So many choices . . . so little time! That could very well be the mantra of those seeking to develop themselves as children’s ministry leaders. In the past it was hard to find opportunities to grow and develop in children’s ministry. Formal education programs were virtually nonexistent. Conferences aimed at growing your skills, building your children’s ministry network and filling your toolbox of resources were limited. No certificate programs targeted at leaders existed. Children’s ministry networks were geographically determined and ebbed and flowed based on participants and leadership. In recent years all of that has changed!
- There are a variety of college and seminary programs that seek to equip and empower children’s ministry leaders to serve children and families from a grounded research base. A brief google search will provide one with multiple options in this domain.
- The variety of face-to-face and online conferences for children’s ministry leaders offers those seeking these venues various options.
- Certificate programs are popping up in a variety of corners of the children’s ministry world.
- Networks are present both in the face-to-face and online realm. The online networks afford the participant access to others who share their passion to serve children from across the country and around the world and are available 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 avoid being disappointed by programs that overpromise and underdeliver?
In order to answer this question we need to step back and understand the philosophy of education that undergirds the various type of training and education options. In the world of education there are three types of education with distinct purposes and values: Formal, Nonformal and Informal education.
Think of it as a pyramid with formal education at the top of the pyramid, building on nonformal and informal education. The lines flow upward not vice versa. At its best formal education incorporates nonformal and informal 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 and characteristics:
- Highly structured and fits what we think of as “school.”
- Staffed by prepared and recognized teachers or professors with accredited, earned degrees in their field of study.
- Vetted and approved curriculum by a group of qualified people both within and outside the institution offering the degree.
- Strives to follow educational best practices, always seeking outside input to grow in their approach to teaching and learning and draw from a wide variety of sources to strengthen their programs of study.
- Accredited by an outside body, which provides important quality control.
- Grants a formal degree recognized by the broader community, is comparable to degrees from other formal educational programs and lays the groundwork for further higher education (such as a master’s or doctoral degrees).
In the children’s ministry world there are a variety of formal education programs at all levels, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral, that are available to those seeking this highest level of preparation. These degrees are offered in face-to-face, hybrid (both face-to-face and online) and fully online delivery systems. They include independent as well as denominational colleges and universities which offer courses, majors or degrees in children’s ministry.
There are both undergraduate and graduate/seminary programs in Children’s and Family Ministry.
Programs available include: University of Northwestern (MN), Moody Bible Institute and Liberty University are a few of the independent undergrad institutions with children’s ministry courses, majors or degrees. Denominational schools offer children’s ministry to prepare students to serve in their churches and beyond. Examples include Assembly of God schools such as North Central University (Minneapolis), Southeastern University (Orlando area), Northwest University (Seattle area). Seminary degree programs in Children’s and Family Ministry can be found at schools such as Bethel Seminary (the first MACFM degree offered as a hybrid of online and face-to-face intensives in Minnesota), Wesley Seminary (fully online degree) and Southern Baptist Schools as Southern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary and Dallas Baptist University.
Nonformal education is the middle ground between formal and informal. It is characterized by the following:
- Somewhat structured, has appropriate standards, and offers greater flexibility than formal education.
- Leaders of nonformal education may have formal, recognized educational degrees or they may be self-made entrepreneurs.
- Curriculum may be organization or “personality” centered without outside vetting.
- Not accredited by any outside body but rather stands on the reputation and values of those providing it.
- No formal degree is offered but rather one may receive a “certificate” which recognizes the work completed but this cannot be used in formal education contexts to gain advanced standing in a degree program nor can it be used as a stepping stone to further education in the formal schooling domain.
Nonformal education is the middle tier in the pyramid and at its best incorporates informal education into its processes. Conferences, workshops, formal mentoring relationships and the new variety of certificate programs in children’s ministry fit the arena of nonformal education.
There are various conferences and certificates in Children’s and Family Ministry.
International Network of Children’s Ministries partners with Bethel Seminary to offer two certificates: Equip (a free, fully online 12 week certificate) and Engage (a 75 hour hybrid model with face-to-face at Children’s Pastors Conference followed by online learning for 9 months through an online learning platform and an online conference). In addition they are gearing up for Empower which will be Master Classes that focus on micro certification in a specific arena. Ryan Frank offers KidMin Academy which is a 12 month fully online program which invites learning from various practitioners in the field of children’s ministry. In the realm of conferences Children’s Pastor’s Conference was the first children’s ministry leader conference and remains the only face-to-face conference that is not affiliated with a magazine or curriculum publishing house. It is sponsored by the International Network of Children’s Ministries, which also offers regular webinars and online conferences. Group Publishing has offered a variety of conferences through the years – regularly reimagining how best to serve the children’s ministry community. Their current conference offering is the KidMin Conference. Lifeway (Southern Baptist Publishing Company) offers a children’s ministry conference each year. Orange curriculum sponsors an annual conference that promotes partnership between church and home with their particular curricular spin. Tru from David C. Cook publishing has offered children’s and family ministry Gatherings where partnership between church and home utilizing the Tru curriculum and beyond is explored. KidMin Live and KidMin Online plus regular webinars are the newest entries in the field of conferences and training and are sponsored by Ryan Frank and his organization and magazine, KidzMatter.
Informal education focuses on relationships and is marked by socialization as its primary delivery medium. Informal education is marked by these elements:
- Typically unstructured and emerges organically between two people or within a network of people.
- Role of teacher and student is fluid with one person leading at times and at other times being the recipient of the informal educational journey. If it is a network, the role of teacher/leader may move among people within the network with various people providing direction and leadership as the relationships unfold over time.
- “Curriculum” of informal education is the conversation and ebb and flow of life and is felt need-centered.
- Concept of a degree, diploma or certificate at the closure of the experience is not even in the minds of the participants. This is life-on-life sharing among those who share similar passions.
Informal mentoring relationships, networks of children’s ministry leaders, online communities, and prayer support teams all fit into the realm of informal education. Informal education sits at the base of the pyramid and infuses both nonformal and formal education when these two approaches are done well. Local church or organizational related connections, local and/or regional children’s ministry networking groups, and online Facebook groups all fit into the realm of informal education.
Specific informal educational opportunities are very individualized or locally based.
Once you have this framework in mind you are armed 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.
- Degrees are granted by formal educational programs. There is general agreement in North American educational programs (but not globally) on the language used to describe degrees. The basic ranking of degrees is as follows: Accredited Certificate (varied lengths), Associate (2 year undergraduate), Bachelor (4 year undergraduate), Master (graduate) and Doctoral (post-graduate) degrees. Each of the degrees build upon the former degree as its prerequisite. For instance, you cannot be admitted to a Seminary 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 graduate is given a “diploma” (a formal recognized document) that can be used 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”
- Prolific marketing: Marketing is powerful! But look beneath the compelling headlines and message saturation to determine what is actually being provided in the training program. Determine if it is formal, nonformal or informal and then make sure that they are delivering on the type of education that is being provided.
- Mixed metaphors: Be careful of programs that mix descriptors for formal education but deliver nonformal or informal education. When formal education language is used such as “faculty, academy, dean, diploma” but the program is actually nonformal education, ask yourself what is being “sold.” All three types of education are valid, but they are very different in purpose and scope. When the lines are blurred and one program seeks to camp on the values of another, ask yourself if this is the type of training that can best meet your needs. Try to look through the language and determine what is at the core of the training and if it meets your goals and purposes for further development in children’s ministry.
- Overinflated promises: Be careful of programs that promise to fulfill all of your educational and training needs in a one-stop approach. Any program that communicates it can meet all of your needs is suspect since needs for training and equipping change as we move through our life and ministry. How do they equip you to be a lifelong learner and network you with other educational approaches so that you can continue to be learning and growing?
- Personality dependent approaches: This occurs when an educational or training program is linked almost exclusively to an individual. Even if that individual is highly competent and motivated to serve the community of children’s and family ministry leaders, look for programs that draw on a variety of people and perspectives to strengthen the training.
- Cookie cutter model: Does the program you are exploring allow you to develop your particular gifts and passions or does it channel all participants into one prescribed model for expediency? Programs that invite participants to become the best version of themselves created uniquely by God to serve in a particular ministry context are the strongest programs.
In the midst of your exploration of Children’s Ministry training remember two final things:
- Relationships are everything! Focus on the opportunities that encourage you to develop relationships with those who are leading you. Will you get to know your professor/teacher/leader and will they truly get to know you? Will you get to know your colleagues who are on the same path? There is much to learn from one another and best practice training invites the development of 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 long term, sustainable, burn-out resistant ministry. Does the training you are exploring encourage you to continue to grow in your spiritual journey? Do the leaders demonstrate concern for your spirit as well as your productivity as a children’s 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 make 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.