Is a master's degree worth it?

Yesterday, this question popped up in a youth ministry forum I'm a part of:

Do you believe that a Master's Degree is worth it (professionally and economically) for youth pastors? Do the Pros outweigh the Cons? More education is always positive, however, is the cost ($25k-$50k) time and energy worth it in the long run?

Masters

After finishing my Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University in 2013, I was inundated with similar questions from well-meaning people. Such questions are, in many ways, hard to answer.

Here's what I mean.

It's difficult to find a scenario under which a Master's Degree is worth it economically for those who intend to stay in youth ministry (and not move into associate or senior pastor roles where a Masters in Divinity is often required).

In some cases, the completion of a Master's Degree may open up doors for higher paying youth ministry jobs that you would not otherwise have qualified for. But those jobs are few and far between.

More likely is what many of my classmates and I received after the completion of our degree: A small salary bump. If you compare that small salary bump to the cost of our degree, it'll take most of us years to even break even.

All that to say if you want a Master's Degree because you think it'll let you rake in the big bucks, don't bother.

Having said that, there are some ways to make a Master's Degree more affordable.

For example, I chose a hybrid program wherein each class consisted of both an online and face-to-face component. This format costs far less than traditional programs that require you to be present 3-5 days a week for class. This format also offered me a great deal of flexibility, something that enabled me to space out classes for a variety of reasons. (I began the program in January, 2010 and finished in May, 2013). Because of the flexibility this program afforded me, it also allowed me to go to school part-time. As a result of this, I continued working a youth ministry job throughout my time in school, something that enabled me to bring in income even as I was spending money for this program. Additionally, because I didn't go straight from undergrad into grad school, I was able to set aside savings to avoid taking out student loans to complete the degree.

Because I did what I could to make my Master's Degree affordable, I absolutely believe it was worth it. Here's why.

The best leaders never stop learning. Can you learn without being in formal schooling? Absolutely. But because of the influence of my fellow classmates as well as the guidance of my professors, my learning was far deeper and richer during grad school than it's been during any other period of my professional life. What's more, because of required classes, I learned about issues and topics that, if left to my own devices, I would have never chosen to explore. Additionally, because I chose a program that wasn't affiliated with the denomination in which I currently serve, instead of just learning the party line, I also learned about other theologies. That, in turn, enriched my own theology as well as my ministry practices.

A Master's Degree fills in the holes. My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering. This means that I had NO formal training in youth ministry when I began as a professional youth worker. Instead, I learned on the job, through mentors, by constantly reading, and by attending various conferences. All of those things were good and valuable. Even so, by the time I returned to school, I knew there were very real “gaps” in my knowledge base. So I chose a program that would allow me to fill those gaps – to take classes not only in theology and youth ministry, but also in things like adolescent development (I'd never before taken a psychology class of any kind) and counseling (a class that I draw from on a daily basis).

The right Master's Degrees are immediately applicable. My classmates and I all worked throughout our grad school years. Our ministries became our laboratories, immediately allowing us to experiment with new ideas and practices that we were learning about in class. Because of this, I immediately found relevance in my schooling. The classes I took as part of my master's program have, without a doubt, made me a better youth worker. 

Master's Degrees spark and ignite new passions. Because of the rapid, intense learning that happens through master's programs, as well as the variety of classes you're exposed to, you're bound to find new passions and interests. Two of my favorite classes in my program were assessment strategies for youth ministry and qualitative analysis. Through these classes, I learned how to conduct qualitative research, which I promptly fell in love with. For so long in youth ministry, I felt as though I'd use my creativity and writing skills well, but had to forego deep analysis of anything. Because of this, I felt like a part of me was missing. Yet, through these classes, I discovered how the two intersect; How the analysis skills that I first learned in my engineering classes might also benefit the church and my ministry.

Master's Degrees allow you to network. Through a master's degree, you'll have the chance to network with people you'd otherwise never come into contact with. For me, this was true of both my peers and professors, especially since I intentionally chose a program that allowed me to learn from many of the greatest thinkers in youth ministry (led by Dave Rahn). 

Master's Degrees open the door for other opportunities. I suppose this is what the person posing the question at the start of my blog meant by, “Do you believe that a Master's Degree is worth it professionally for youth pastors?” And let me begin by saying this – not necessarily. Initially I returned to school at least in part because I thought that at some point, I'd like to teach youth ministry at the collegiate level. Despite my years of experience in youth ministry, I knew no school would allow me to do that with only a Bachelors of Science in electrical engineering. While I still have that dream, so far it hasn't come to fruition. God has, however, opened the door to other opportunities that have come as a direct result of my master's experience. Shortly after graduation, one of my professors, Terry Linhart, invited me to work with him on a fascinating study of Scriptural Engagement through InterVarsity. That experience allowed me to continue learning about research even as I began putting into practice some of my newly acquired research skills. Additionally, after speaking at Open Grand Rapids on the original research I did for my culmination research project on what high school teens believe about Jesus, The Youth Cartel offered me a book contract. My findings – along with their implications – were published in The Jesus Gap last fall. That, in turn, has led to another book I'm currently writing, a devotional for teens about who Jesus is, based on that same research. To be clear, a completed master's degree won't open the door for the same opportunities for everyone. However, I think most of my peers would agree their master's degree opened the doors in ways they never expected or anticipated.

So – is a master's degree worth it for youth pastors?

Absolutely – as long as your definition of “worth” includes more than just money.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and the forthcoming A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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