A good friend and mentor once asked me, “if God can’t use me without a theology degree, why would he do so with a degree”? He was already in fulltime ministry, you could say he was born into it; his family connections and reputation placed him as a youth pastor in a church I was affiliated with. For the most part, he was a brilliant teacher, with profound insight into God’s word and that without a single day of formal academic training.
So, just how important is a Theology degree for an aspiring minister?
This was 15 years ago, yet after completing my own theological studies, and working closely with theology students on a daily basis, I’ve been revisiting this question more frequently.
As a starting point, we can acknowledge that God is not limited to a Theology degree in order to use someone for ministry. But does it follow then that a degree in theology is redundant?
Let us take a step back, and ask why do we study? Most people enter into a field of study because they need a certain qualification to start their career. In fact most careers requires some form of formal training or tertiary education. So when you think of becoming a preacher, naturally one assumes that a degree in theology will get you there. However, there are some exceptions to the rule; my old mentor being one of them.
But how far does this exception stretch? In a recent survey, we took this question head on, asking a variety of active ministers from different denominations some questions regarding the hiring of a youth minister for their congregation.
Granted, not all Theology students aspire to end up as a youth minister, and youth ministry is certainly not the only paying employment for someone with a theology degree. However, the norm is, at least at Pneumatix, that the majority of Theology students aspire to start out as a youth minister with the hope of working their way up the ladder so to speak.
Off the bat, it was interesting to note that 40% of our participants said that they will hire someone with no formal tertiary education. 40% is a large percentage and validates in some way this question, and by extension this blog. Yet 60% of our participants insisted upon a tertiary education, and 100% of our participant were willing to employ a candidate either studying full- or part-time.
The question is whether 60% is enough to incentivise a long and costly study period?
To answer this question, we asked our participants to rate the importance of various factors that play a role in selecting a candidate. While a tertiary education was the most import across the bord, as expected, it was closely followed by the institution of study for the candidate. Where you choose to study is something our participants pay close attention to.
Interestingly, recommendation and appearance out performed every other factor on the list with the exception of education, while age and religious background were among the least important for our candidates.
But what should we take away from this data? Is a tertiary education really needed if you are hoping to enter into the ministry field as a youth minister? It would seem that there are churches willing to hire candidates based on character and reference alone, but does this mean that there is no need for a qualification?
To successfully answer this question, we need to consider other factors as well. After all, getting that first job is not the end of the line. Keeping that job, and progressing with promotions are equally factors of measure here. That being said, you could have all the qualifications in the world and still fail to progress or maintain a job.
Its not always as straight forward, however, I believe that there are two things you acquire during a study period, other than a degree, that goes a long way in setting you up for the ministry.
Knowledge, in any field of expertise, plays an essential part in aptitude, meaning that how well you are able to do your job, in this case minister, is closely correlated with the knowledge you possess concerning that job. More than just knowing the Bible, a minister has to understand the faith. Yet formal education is by no means the only form of acquiring knowledge. My old mentor, although he did not obtain it formally, could not have maintained his position as a youth pastor if he did not have the knowledge and understanding. Formal education is, however, the most disciplined why to acquire knowledge.
A period of study goes a long way in shaping your character. Again, formal studies is not the only way to shape one’s character, and I’ve not yet come across any university or college, save Pneumatix, who would claim to shape character. But dealing with the ins and outs of studying, any student would tell, you shapes you for better or worse.
Studying is an investment in yourself, and although it is not impossible, as statistics show, to answer a calling on your life and become a minister without any formal training, the benefits of study far outweigh the loss of time and money.