A Hard Truth: Student ministry has a very steep, but short, learning curve. What I mean by this is that the job of a youth worker is incredibly challenging, but only at first. There are many skills that need to be learned and learned quickly. For many new youth workers it can take hours to plan a mid-week youth program, to put out a monthly--or even quarterly--calendar. Budgeting for trips, filing paperwork, communicating with parents and supervisors are all needed skills, and they are all needed at once.
This is why the learning curve is so steep. But the curve is short, because once you have these skills mastered, usually after two years or so, you are done with the basic skill set. And once these skills are mastered you are off to the real work of student ministry: loving on students and helping them love God.
Because the skill set is so limited and doesn't take that long to master, it brings into question the need for an entire undergraduate degree, let alone a masters' level degree, centered around this profession. I think it might be worth having an adult conversation about the cost / benefit analaysis of paying $80,000 for a job that earns on average $34,000 a year.
I know I have a limited perspective, but after all these years in student ministry I have started to see a noticeable difference between youth workers who were formally trained in a university setting, and those who endured the steep, but short learning curve in the field. These are just a couple of my observations:
Youth Ministry Is An Entry-Level Job:
While it is true that there are a wide variety of student ministry positions out there, the ones available to recent college graduates are almost all the same. You have the choice of either being the head person in a small church overseeing a small ministry, or being a small part of the machine at a larger church. As someone who has hired for both of these settings, I have found that the degree doesn't matter at all. People called to ministry have plenty of experience and positive feedback from their peers in a variety of ministry contexts.
Once you get those first couple of years under your belt, your movement up the youth ministry ladder will 100% be dependent on your performance, and not your degree. The skills needed to run a small ministry at a small church or to be a part of a team in a larger church are learned and perfected in the field.
Starting in student ministry is very similar to starting as a barista at Starbucks. I have heard from many Starbucks employees that the first couple of weeks on the job are so challenging and remembering everything is a challenge. But soon that steep learning curve proves to be short and the entry level job is born. It would be a waste of time to devote your entire college career to being a barista. It would make much more sense to major in business or something else that would further your career after the job of barista.
In a similar way, I think the choice of education needs to have a little more forethought to prepare for not just the immediate future, but the long term future. Thinking that youth ministry is the final resting point of your career is short-sighted and limiting. A B.A. in Youth Ministry seems to only solidify this world view.
The Pitfalls Of Doing Student Ministry In An Ivory Tower:
Spending time with people who are majoring in student ministry often proves to be a personal challenge in patience and grace. The college students that I have talked with in interviews, at camps and conferences who are majoring in Youth Ministry seem to all have a similar, narrow, and idealized worldview surrounding ministry.
The biggest problem is that ministry cannot be taught in a classroom setting. Classrooms are for theology, ecclesiology, missiology, any -ology. But ministry is about relationships and programs. And when these things are brought to the classroom, there is bound to be trouble.
Calling is another thing that can't be taught in a classroom. Many students are taught about calling in an academic setting and about how important that is. But calling can't be worked out sitting down. It must be worked out in community, and in a ministry context.
In the midst of their conversations about calling, there is also little conversation about the fact that youth workers are at the bottom of the employment hierarchy in a church. They are taught that their calling is on par with the calling of their pastor, who has completed at least a masters' level education, followed a call process that has taken years, and is now the head of staff.
They are presented with an idealized version of the church and world, where 22 year-old youth workers who enlist the support of their students can, and should challenge all of the status quos in the church. Everything from worship style and presentation to justice and compassion issues, to basic ministry philosophy and execution, can and should be challenged. There seems to be little respect or humility toward the institution of the church and the call of the senior pastor to lead it.
The angst towards the institutional church, specifically the suburban church, is a favorite whipping boy in the towers of academia. But these are the only churches out there that can afford to pay for youth workers. As someone who hires interns and associates, it becomes quite a challenge to hire someone who knows more than me about my church, my philosophy of ministry, my students, and has the best plan to reach them.
In order for someone to thrive in student ministry they need to fall in love with the institutional church, learn from the pastor, and develop the natural skills and talents they have been given in their unique context.
If Academia Is Your Thing:
If you are a smart person and school is your thing, then you should take your education seriously. We need educated people in student ministry, and we need educated people contributing to the conversation.
Chances are that if you value education and you want to be a well educated Youth Worker then you would consider majoring in it in college. But because you are smart, you will have masted everything you need to know in no time at all.
Those of us in youth ministry need to be sharpened by others in ministry. We need your voice to help us do our job better. In this increasingly complex, post-Christan world we are living in and doing ministry in, we don't need more experts in student ministry. We need experts in sociology, anthropology, psycololgy, theology, and missiology.
Don't waste your time on reading Doug Field's books in a college setting. (And if your school poo poos Doug Fields, then re-read Section Two. His voice is still just as vital to the youth worker in a church setting. ) Use your undergraduate and graduate studies to prepare you for a life of ministry; to be a contributor to the conversation.
The Best Place To Learn Student Ministry Is To Just Do Student Ministry:
Student ministry is a strange and unique profession. It is practiced by college kids, grandmas, involved dads, and 20-year professionals. It can be as simple as a small group of students at your house for bible study to managing paid staff and dozens of volunteers. Where you end up will be entirely dependent on how you do on the job, not your degree. And like I said before, for all entry level jobs, your degree means very little, compared to the ministry experience you bring to the table.
So how do you learn how to do student ministry?
1) Just do it: Find a ministry right now that you can be volunteering in. As you do, your natural gifts and talents will surface and be noticed by the youth worker. If vocational youth ministry is your desire, then get involved in ministry, campus ministry, camping ministry, church ministry, para-church ministry, any ministry. The more you do, the more you will discern your call and sharpen your skills, so when you graduate from college you will be ready for a job.
2) Spend your first year after college in an internship: This is the best way to see if vocational youth ministry is your bag. It is one thing to love kids and to love Jesus. It is entirely different pulling that off within the chaos and bureaucracy of an institutional church. There are a ton of great churches with great opportunities. You won't make any money, but your experience will be invaluable.
3) Find a mentor: Youth ministry is still ministry, and like all ministry it is done through discipleship and mentorship. You should always have people ahead of you pouring their lives into yours, while you pour your life into someone elses. Hopefully some of those pouring their lives into you are youth workers who can walk with you through all the chaos of student ministry. A good mentor is the number one way to survive for the long haul in this job.
4) Ask questions: There is nothing new under the sun, and this is for sure true for student ministry. There are only so many things you can do with high schoolers, so many ways to run a retreat, so many ways to interview volunteers, so many mixers that can be played, so many ways to structure your student leadership. Don't be a fool and think that you are going to find the silver bullet, the newest and best way to do whatever. Chances are it has already been done. So ask around, walk down the path that has already been worn. Then you can spend your time and effort on the most important part of student ministry--loving students and helping them love God.
Like I said earlier, these are just my thoughts. I have many good friends who teach in youth ministry degree programs, and many friends who have graduated with this degree. I don't intend any disrespect. But I would love your thoughts and corrections :)