April 24, 2013

FAQs for College Students

I’m a college student, and I think God may be calling me into ministry – What do I need to know?

By Meg Lassiat with Deborah Bushfield*

Who do I talk to for nuts and bolts information about ministry?

Ask your pastor to give you the contact information for your district superintendent. This person needs to know your intentions. If you are ready to begin a formal process of exploring candidacy for ordained ministry, you need to write a letter to the DS and she/he will work with the district committee on ordained ministry to assign to you a candidacy mentor. The candidacy mentor should have the official info you’ll need and can help you begin the process of becoming an ordained minister. That person will help you enter the discernment and candidacy process. Your district superintendent is also available to talk to you informally about your call and about the possibilities.

What will my friends and family think of me?

At first, you may find that the people in your life have a wide variety of reactions to your decision, ranging from celebration to concern. Those who know you well will probably speak honestly with you, and you can learn a lot from their “take” on your decision. After you’ve listened and given thoughtful consideration to their comments, your friends will soon realize that it makes sense for you to pursue this, and will likely be supportive. After all, if they know and love you, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise to them that someone who is committed to following God would consider ordained ministry as a vocation.

Parents can be tougher. They had dreams and plans for you that may not have included ministry, and they may have a hard time giving up those dreams. They may also discourage you out of a need to protect you or because they believe they are looking out for your best interests. After all, ministry is a demanding career. In addition, our society and culture define success in monetary terms, and ministry is not among the best-paid professions. That said, when parents and friends realize your commitment to pursue the ministry is real, they will often become your biggest encouragers and supporters.

Are there scripture passages I should look up?

Yes! They are:

  • God calls Moses – Exodus 3:1-12
  • God calls Samuel – 1 Samuel 3:1-10
  • God calls Esther – Esther 4:9-17
  • God calls Mary – Luke 1:26-38
  • God calls Timothy – 1 Timothy 4:6-16

All of these passages show how God calls many different types of people – young people, adults, women, men, girls, and boys. Don’t sell yourself short because you don’t think you can do it. God calls different people for different ministries. The challenge is to figure out how God is calling you.

What is the difference between a deacon and an elder?

Both deacons and elders are ordained ministers. The deacon focuses on a specialized ministry based on their own talents, interests, and how they discern God calling them. Their specific ministry may include positions such as youth minister, music minister, chaplaincy, counseling, or Christian education. Deacons are not limited to traditional church work. They may be union organizers, school teachers, medical workers, social workers, etc. In all cases the deacon ministry is one that connects the church to the needs of people in the world and leads the church in servant ministry. Deacons may assist elders or local pastors in serving the sacraments; they cannot oversee baptism and communion. They can, however, conduct weddings and funerals. Deacons find a ministry position either on their own or with the assistance of their annual conference. They then ask their bishop to appoint them to serve in a particular ministry setting. Therefore, deacons serve under the appointment of a bishop. They are not guaranteed employment, but can actively pursue the kinds of ministry settings in which they would like to work. They search for their own positions and interview for them, as in most jobs. They can leave whenever they want, move somewhere else, and find a new position.

The elders’ focus in The United Methodist Church is preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and ordering the life of the church. Elders have sacramental authority, which means that they lead in communion services and baptisms. They also officiate at weddings and funerals.

Traditionally, elders work as local church pastors, but they can also serve in places other than local churches. These are called extension ministries because they extend the ministry of the local church into the world. Extension ministries include work such as international missions, college campus ministry, military or hospital chaplaincy, counseling, and teaching, etc.

Unlike deacons, elders take a vow of obedience to the bishop – agreeing to be itinerant. This means they agree to serve where the bishop appoints them, and leave for another position when the bishop calls them to go. They are guaranteed a service appointment throughout their career, as long as they remain in good standing with their annual conference.

How many United Methodist-related schools are there? Should I consider attending one of them?

Yes. There are 119 UM-related colleges, universities and seminaries. While you don’t have to attend a United Methodist-related college or university to be a UM ordained minister, you may find that you qualify for additional scholarships at these schools.

On the other hand, when it comes to seminary, you should definitely make every effort to attend one of the thirteen United Methodist seminaries. Graduates of non-UM seminaries can be ordained in the UMC as long as they attended a seminary approved by the University Senate; however, United Methodist seminaries provide a strong Wesleyan foundation and curriculum for UM ministry that may not be found at other seminaries. In addition, United Methodist students will often find that there are more scholarships available to them if they attend a UM seminary. Click here for a complete list of UM-related schools.

Do I have to, or should I, major in religion to go to seminary?

No. People often think they should choose an undergraduate major in religious studies or pre-theology, but that can limit your overall education, and may prevent you from developing your own unique interests. It is usually better to go for a well-rounded education. You will get all the theology and religious studies you need in seminary, and a bachelor’s degree from any accredited college or university qualifies you to attend seminary.

What education will I need? What classes do I have to take?

In order to become an ordained deacon or elder in the UMC you will need an undergraduate degree (bachelor’s) in any major you choose. Those who want to be an elder will need a Master of Divinity, while those who are interested in serving as a deacon will need either a Master of Divinity or a master’s in their area of specialization – along with a range of basic graduate theological studies. Some people who come to seminary have majored in religion while others have degrees in different fields such as education, business, social work, communications, etc. If you’re undecided, a Bachelor of Arts gives you a well-rounded degree and provides a range of knowledge in a lot of subjects.

Seminaries each have their own list of required classes and curriculum. If you attend a UM-related seminary, they will see to it that you get at least the minimum required classes to serve as a deacon or elder. Be sure to take a wide range, and don’t leave out any non-religious classes offered, such as management or church finance. This is the time for you to soak up as much information as possible. Any additional knowledge and expertise you can acquire, along with the interests you develop during your undergraduate years, will help you focus your studies in particular areas of ministry.

Does The United Methodist Church give scholarships?

Yes! Many individual churches and annual conferences give scholarships. Most conferences have scholarships available to those seeking ministry as a career, and they often favor those who are going to UM-related seminaries.

Talk to your minister, district superintendent, district committee on ordained ministry, bishop’s assistant, college or seminary financial aid department, and anyone else you can think of who may have information on scholarships.

Loans and scholarships are available to all United Methodist Church members, not just those attending a UM-related institution. Be sure to check out the loans and scholarships available through the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry at www.gbhem.org.

What do ministers do? (besides Sunday morning)

Lots. Most who choose to become elders are leaders or on staff of the local churches where they serve. Responsibilities include creating and carrying out thoughtful worship services. They also choose the biblical text, work with the music director to coordinate the music and readings, and finally, write sermons filled with fresh ideas and stories that make the scripture come alive. Those who lead congregations, known as senior pastors, work with other paid staff members (deacon, elder or lay) and lay volunteers to oversee the Christian education at the church, create and supervise the programs the church offers, deal with the finance committee, the trustees, the women’s and men’s groups, the youth group, and the choir and music committees. Pastors also visit the sick, make nursing home calls, visit members in their homes, offer counseling, conduct weddings, funerals, and baptisms, and lead in serving Holy Communion. The ministerial staff works in conjunction with the entire congregation in providing ministry; the senior pastor is the overseer in the local church. She/he is a generalist.

Some elders feel called to serve in other institutions that share in the church’s work. These elders serve in extension ministries, and may have responsibilities such as those listed under question seven above.

However, not all ordained ministers are elders. Those who choose to become deacons feel that they are called to specialized ministry, such as youth work, music, education, church administration, chaplaincy, counseling, mission work – and the list goes on. Deacons can usually serve in a ministry that lets them focus their career primarily on their chosen interests and areas of specialization.

Both deacons and elders can serve either at a local church or in ministries that are based outside of the local church.

For more info and videos about ordained ministry in general or about deaconselders and chaplains visit our Ordained Ministry Videos page.

How long is the process in The United Methodist Church to become an ordained minister?

Ordained elders must earn a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Divinity. For most people, that’s seven to eight years of education.

While deacons are not required to earn a Master of Divinity degree, they are still required to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in their area of specialization (such as teaching, social work, etc.), along with a minimum of 24 credit hours of basic graduate theological study (BGTS). So this is also seven to eight years of education.

After obtaining a master’s degree, the UMC requires each candidate for deacon’s or elder’s orders to serve for a minimum of two years as a provisional deacon or elder in an appointed ministry setting before being considered for ordination. They must also complete various requirements of their annual conference’s board of ordained ministry, including psychological testing, written applications, and a series of interviews.

What does it feel like to be called?

Each person feels the call in a different way. Sometimes during prayer or communion, you may feel a strong urging. On a mission trip, or at a campus ministry or church retreat, you might sense that God seems to be inviting you to consider full-time service in ministry. Sometimes, however, you may sense that calling while you’re in the middle of one of your everyday routines – attending class, working at your job, or hanging out with friends. And it may be that someone has said something to you that started this train of thought. However the invitation comes, God calls all of us to serve as disciples. You have to decide whether you actually have the gifts and talents to be successful as an ordained minister.

How do I get a reality check? I want to be sure my feelings are grounded in reality as well as spirituality.

You need honest feedback. Talk with people you trust, those who know you and care about your life. These will include your best friends, your campus minister or chaplain, your church pastor, your youth minister from high school or another ordained deacon or elder. Also be sure to include your parents, and maybe a few other relatives who know you well. You may have a neighbor or professor whose judgment you trust. Share your thoughts and plans with these people and ask their advice. How do they see you sharing your skills and talents with others?


* The Rev. Meg Lassiat is the director of Candidacy, Mentoring & Conference Relations at the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education & Ministry. Deborah Bushfield is a freelance writer who is a lifelong United Methodist and the co-author of the book, Things They Never Taught You in Seminary (Herald Press).