Enter Ministry or Go to Seminary : What Should a Young 20-Something Do First?

Seminary student

Should I enter ministry or go to seminary first?

My ministry students are primarily 18-22 years old.  They are the traditional, undergraduate college years.  They left home after graduating high school a few years back and hopefully after attaining their four year degree, they are ready to launch into the real world of ministry prepared and equipped.

Let me repeat, my graduating students are 22 years old, maybe 23 at the oldest.  Would your church hire a 23 year old to serve on your church staff?

If you were on a Personnel Team or a church staff search team, would a resume of a 23 year old college graduate jump out at you as being a top-notch choice?  They would have a basic theological education.  They might have completed a summer or semester internship working in some sort of ministry.  They are probably going to be single and dating or possibly engaged, but rarely married.

My question to you is:  Would they be a top-tier candidate?  If not, why not?

I get calls and emails every week from churches looking for staff members in youth, children, discipleship, worship, and many for lead pastors.  But when I explain that my students are usually not older than 23 and mostly single, they decide to look elsewhere.  It would be fine for these young adults to serve as an intern or even as a ministry assistant, but not in significant leadership.  The opinion is that they are just too young.  The searching church wants someone with extensive experience, but only willing to pay the bare minimum.

So what do I advise my graduating college seniors?  I encourage them to go to graduate school or seminary.  Another year or two is only going to help them enter into church staff positions with more theological education and hopefully more experience in a part-time ministry setting, and possibly even a significant other in tow.

It is sad to think we need to delay them 2 or 3 years before we will consider them “ready for service.”  We don’t say that about 18-19 year olds in the US military or a 22 year old teaching high school in the public school system.  So why do we think this way in church ministry?

I believe we need to embrace these young adults.  I believe we need to give them a shot to enter into ministry at 22 or 23 and see what God might bring to our churches through them.  I think we need to listen to them and give them a fair shake.

I was 26 years old when a church finally gave me a full-time chance to serve as their Associate Pastor.  I had been part-time youth minister for 4 years and completed two seminary degrees.  I was married, but had no children.   I sent my ministry resume to over 100 churches from NY to FL and every state in-between.  Not one gave me a call or an interview.

But a single church with no posted vacancy, no budgeted salary, and not even a search team in place invited me to  come and serve with them.  It was one of the best ministry opportunities of my life thus far.  I wonder if that same place would have given me a shot 4 years earlier as a college graduate with no experience and no wife.  I bet they would have, because it was (and still is) that kind of place.  But they are rare.

Would your church be willing to take a shot on a 22 year old in full-time ministry?  I hope so.  They have a lot to offer the kingdom of God.  They might even teach you something new.

16 thoughts on “Enter Ministry or Go to Seminary : What Should a Young 20-Something Do First?

  1. I agree with you. Bachelor’s degrees in general are far too underrated and should not be seen as incomplete without a Master’s degree attached.
    I would add that the most beneficial thing a college graduate can do is leave the USA altogether and go learn Arabic at the http://www.kelseyarabicprogram.org

  2. Shane, I agree and disagree with you all at the same time. I got my first start as a FT Youth Pastor right before I turned 25. This at least allowed me to drive the church van! Before that, I served part-time for 2 1/2 years from age 21-23. I do believe Churches should take a chance on young 20 somethings, but I understand why they hesitate. Let’s be honest do you remember what it was like being 21 and being in ministry? I was a mix of stupidity, spit fire, brash, terrified, and filled with little knowledge. There’s a lot of growing up that needs to take place, and sadly, my generation seems to put that off a little too long. Moreover, my generation has this expectation they should just have a job right after college, when they have little to no ministry experience. I tell young ministers all the time, go work as a part-time youth pastor while you’re in school, but they always seem to refuse that option and believe it is beneath them. With all that said, a church should take a chance, but I don’t hold it against them if they choose to disregard an applicant because they have zero experience.

    • Josh, Good word. Your both/and position is strong. And yes, I do remember being too young to drive the church van or to be given a church credit card. Thanks for the comment and the trip down memory lane. SG

  3. Shane,
    Thanks for the post. As a professor of undergraduate Bible students I can empathize with your position. But in defense of the church, I also don’t think you provide a fair analogy. When was the last time you heard of an 18 or 19 year old recruit being put in a “significant leadership role” in the military? Also most, if not all, first year teachers have had to put in a semester or year of student teaching to prepare them for that first year (and again most first year teachers are not placed in significant leadership roles at their schools). As I read this section of your post I thought, “Are there professions where we do expect a “delay (more schooling/experience)” before they are ready to serve”. Doctors? When was the last time you heard of someone finishing their undergrad. degree and finding a job as a surgeon? We expect doctors to have advanced degrees and training because they mess with our health and lives. Lawyers? We expect lawyers to have advanced degrees and training because they mess with our freedom and money? Ministers? Maybe these churches you speak of realize that Ministers mess with people’s souls and therefore should have a little delay before being placed in “significant leadership positions” because the stakes are so high. (As a professor whose in the final stages of dissertation work I would point out that even colleges require such “a delay” before their professors are allowed to teach). So I too, encourage my students to continue their education. I also encourage those in my undergrad. classes to begin to serve (internships, volunteers, etc.) in their local church. I don’t believe churches should abuse young ministers (expect full time work for little to no pay) but I also expect young ministers to realize it takes time, work and education (and I don’t necessarily mean a formal university setting) to be ready for “significant leadership roles” in the church because after all the stakes are very high.

    • Justin, I appreciate your furthering of the analogy. I also appreciate that you encourage your students to move forward in theological education and ministerial experience. My personal rub is with those churches who won’t even give these young adults a second glance until they are in their mid-30’s, married with 2.5 kids and debt free.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Shane, I do agree with you there. And I realize that not all churches have such ideal hiring practices or pure motives when looking at filling ministerial vacancies.

  4. Maybe some churches have the mindset that their leaders must be elders–not in the sense of an elder as a position, but simply as an older person. Hard to square that biblically. Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to guide the church there, which means he was mentoring the church leaders. Since Timothy was so young, either he was guiding older men or the church leaders were also young.
    We do a disservice to our church if we reject young people simply because they are young.

    • A lot of agreeing with your comment Tim – I also believe you hit on the real issue at hand: Hiring young and doing it successfully is often determined by the health of a church’s leadership. The leaders understanding of how to mentor, train, and empower young leaders will determine if the situation is mutually beneficial. To that end, I would propose that we need to be hiring more 22 year olds into churches with healthy leadership. In my opinion, we would be turning out a much healthier field of theologians and ministers.

  5. Great article Shane! I agree with you whole-heartedly. Education and the furthering of it is a vital and necessary part of the growth and maturity in the ministry, though when not coupled with the experience of hands-on ministry… it lacks that real world experience that churches seek. I was blessed with the unbelievable opportunity to start the ministry God had called me to when I was the age of 18; a freshman in college. I had a mentor. I got paid $25 a service. I was basically volunteering my time in hopes that God would grow me and reveal the His direction and the my passion. Ten years later… I am still at the same church, but as full-time paid staff (far from the $25/service). I have learned invaluable things with the simultaneous combination of my experience and my education. There are things that education alone cannot and didn’t teach. If ministry is what students are studying, why not strongly encourage, if not require, involvement in a local church (…maybe even a membership)? Ok… so it’s not an official internship or a position actually recognized by anyone from the church, but it is a devotion to learn and experience the field that they are entering into and apply the things they are learning. Hey, perhaps a willing and devoted college student is just what a small struggling church had ordered up… Thank you for your insight. Your heart and passion amazes me!

    Josh Hensley

  6. Shane, I agree with you. Thankfully, like you, God led me to a church where their “rule” was the exception. When I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree, I was not feeling any sort of calling to continue education at that time. A few months later, I found the church God was leading me to, and like you, they hadn’t planned on hiring a full-time person but they stepped out on faith and took me in. 9 years later, I am still here. I was single and had little experience (only the time I had interned during high school and college), but they took a chance on me. I am so thankful for the opportunity and the growth from it. About 5 years later, when we called a new pastor, he brought his daughter along, and I married her. A few years into my ministry here, God called me back to school and I began working on my Master’s degree and just finished that. To be honest, I was not in the mindset right after graduating college to pursue graduate school just because I was stubborn and thought I had it all figured out. But after taking time and allowing God to work in my life, the education came at the perfect time.
    I was like you in that I had sent out many resumes all over the country and heard back from only one other than this church. My concern with all of this is that there is no right or wrong scenario that fits everyone equally. Many students will do better starting off full time right out of college, and many will do better going on to graduate school first. And we definitely do not want students to think that they need to hurry up and get married just to get a job. That is my largest concern as a youth pastor. I have heard that comment multiple times that there is this feeling of urgency to find a wife quickly and get married so they can get a ministry job. While God might lead some to a wife quickly, many might also be like myself and find her a few years down the road. I appreciate you and I’m glad to have been able to work with you in the past and look forward to working with you again!
    Jason Dunbar

  7. Hey Dr. G! I was looking back at my old time line posts and had shared this article a couple of years ago and I fully agree with it. But, I do have a question. What do you do when you are in seminary, and ministry positions never come to fruition and/or you can’t really afford work part time at a church? To be honest, the idea and logic behind doing so sounds great and many people are able to accomplish this whether by being supported by family or their church back home, etc. But, for others, life circumstances require a full time position, one that’s often times not in ministry. I still volunteer at Wedgwood with the youth department (yes, I’m a Wedgy) but between work and school and obviously without neglecting my family, it makes it hard to volunteer and put it the a decent amount of hours to gain quality experience. I’ve learned a lot in seminary thus far but am still nowhere close to finishing. Coupled with my lack of “real part time experience ” (apparently volunteering isn’t considered real part time), costs, and the lack of full time youth ministry jobs available to make a living on, I’ve considered taking the knowledge I’ve gained thus far and applying it to a volunteer position and working a secular job and putting finishing seminary off for awhile, if not all together.

    • For instance, a couple months ago I had an interview with a church in a small town in Texas looking for their next full time youth minister. I knew the former youth minister who was promoted to a new position in the church and was interested in having me on his team. He would be there to help me grow and serve as a mentor (something I’ve been seeking with not much luck). However, I was told me 7+ years of volunteering in ministry was not the experience necessary to work a full time role. I believed having someone on the inside would give me a really good shot but in the end was no help.

      • Jeremy, You’re hitting it right on the head. The decision is tough with family, volunteer ministry, school, and financial restraints. This is where your network, ministry circles, ministry friends, and others mentors will have to come in and speak for you. A strong letter of recommendation from the volunteer ministry location can be huge. A call or email from the youth pastor you are serving under speaking to your gifts, talents, skills, and passion goes a long way. It is difficult to wade through this early season of ministry, but I have no doubt you and your sweet wife can find God’s way in it all. SG

      • Thanks Dr. G. I also am encouraged that there are many smaller churches who need educated youth ministers and I’m not above volunteering for the rest of my life if that is God’s plan. The hard part is figuring what secular career path you want!

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