So many choices . . . so little time! That could very well be the motto of those seeking to develop themselves as children’s ministry leaders through education. Here’s some help.
In the past, it was hard to find chances to grow and develop in children’s ministry. Formal programs were few and far between. Conferences aimed at growing your skills, building your network and giving you resources were limited. No leader programs were around. In recent years all of that has changed!
- There are many college and seminary programs that seek to equip children’s ministry leaders to serve children and families. A brief Google search will provide you with many options.
- The variety of face-to-face and online conferences for children’s ministry leaders offers many options.
- Certificate programs are popping up in lots of corners of the children’s ministry world.
- Networks are present face-to-face and online. The online networks give the participant access to others who share their passion to serve children 24/7.
In light of this increase of options, how can the children’s ministry leader make the best choice to find training that meets their needs? And how can they avoid disappointment with programs that overpromise and underdeliver?
Three Types of Education
In order to answer this question, we need to step back and understand the train of thought that goes along with the different type of training options. In the world of education, there are three types of education with clear purposes and values: Formal, Nonformal and Informal.
Think of it as a pyramid with formal education at the top of the pyramid. The lines flow up, not down. At its best, formal education includes the other two types of education into its approach. While formal education can include nonformal and informal education the reverse is not the case.
Formal education has the following qualities:
- Highly structured and fits what we think of as “school.”
- Staffed by teachers or professors with earned degrees in their field.
- Approved curriculum by a group of qualified people both within and outside the institution offering the degree.
- Strives to follow best practices. Always seeking input to grow in their approach to teaching and draw from a wide variety of sources to strengthen their program.
- Accredited by an outside body, which provides quality control.
- Grants a formal degree recognized by the broader community. Lays the groundwork for further higher education.
In the children’s ministry world there are many formal education programs at all levels, that are available to those seeking this highest level of preparation.
Nonformal education lives in the middle ground between formal and informal. You can characterize nonformal education by the following:
- Somewhat structured, has standards, and offers more flexibility than formal education.
- Leaders of nonformal education may have formal degrees or they may be self-taught.
- Curriculum may be organization or “personality” centered without outside input.
- Not accredited by any outside body. Stands on the values of those providing it.
- You won’t receive a formal degree, but rather one may receive a certificate. You can’t use this certificate in formal education contexts or as a stepping stone.
Nonformal education is the middle level in the pyramid. At its best, it incorporates informal education into its processes. Conferences, workshops, formal mentoring and certificate programs fit the mold of nonformal education.
Informal education focuses on relationships. This type of education is marked by these elements:
- Unstructured and emerges between two people or within a network of people.
- Role of teacher and student is fluid with one person leading at times. If it is a network, the role of teacher/leader may move among people within the network.
- “Curriculum” is the conversation and is need-centered.
- No degree, diploma or certificate is given at the end. This is life-on-life sharing among those who share similar passions.
Informal mentoring, networks of children’s ministry leaders, online groups, and prayer support teams all fit into the realm of informal education.
Specific informal educational opportunities are very individualized or locally based.
This framework arms you with the tools to determine what type of educational opportunity will best meet your needs. In the midst of your journey it will be helpful to understand the difference between a degree and a certificate.
Formal programs grant degrees. North American programs (but not globally) generally agree on the language used to describe degrees. The basic ranking of degrees is as follows: Accredited Certificate (varying lengths), Associate (2-year undergraduate), Bachelor (4-year undergraduate), Master (graduate) and Doctoral (post-graduate) degrees. Each of the degrees builds upon the former degree as its prerequisite. For instance, a Seminary won’t admit you to a degree program such as a Master of Arts in Children’s and Family Ministry without having a Bachelor degree from a recognized and accredited institution. Upon completion of a degree, the organization gives the graduate a “diploma” (a formally recognized document) to use along with official transcripts to validate the educational experience achieved for employment purposes as well as further educational pursuits.
Certificates in children’s ministry are the wonderful “wild cards” in the educational domain. As certificates are nonformal, there is no standardization of content or curriculum, length of time needed to complete the certificate, or preparation of those who lead. This does not mean that certificates are not valid or educationally sound. It simply means that the person seeking the certificate will have to do their own vetting and determine if the certificate will accomplish their educational goals. Participants in Certificate programs should be advised that while meaningful in accomplishing the goal of growing as a Children’s Ministry leader, unaccredited certificates do not lead to academic credit in formal educational institutions.
5 Signs of What Could Be a “Sham Program”
Marketing is powerful! But look beneath the compelling headlines to determine what is provided in the program. Determine if it is formal, nonformal or informal and then make sure that they are giving you that education.
Be careful of programs that mix descriptors for formal education but deliver nonformal or informal education. When the program uses formal language but provides a nonformal education, ask yourself what they are selling. All three types of education are valid, but they have different scopes. When one program seeks to use the values of another, ask yourself if this is the training you need. Try to look through the language and decided what is at the core of the training. Also, determine if it meets your goals and purposes for further development in ministry.
Be careful of programs that promise to fulfill all of your educational and training needs in a one-stop approach. Any program that claims it can meet all of your needs is suspect. Needs for training change as we move through our life and ministry. How do they equip you to keep learning?
Personality centered approaches
This occurs when an educational or training program comes from a single individual. Even if that individual serves serve ministry leaders, look for programs that draw on a variety of viewpoints.
Does the program you’re exploring allow you to develop your particular gifts and passions? Or does it channel all participants into one model to save time? Programs that invite participants to become the best version of themselves are the best programs.
In the midst of your exploration of Children’s Ministry training remember two final things:
Relationships are key!
Focus on the programs that encourage you to develop relationships with those who are leading you. Will you get to know your teacher/leader and will they truly get to know you? Will you get to know those around you who are on the same path? There’s much to learn from one another and the best training creates a network of fellow learners.
Don’t neglect your spiritual formation!
In the midst of pursuing the “what” and “how” of children’s ministry, do not ignore the “who” and “why” questions. These are the elements that undergird all practice and invite us to sustainable ministry. Does the training you are looking at encourage you to continue to grow in your spiritual journey? Do the leaders show concern for your spirit as well as your productivity as a ministry leader? Are the leaders worthy of emulation in their spiritual walk? We are invited to live out the words of Paul as he states: “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Our goal is to be more Christlike. But who will help you take steps on this journey towards Christlikeness by being “Jesus with skin on” in for you? We become like those who we give permission to speak into our lives. Align yourself with those who regularly and unabashedly point you to Jesus!
Dr. Denise Muir Kjesbo is Professor of Children’s and Family Ministry at Bethel Seminary.
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