Feeling your calling to the ministry comes naturally. But actually setting your journey in motion? - Well that can be a bit more challenging.
You may already realize that you are going to need a college degree in order to become a pastor in just about any Christian denomination in the United States. But you might not yet be sure exactly what that degree should be in: theology? Divinity? Christian studies? Bible Studies? Youth and family ministry?
By starting off with a fast two-year program of study in Scripture, theology, and the ministry, you can lay a solid basis for future education going in any of those directions or more. Along the way, you will meet and interact with many professors to help guide your studies and help you figure out your calling, and pray and befriend other students in a fellowship that may continue for the rest of your life.
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You can put your passion for Christ and the ministry into forward gear without making a huge investment, and while keeping most of your other options open along the way. An associate degree offers you a taste of what a more advanced college program will be like, while also acting as a springboard you can use to jump toward one of the many different areas of ministry.
It all happens relatively quickly and with less cost than you might expect.
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Everything From an Associate Degree in Worship Ministry to an Associate Degree in Divinity Can Serve Your Calling
You will have no shortage of choices for colleges where you can earn your associate degree in ministry. And you won't have any trouble finding a wide variety of different types of these degrees to pursue, either. That's because different schools often represent different denominations, so they also take different approaches to teaching Christian doctrine.
That's reflected in the wide variety of names that you will find them listed under. Some examples include:
AA vs AS Has More to Do with the Breadth of Your Christian Studies Courses Then Either Arts or Sciences
You will also find that some of them are called associate of arts degrees (AA) while others are offered as associate of sciences (AS). The difference between the two is not actually the amount of art or science classes in the curriculum, but rather the breadth of the studies offered.
- An arts degree falls firmly into the liberal arts tradition of combining both subject-matter studies with more general arts and sciences courses, giving students a general education that prioritized critical thinking, problem-solving, and general knowledge.
- A sciences degree is more heavily focused on the study of religion and religious processes, intended as a more specific kind of preparation for a future role in ministry, with fewer classes in more general arts and science subjects.
In both cases, associate degrees are typically about 60 semester hours in length, which translates into two years and about twenty classes. Your choice will revolve less around what the degree is called and more around the specific classes offered and doctrine taught. That means there can be more differences between AA programs offered at different schools than between an AA and AS!
What It Takes To Qualify and Apply for an Associate Degree in Christian Ministry
Associate degrees are the first rung on the college ladder, so there isn’t a very high bar to get into them. They are designed for graduates with only a high school diploma or GED (General Equivalency Degree), so you don’t need any other formal education before applying.
In some cases, you may need to have a certain minimum Grade Point Average from high school or your general equivalency courses.
Most colleges will require that you take a standardized test of some sort, such as the SAT or ACT. Sometimes a school will require that you take specific placement tests to determine your skill levels in math or English. In most cases, the results of these tests are not a barrier to entry, but simply used to help you pick the most appropriate level of classes to enroll in once you begin your college studies.
Since schools that offer associate degrees in Christian ministry are also, necessarily, Christian schools, you may also have to offer some examples of your faith. That can range from writing an admissions essay, to undergoing an interview about your beliefs, or providing a letter of reference from your pastor or spiritual leader.
How To Choose the Right School for Your Associate Degree in Christian Ministry
There are many different perspectives you can consider for studies in ministry. Because there is no Scripturally-defined course of study for ministers, every school is free to take their own approach to developing the curriculum for associate programs in the field.
That’s a big advantage for students like you, offering a lot more options for pursuing an associate degree in Christian ministry that’s right for different people with different goals. Those options make it a lot more likely that you will find some program, somewhere, that lines right up with your personal calling, your price range, and your interests in theology.
More options means more choices to make, however. Picking the right school can be a challenge, but you can start narrowing them down by asking the right questions:
Does the Doctrine Match Your Denomination?
One of the first things to consider is what denomination a school represents, and whether that matches your own church.
It’s possible to find denominations that recognize or respect one another’s liturgical teachings, so it may not be a deal breaker to attend a school that doesn’t exactly align with your own faith. You’ll want to consult with your pastor or church authorities if you plan to pursue a career in the ministry, however.
There are many Christian schools that are non-denominational, but there are still some things you will need to consider. It’s important to ensure that what they teach is in line with your own faith.
Most schools will publish a Statement of Faith, which will set out their basic rationale and Scriptural beliefs. This may be enough for you to make a decision, or it may be something for your pastor to consider before making a recommendation for you.
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Are the Instructors at the Top of Their Fields?
Teachers make a huge difference in the quality of education you receive in any field. Having instructors who deeply understand their material and have the skills in communication and compassion to get that knowledge across to you are a key part of any college program.
So, you’ll want to find a program that has instructors with the right credentials, both academically and spiritually. That may mean finding schools with ordained ministers among their professors. But it also means those with a strong technical command of their field of expertise. You should look for programs that hire professors with advanced degrees, who have published work in their field and who engage in research and conferences regularly to stay on the cutting edge.
Does the School Have a First-rate Reputation?
Proverbs tells us that a good name is better than great riches, and that’s true when it comes to picking a college as well. Graduates from every school carry that name around with them on their resumes for life. You want to see faces light up when they hear where you went to school, especially if those are the faces of prospective employers.
So, you’ll want to check around within both the ecclesiastical and secular community to see what kind of weight your prospective college carries in the community.
You can also check things like graduation rates and employment rates among graduates to see how a school stacks up against the competition.
Are There Service Opportunities that Will Help You Grow as a Christian While Studying?
The ministry is a role of service. The word minister itself comes from the Latin for servant or attendant. You are setting off on a path that will involve devoting yourself to others. A school that is serious about training you for that path should offer plenty of opportunities and a generous amount of encouragement to get students like you to engage and volunteer in Christian service.
Some schools have dedicated campus ministries that offer regular church services, along with the full range of volunteer and outreach experiences you might expect from a faith-based organization.
Accreditation Tells You the School Meets the Right Community Standards for Associate Degrees in Christian Ministry
One absolute must is to ensure you only look at schools that have been fully accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Accrediting organizations do the hard work of digging into the important details of education to make sure the results meet the standards of what employers and the community expect of college graduates. That includes evaluating schools on the basis of:
All of those are obviously important factors in the quality of your associate degree education. They are all also things you probably don’t have the time or expertise to check on yourself. So relying on the decision of a recognized accreditor saves you time but offers some assurance.
The good news is that this kind of basic accreditation isn’t a high bar for schools to clear. You can be confident that any reputable school offering an associate degree holds this kind of accreditation. In fact, accreditation is a standard requirement for schools to be able to accept students who are paying for some part of their tuition with federal loans and grants, so there’s a very practical incentive for schools to keep their accreditation in good standing.
Are Online Associate Degrees in Ministry Available?
One of the big advantages of going for an associate degree instead of diving right into a bachelor’s program is accessibility. Associate programs are often available at more schools, in more areas, with less need for you to completely rearrange your life in order to attend.
Online degrees are now extending that advantage even further, opening up schools that are further away but that might have that perfect program you’ve been looking for – the one that lines up better with your intentions and needs.
With big advances in video conferencing and online learning management systems, you can expect the same kind of interaction and feedback from your instructors as you would get from a traditional program. But online programs often come with a kind of flexibility that traditional programs can’t match. That includes not just learning at a distance, but also time-shifting your courses to whatever time of day is most convenient. And it doesn’t have to be the same time every day, either. If after putting the kids to bed is easiest on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you have time mid-day on Mondays and Wednesdays, you can use all of those slots.
This clearly makes online associate degrees in ministry a good choice for anyone who has family obligations to meet, or who is trying to hold down a job while pursuing an education.
Transferability Means That an Associate Degree in Christian Ministry Is Only the Beginning
Associate degrees in any area of Christian studies exist for the same reason that associate degrees exist for secular studies: they offer a way for students to complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program inexpensively and without committing to a full four years up front.
For this reason, associate programs are also sometimes called transfer degrees. In many cases, schools you may decide to attend when you go on to pursue your bachelor’s in divinity or ministry will accept some or all of your credits from the associate program, counting them as the first two years of a four-year degree. Since the cost-per-credit for an associate degree is usually lower than in a full four-year bachelor’s program, that effectively gives you a discount on about half of your full bachelor’s education.
Transferability can be tricky, however, particularly for ministry degrees. Most Christian colleges are private schools. The conventional web of transfer agreements is typically woven among public universities and community colleges, following a secular tradition of advancement. Those agreements allow friction-free credit transfers, without any mystery or uncertainty over what will be accepted within a state or region.
Transfers at private schools can require more work and offer less certainty. Not all private schools will accept credits from every other private school; you may have to have your transcript reviewed on a class-by-class basis. In some cases, you could receive partial credit for a particular class; in others, perhaps no credit at all.
It’s a good idea to check around with schools that you might eventually want to attend for your bachelor’s degree to see what their policy is. If you can find schools that have existing transfer agreements with the school you are considering for your associate, that’s a good sign.
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What You Learn in a Christian Associate Degree Program Will Make You A Better Servant For His Will
It’s the courses in Christianity and Bible studies that will probably interest you the most in these programs. You get a fairly broad set of coursework in most ministry associate degrees that offers a solid foundation for future studies in ministry, as well as equipping you with enough basic knowledge to get you started in a junior position.
There is a lot to study in the Bible alone, and every school that offers an associate program seems to have their own take on what is most important. You may find degrees that require courses that focus on the Gospels, or those that instead spend more time diving into the Acts of the Apostles.
And other degrees leave more up to you. On top of the required coursework in hermeneutics and survey courses, the majority of your credits are allocated to electives that you can choose yourself in classes like:
Electives let you customize your degree to build your knowledge specifically in the area of ministry you feel most called toward, while still ensuring you get a basic level of training in subjects all pastors must know.
General Education Courses Get You Set for Secular Roles on Top of Training for the Ministry
But one of the things that make associate degrees in ministry so powerful is that they don't just consist of classes in religious studies. It's long been a tradition and expectation that pastors be individuals of wisdom and knowledge. Some of the very first colleges were established entirely for the purpose of training ministers. Their course of study was not restricted to Bible studies or interpretation; instead, they recognized the value in teaching natural sciences, philosophy, and literature as well, helping future pastors and other members of clergy better understand the miracles in all His creation.
Associate degrees in Christian ministry today extend that tradition, with half or more of your coursework falling into traditional areas of secular liberal arts and science studies. You will usually have to fulfill the same general requirements as any associate degree program, which include:
Arts and Literature - As you are exposed to the arts and the history of great literature, you’ll see just how much of human culture has come from divine inspiration and worship of His greatness. From architecture to painting, much of the pantheon of Western arts is owed to Christianity. Coursework in drama, music, and the arts builds your own cultural appreciation for humanity as well as Christ.
Math and Science - The natural world is entirely His creation, and courses in math and sciences give you the tools to appreciate the complexity and immensity of that creation. Everything from biology to conceptual physics is available at the associate level, together with required courses in math that ensure you have the skills to balance the parish checkbook and perform basic budgeting work.
Writing and Communication - Every pastor is expected to preach and spread the Word of His glory and forgiveness. That’s hard to do unless you have the kind of composition and speaking skills that these courses will teach you. Freshman English composition gives you the basics of writing and grammar, and more advanced courses can open up the art of rhetoric and public speaking.
Social Studies and History - Culture is the ocean in which ministers must swim. To understand your flock, you will have to explore the cultural backdrop in which they live and work. And that usually means understanding history and the economic factors that shape the world today. You have a wide variety of courses to choose from to fill these requirements, from World History to general psychology to classes in micro- and macroeconomics.
Many schools also have a class or two dedicated to helping you make the transition from high school to college. You’ll pick up on study habits and skills to absorb information and think about it critically, as well as personal responsibility and commitment. No one gets you out of bed every morning and puts you on a bus in the adult world. You have to learn the motivation and discipline to succeed—and the right college will help you do it.
What Is the Difference Between an Associate Degree in Ministry and a Certificate in Christian Ministry?
Many schools that offer associate degrees in ministry also offer certificate programs. If you take a quick glance at the classes for each, you might notice that they are more or less identical when it comes to religious education—but the certificate program is usually able to be completed in a year or less, and for significantly less money.
But there are some important differences that go beyond cost and time. The key differentiator for an associate degree is the more general nature of the education it offers. While a certificate program may stack up classes on Old and New Testaments and evangelism and Christian thought, they are missing a lot of what makes a college education a college education: the kind of critical thinking and general knowledge skills that come with liberal arts training.
That's why you will find many Christian jobs that specifically require a college degree, not just a certificate. Reciting Scripture perfectly is a skill, but it's not as valuable without the reasoning skills to apply those teachings to the real-world, or the means of communicating those values with other people.
An associate degree comes with English, math, and social studies courses to make you a more well-rounded person, one who is better able to apply your Christian training to life.
The Cost of Earning an Associate Degree in Ministry
The relatively low price for an associate degree in Christian ministry is one of the big draws to this two-year degree. Not only are you paying for only half the time it would take to earn a bachelor's degree, but many associate programs also charge lower rates per credit than a bachelor's program.
The difference is stark according to 2020 data from the National Center for Education Statistics: the annual average for tuition and fees at a four-year school was $16,647, while for the same year at a two-year school you would pay only $3,621.
That would make the total cost of an associate degree at a two-year school only $7,242, compared to the $32,000 you would spend for the first two years at a four-year school.
However, one drawback in ministry degree programs is that they are almost always offered exclusively by private schools. According to NCES, in 2020 the average private two-year school charged $15,828 per year. That's still a major savings over what you would pay at a private four-year university, which clocks in at $32,769 per year.
Some associate programs are offered at four-year schools, so you will have to check the specific rates at any school you consider. While the costs may be higher at a four-year university, you might also balance that against the fact that a two-year degree at that same school will almost certainly be transferable if you choose to continue to a bachelor's program later.
What Can You Do With an Associate Degree in Christian Ministry?
Earning any kind of college degree is a big deal. It demonstrates your discipline and commitment, which are both big and important skills in any sort of ministry job. Two years of hard study and testing is an accomplishment to be proud of, no question about it.
But at the end of that process, you may be wondering what exactly you can do with an associate degree in ministry, anyway? Most churches require a bachelor's degree at a minimum before they will consider your application to become a pastor. Even then, they prefer individuals who have earned a master's degree.
But an associate degree does equip you to volunteer in a variety of different positions in your church or in the ministry. As a lay preacher, you'll have a better command of discipleship and Biblical teachings than you would ever achieve without a degree. You'll be in a great position to teach Sunday School, to assist in youth ministries, or even for a non-technical or non-leadership Church job. The general education preparation gives you basic skills you can use in an office environment, while your Christian studies ensures you are fully aligned with the ministry role.
Just as being called to the ministry is an intensely personal experience, affecting everyone differently, your path into that calling will also be unique. It's often preceded by long periods of exploration, of doubt, of prayer. So it may be that an associate degree gets you started by helping you work through some of those early steps without committing vast amounts of time or money first.
With an associate degree in ministry, you aren't really aiming to prove your qualifications for any job or to justify yourself to any employer. It's really about meeting your own needs and fulfilling your own expectations. A degree equips you with a higher level of knowledge about the ministry and the Bible than you could achieve on your own. That can't help but improve your ability to follow your calling wherever it may take you.
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