One trend that is on the rise, at least anecdotally, is students that are interested in ministry pursuing a graduate degree in social work instead of ministry or theological studies. For those that don't know, the field of Social Work encompasses a wide range of skills that usually deal with improving the quality of life of people. This can be done through crisis intervention, participation in social programs, fighting hunger, or addressing social injustice. The ones that I've known that have gone this route fall into the following three categories:
1. They Are not traditional Church Leaders
Folks that I've known that have gone this route aren't the ones that are called to be senior pastors or some full-time position in a local church. These are ones that for a while didn't know exactly what God was calling them to (mostly because their spiritual mentors hadn't heard of this route). They are ones that are usually drawn to the humanitarian-aid side of ministry.
2. They are not afraid of being labeled
Conservative Christianity utterly failed in the last half of the 20th century in reaching others through social programs, like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other related programs. Many groups saw more liberal denominations doing these as part of a 'social gospel' strategy. Well - they were right. Social work isn't the good news of Christ's redeeming work. However, in the last 10 years theologically conservatives have been entering the social work arena with a correct view of the gospel plus a desire to help those that are in most need in our society. This sometimes mean that some in the church have hurled "churchy insults" at them or tried to dismiss them as being a proponent of the "social gospel" philosophy.
3. They have a Different Idea of 'Mission'
In addition to this, the ones that I've known that have gone this route have a different idea of 'missions' than I grew up with (but one I'm trying to emulate). I was always taught that missions happened in places - sometimes here but mostly overseas. We even had a sticker above our church doors as we went out that said "You are now entering the mission field." As I read the New Testament and as I see those around me that are being effective witnesses, I realize more and more that 'missions' is our entire life. It's wherever we are and we often don't think about the gospel throughout the day because we are not in the mindset that wherever we are is where we need to be sharing. This concept of course isn't limited to those going into social work, but it does seem to be a common hallmark of those that are.
Why a MSW Degree?
For those that are called to ministry and evangelism through social work, a Masters in Social Work could help you towards that goal. Another reason to go this route is that it is a very marketable degree that can support you as you're planting a church or helping in other types of ministry. Non-profits, which are being increasingly used in evangelism, also need people with this type of advanced training to help run their programs.
University of California, Berkeley
The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a short article in April 2012 that featured the University of California - Berkeley's digital badges. These badges "are icons that individuals can display on their website, blog, or social media profile to get recognition for informal and formal learning outside of school" (see quoted article). Despite the title of this blog, I actually don't have a problem with this concept. Essentially, the idea is that students will be able to build an online portfolio, specifically geared for social media, that will allow others to see qualifications or achievements that have come apart from (or perhaps in conjunction with) a traditional college setting.
There are three issues that may arise from this trend that could amplify problems that Christian colleges and seminaries already face. The first is that, for those training for ministry, preparation can't be linked solely to a checklist, like the checklists that go with completing many of the digital badges. For many Christian colleges this a big struggle as it is - how does one quantify spiritual qualifications?
The second problem that could be amplified by this trend is a false sense of education. Currently there are schools that give "theological degrees." These schools produce graduates that think they are qualified for ministry or education or whatever the schools have claimed to train them for, but in reality, with no accreditation backing them up and not receiving training from credible educators, it becomes a frustration for the graduate. With no regulation in place to determine how one gets a badge, it becomes up to the issuing institution how a student can earn one. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unaccredited Christian colleges that would love to make some money by offering badges, as people have sued schools over unaccredited degrees, but so far not for badges.
The third problem digital badges may contribute to is a bit more philosophical than the other two. We live in an interconnected, global community. What has happened, almost solely through social media, is that truth for many has become based on the community. It isn't what God said is true or even what I believe is true, but it has increasingly been what the community says is true. Digital badges are a direct result of this philosophy. I can easily conceive of someone in the near future being considered for a ministry position not based on their own beliefs or work ethic, but on community-based badges. It can easily become not if what you believe is true, but if what you believe is corroborated by the rest of the community. See, I told you this part was more philosophical. That being said, I'm no philosopher and, like I said in the beginning, I'm actually not against the badges - if used wisely. The philosophy behind them, though, needs to be understood and I believe that a correct understanding will lead to correct usage. Now, I suppose it's time for the community to agree or disagree . . . the irony!
Digital Merit Badges: Recognition for 21st Century Skills at http://courses.ischool.berkeley.edu/i202/f11/node/738
Carey, Kevin; "A Future Full of Badges" from The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/article/A-Future-Full-of-Badges/131455/)
For more information on post-post-modernism/meta-modernism check out:
There are ongoing articles that span academic realms at http://www.metamodernism.com/
Metamodernism Manifesto at http://www.metamodernism.org/
Kirby, Alan; "The Death of Post-Modernism" at http://philosophynow.org/issues/58/The_Death_of_Postmodernism_And_Beyond
This website deals with important things to consider like degrees, schools, and finances. On top of that many of us have responsibilities at home, at church, and at work. With all of these important things vying for our attention and limited time, let us not forget the most important thing about ministry - it is about God and His glory. God has called many to full time ministry, but not everyone. I know many with an undergrad or masters in ministry or theology that serve their church, but earn their living in some other line of work. Their advanced training usually makes them an integral part of their church and their job gives them contacts that they otherwise wouldn't have. I think that's great. Paul made tents, which no doubt was an opportunity to share the gospel to many in the marketplace, but he also had an intentional ministry throughout the empire.
For others, God has called them to a paid position in a church or ministry and still others obtained a degree but then for various reasons abandon ministry altogether. No matter your situation, consider why we should study ministry or theology: it's for the glory of God. If it's money, a job working with people, or some other reason, you're following the wrong career path. The money can be decent, but often isn't, people can be cruel, hurtful, and fickle. The only constant is who God is and his worthiness of worship. As someone trained for ministry you are held responsible for what you teach (or don't teach), for your actions, and for how you love others. As ministers (and I use that term loosely), we must remember to focus on having our own relationship with God, leading our family towards a growing relationship with God, and helping the body of Christ have a growing relationship with God. It's about feeding His sheep. When loving others becomes difficult, when people personally attack you, and when you just feel depressed, remember why you studied ministry and theology in the first place.
This article is by Austin McCann. Austin just finished his B.A. at Piedmont International University. He is currently working on his Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary while starting in full-time student ministry. You can find more of Austin’s thoughts on his website.
One of the things I considered when planning for seminary was: am I going to do it full-time on campus or would I do it part-time, and maybe even full-time, online as I work in vocational ministry. I knew the latter would be hard and require discipline, but I wanted to get my feet wet in vocational ministry and didn’t want to wait for a few years while I was on campus as a seminary students. So I decided to do seminary online while pursing vocational ministry at a local church.
I’m only four classes into seminary, so by no means am I an expert at this yet, but I have been learning a few things about how to balance my seminary work with my ministry work. It’s a delicate balance that requires discipline and hard work. Here are a few things that have helped me with this balancing act that may be a help to you if your in the same place I am.
Take a day off to focus 100% on seminary. This has been the biggest help to me so far in this journey. Taking a day off during the week, for me Mondays, and focusing just on my seminary work is a great way to stay on top of your seminary work while staying busy in the ministry world. Find the weekday that works best for you, and stick with it. Don’t schedule any meetings or do any ministry work, find a quite place and work on your seminary stuff. Your ministry stuff will be waiting for you tomorrow, no worries!
Get ahead on your seminary work. Another way to balance seminary and ministry is to get ahead on whatever class work you can. On that day off, get extra reading done and get started on the next paper. Don’t wait until the week something is due to work on that assignment. Stay a week ahead. This will help you focus on your ministry work without feeling like your falling behind in your classes.
Don’t take too many classes. One of the biggest reasons people struggle with balancing seminary and ministry is because they take way too many classes. If you feel like God has called you to do vocational ministry while in seminary, make sure your giving yourself enough time to serve Him well in your ministry. Take a few classes so you stay on track with your program, but don’t overload yourself. Ministry seasons where it’s really busy, like summer for me since I am in youth ministry, take only one or two classes. When there is a season in ministry that you may have more free time, take a few more classes. Be wise and use discernment when planning your classes.
These are just three of the many ways I am learning how to balance seminary and ministry. In our culture, we are blessed with online education so we can serve God in vocational ministry while we do seminary. But remember, we need to be wise with our time so continue figuring out how you can balance seminary with your ministry.
Mark Stevens is a former seminary student himself and currently researches and teaches in the area of theological studies.