and was immediately met with a few responses. Some thought it was great that I was going back to school. Some thought I was crazy. Some assumed I was using the church for a stepping-stone. The last group thought it was bizarre for a youth minister to have a doctorate. I agreed to all of those ironically. But I wanted to get a doctorate to open up opportunities for research, writing, influence, and teaching down the road. At the end of the program, I had seven lessons for youth ministry that I learned from a doctoral program.
1) It causes you to read….a lot: John Wesley once said, “If you don’t want to read, get out of the ministry.” Reading causes you to think and to evaluate, and it builds another tool in the minister’s toolbox. The amount of reading for a doctoral seminar is far more than should be allowed by law, but it allows you to draw from a wealth of experience someone puts on paper. In youth ministry, we should be reading books, magazines, blogs, journals, and other resources to help sharpen our minds and stimulate our creativity in ministry.
2) It gets you out of your tribe: Our tribes are those we are most like—theologically, philosophically, experientially, etc. In doctoral education, you experience a broad spectrum of authors, experts, classmates, and professionals. I did my doctorate in leadership, and my exposure in reading was from pastors, theologians, and business leaders. In my cohort I was around people twice my age, one from a different denomination, another from a different theological bent, and several from different geographical regions. We all sharpened each other and built one another up, and in the process developed lifelong friendships. In youth ministry, we need to get outside what we’re most comfortable with and rub elbows with older pastors, different denominations, and read more than our favorite authors’ books.
3) It teaches you to think critically: A critical thinking approach in doctoral education involves looking at the broad implications of research, ideas, and statistics. It forces the student to think beyond immediate issues or concerns to the greater or underlying factors at work. In youth ministry, we have to be critical thinkers. We have to look at our ministries and explore all the connections, factors, and variables at work in our students’ attendance, learning, living, and faith.
4) It develops a community of learning: One of the great joys of doctoral education is going through the journey with a group. It becomes a support group, a resource, a network, and a research base. Youth ministry is a calling in community, in that it cannot be done alone, and is strengthened by networking and leaning on other youth ministers. Developing a community of ministers is a great way to join together with others who care about the spiritual health of teenagers for the sake of seeing the Kingdom grow.
5) It sharpens your writing and speaking: Part of doctoral education is the submission of lots of writing assignments, and also the presentation of research to the group during seminars. Those exercises cause a student to develop better speaking habits, because there is only a limited time to share the work and take questions and feedback. Doctoral studies help in youth ministry to make the youth minister a better communicator, whether it be spoken or written.
6) It sanctifies you through endurance: Doctoral work is more about endurance and diligence than anything else. Through it all, it causes you to depend on God’s provision and peace. In the same way, youth ministry often can be a difficult journey as you navigate the needs of teenagers, work to be a resource to and advocate for parents, deal with churches who might not understand your ministry, and endure late night events.
7) It creates thick skin for criticism: There’s not much worse than being told your baby is ugly, but it happens a lot in doctoral work. The process of doctoral education is one of constant refining, but in the end it is worth it. Taking criticism is a hard thing in ministry, but just like a professor giving feedback on a thesis, it’s part of the process of developing maturity and effective ministry.