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Should I get a ministry degree or a ‘real world’ one?
I am a freshman at a Christian university. I have felt the Lord call me to prepare for ministry, but I’m still uncertain which major I should dive into. Should I choose a degree that would help me get a good job and provide for a family, or one that will be more applicable in ministry?
Let me start by encouraging you. For the first time in U.S. history, single women are more likely than single men to be in college, have a job, attend church, or even have a driver’s license. You’re a young man investing his early years rather than wasting them, which is wise, I assure you.
The seeds of obedience you plant today will reap a harvest of righteousness in time. You have a great head start on the fool’s parade, your generational peers who are busy looking for their pants after spending last weekend breaking a bucket of commandments.
I always say that young men are like trucks: they drive straighter when weighted with a load. Lamentations 3:27 says, “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” I praise God that you are looking down the road of your life, seeking the wisest course of action while remaining open to the Lord Jesus redirecting you as he determines.
That being said, I will give you some general counsel. I only work for a non-profit and am no prophet, so I won’t presume to know God’s specific will for your life. However, there are two things I would strongly recommend.
1. Don’t take on a mountain of debt
When the Bible says that the borrower is slave to the lender, it’s not kidding. When a guy is single and without any responsibility, he’s prone to spend money as if he were playing Monopoly. Whatever you do, do not take on a mountain of debt—especially for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Find cheap housing, drive a beater car, work a job that provides some money, cut your expenses, and grind out your education as close to debt-free as possible. That may mean looking at a state school instead of a private school as well.
If you are considering ministry, this is especially important. Guys who are planning to go into ministry with significant debt are like guys who plan on going swimming with steel-toed boots on.
2. Don’t put all of your eggs in the vocational ministry basket
Professors at Christian schools and their students will likely appreciate this advice like a cat does water, but I will tell you what I’d tell my three sons. The odds are you will not be in ministry your entire life without any interruptions:
- You might need to go bi-vocational, at least for a season.
- You might not like ministry and want to quit.
- You might get burned out and take a few years off.
- You might just want to be an unpaid elder at your church and serve in the ministries you enjoy without being obligated to deal with all the baggage and carry-ons that accompany vocational ministry.
- Your kids might be struggling with their faith for a season, compelling you to get out of formal church leadership for a season to focus on them.
- Your wife or child might get sick, requiring you to tend to them and raise a ton of money for medical bills without spending your time and emotional energy on pastoral duties.
- You might be disqualified from ministry by something you do or your wife does.
- Your city or church might become financially decimated, and you might want to remain as their pastor even though they cannot pay you.
- You might get run through the wood chipper at some awful church and just want a few years or a few decades break to recover.
- God might call you to missions in a country where having a particular degree will get you access and credibility.
And, the list goes on . . .
So, get a degree in something that will allow you to have a career that enables you to care for yourself and a family.
The hard, cold, sad truth is that ministry degrees have zero business aspect in them. But if you want to learn how to run an organization (including a church) you need to have some business chops. Ministry is not a business, but since we are dealing with Jesus’ money, people, and reputation, we should operate at a higher standard than a business.
I will be encouraging my sons to get a career-path degree, and if they want to add theology on top of that, that’s fine. But in order to lead people who are working jobs, a ministry leader benefits from understanding the workplace and life beyond a Christian subculture filled with theological debates.
This is what I did. God saved me as a freshman, and I was clearly called by God into ministry at the age of 19, a calling confirmed by my pastor at that time. I was at a state university and remained there to get a degree in communication, where I learned things like marketing, advertising, journalism, radio, television, public speaking, etc.
I worked a job throughout college, graduated in four years, and did not incur debt for my studies. I simply paid my way through college, graduated on time, and had a few leadership scholarships that helped the first two years. I did not party. I never drank a drop of alcohol. I did not mess around. I was working nearly full-time, going to school full-time, studying my Bible a lot, taking classes from my church, volunteering in ministry, and I got married my senior year.
Grace and I then graduated and worked jobs. For the first three years of the church, I did not receive a salary from Mars Hill, since we were a small broke young church. Thankfully, I did not have any college debt. About six years later, I began my master’s degree in theology while pastoring the church, raising kids, and being the sole income provider. (Grace stopped working outside the home before our first child was born.) It was only a few years ago that I actually received my theological degree.
I am in no way opposed to formal theological study, but the qualifications of an elder in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 talk a lot about practical matters like household management, finances, work ethic, marriage, and children—ironically, all things that men often sacrifice in order to get a theological degree so that they can enter vocational ministry.
Know your options
Of course, my path is not the path for everyone. But it is quite sad to see well-intentioned men get a theological degree, go into massive debt, forego children so that their wife can carry the family financially, and graduate—only to be out of ministry within a few years for whatever reason and unable to get a decent job because their ability to parse Greek verbs and articulate the difference between Berkhof and Barth doesn’t do much good beyond debating the other pastor sitting next to them at the unemployment office.
The other option is to remain in ministry—unmotivated and uninspired—simply because it pays the bills and the pastor does not have any other great vocational options. I’ve met some of these guys, and it’s sad. They don’t love their job or their people, and everyone suffers for it.
Therefore, it’s good to have another option so that, if the day comes when being in vocational ministry is not best for some reason, you are able to leave and still provide for your family.