I have worked in Christian higher education for 11 years and often encounter people cringing at the mention of certificate programs in Bible. At best, certificates are viewed as remedial and something only offered by smaller Bible colleges that do not have the resources for university-level training. At worst, they are associated with unaccredited Bible colleges or degree mills. However, research shows that completing a certificate program can be the most direct path to completing a higher student degree and achieving career success (Bosworth, 2010). Including certificates in a school’s offerings benefits the students and the school.
Below are five reasons Christian colleges and universities should add Bible certificates to their accredited degree offerings. They were compiled following a study (Dunn, 2018) which used a series of focus group interviews with students and alumni at an accredited Bible college, which offers tiered ministry programming. Students were asked why they enrolled in a Certificate or Diploma in Ministry at this college.
The five reasons which emerged include the following: (1) assist students to explore a calling to ministry; (2) equip students for ministry service; (3) allow students to pursue personal spiritual growth; (4) improve the educational confidence of students, which leads to their pursuit of other degrees; and (5) enhance their service to the local church. Let’s take a closer look at each:
1. Explore a Calling
Participants expressed that they felt called to serve the church in some way and subsequently wanted preparation that would apply to their context. The typical student who pursues a Certificate in Ministry is called to serve the church in some capacity and desires their educational endeavor to apply to the context in which they serve. A Certificate or Diploma in Ministry offers several benefits while exploring a calling: they are shorter in length than a typical undergraduate degree (19 credits for a certificate and 60 credits for a diploma at Stark College and Seminary), provide specific knowledge related to the field of ministry, and are more affordable. Research also shows that due to their short-term nature, certificates in all areas of higher education, including religious higher education, tend to be more closely associated with particular skills and knowledge required for a specific profession or occupation (Roksa & Levey, 2010; Wonacott, 2000).
2. Be Equipped for Ministry
Research shows that not only should a degree or certificate provide knowledge and skills, but they should also prepare a student for employment opportunities post-graduation (Adelman et al., 2011). Additionally, higher education institutions, their boards, policymakers, and student affairs offices’ personnel must make the connection between curriculum and program development and the job market for those programs in order to assist the student in employment opportunities post-graduation (Adelman et al., 2011; Bushnell, 2012; Kasper, 2009; Leigh & Gill, 2009; McKiernan, 2012; Stein et al., 2011). Participants in this study identified that they felt called to ministry, enrolled in one of the programs, gained confidence, and were equipped to apply their knowledge both in their personal lives and in their chosen ministry context.
3. Grow Spiritually
Research related to higher education in general also indicates that college is for both lifelong learning and preparing students for the workforce (Adelman et al., 2011; Wise et al., 2013). A majority of participants identified either an initial desire for personal spiritual growth or subsequent personal growth after beginning the program. The participants started the programs because they felt called to serve the church and wanted information that could be directly applied to their ministry and/or personal spiritual life.
4. Build Confidence in Communication Skills and Pursue Higher Education
Students and alumni described that these programs promote confidence to communicate more effectively with those with whom they do ministry as well as confidence in their ability to pursue further higher education. Therefore, certificates serve as gateway programming to higher degrees. This idea is confirmed by research. Due to the short nature of certificate programs, the National Center for Education Statistics (1997) demonstrated that individuals pursuing a certificate are more likely than those pursuing an associate degree to achieve a higher education credential.
Participants mentioned that after enrolling, the transferability of these degrees and the confidence gained from the degrees allowed them to further their education beyond what they initially thought possible. This is a purposeful design of the programs at the institution studied: The 19-credit hours from the Certificate in Ministry transfer into the Diploma in Ministry. The 60-credit hours from the Diploma in Ministry transfer into the Bachelor of Arts in Ministry. Additionally, several of the certificate-level courses serve as prerequisites for the Master of Arts in Ministry. Students take advantage of this tiered programming model.
5. Serve in the Church
Alumni described that as a graduate of the Certificate or Diploma in Ministry, they have served in various capacities in the church, dependent upon additional experience in ministry. The various capacities mentioned included but were not limited to volunteer, bivocational, part-time, and full-time. Apart from a few participant outliers who identified a degree requirement for a specific ministry position, all groups agreed that there was no singular degree requirement for service at different capacities in the church and that the Certificate and Diploma in Ministry could be used to gain employment at a variety of levels and ministry positions.
Overall, the students communicated that the purpose of these degrees is to provide an avenue for them to explore their calling to ministry and subsequently be equipped for and apply what they have learned through service in the local church. Through their program, these students gain confidence and grow spiritually, strengthening not only their ministry, but their own personal relationship with Christ. Finally, students are often compelled to further their education by transferring the credits earned into higher theological education, such as the Bachelor of Arts in Ministry or the Master of Divinity.
Bible certificates are beneficial to and are desired by prospective students who want to serve in their local church. They can also provide an entry point into bachelor’s or master’s degree programs, which could ultimately boost enrollment and retention in those degrees already offered by an institution.
Adelman, C., Ewell, P., Gaston, P., & Schneider, C. (2011). The degree qualifications profile. Defining degrees: A new direction for American higher education to be tested and developed in partnership with faculty, students, leaders and stakeholders. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED515302.pdf
Bosworth, B. (2010). Certificates count: An analysis of sub-baccalaureate certificates. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED536837.pdf
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Roksa, J., & Levey, T. (2010). What can you do with that degree? College major and occupational status of college graduates over time. Social Forces, 89(2), 389-415.
Stein, D. S., Wanstreet, C., & Trinko, L. A. (2011). From consideration to commitment: Factors in adults’ decisions to enroll in a higher education degree program. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 59(2), 68-76. doi:10.1080/07377363.2011.568820
Wise, P. M., Martin, C. A., Kinbrough, W. M., Hitt, J. C., Urgo, J. R., Leif, C. G., . . . Pepicello, W. (2013). What is college for? Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-Is-College-For-/138683
Wonacott, M. E. (2000). Credentials: One size fits all? The highlight zone: Research @ work No. 2. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED447275.pdf