Inaugural class of youth ministry grads discovers foundation for service at HPU

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BROWNWOOD—The first graduates of Howard Payne University’s master of arts in youth ministry program say the practicality of their studies has given them a good foundation for a lifetime of ministry.

“It’s the most practical degree I can imagine being out there,” said James Cotton, youth minister at First Baptist Church in Stephenville. “I did some master’s-level work at another institution before starting the program, but I didn’t find it as practical.”

At 35, Cotton said, he was a little older than most students in the program. He believes it would be even more beneficial for students just starting out in ministry.

The first three graduates of Howard Payne University’s master’s program in youth ministry receive their diplomas. They are (left to right) Dana Tye, Jo Beth MacTavish and James Cotton, pictured with Gary Gramling, director of the graduate program in youth ministry. (PHOTO/Howard Payne University)


“For especially the younger students, there are so many things I would have loved to have had my hands on at their age,” Cotton said.

Unlike traditional ministry degrees, students don’t attend classes on a daily basis. The HPU master’s program is a 42-hour degree with classes offered in a modular format.

“Our real dream was to target youth ministers who are already out there serving but haven’t had the opportunity to earn that master’s degree,” said Gary Gramling, director of the program.

After students register for a course, they are e-mailed assignments to be completed before coming to class. They then come together for four days of classroom instruction and discussion. They also often have a follow-up assignment. Generally, students are on the Brownwood campus only four days every four to six weeks.

Dana Tye, director of children’s and youth ministry at Calvary Baptist Church in Brownwood, said that schedule worked well with her duties at church.

“I knew when the classes were, and I could plan accordingly,” she said. “I just made sure that big events did not coincide with my class schedule and was able to prepare the volunteer workers for those times I would be out.”

The program’s format also was helpful to a minister with a family like himself, Cotton said.

“It was a big calling card to have the modular format,” he said. “It fit me really well, because I have a family with three children. I needed to be able to schedule the work around my life.”

Jo Beth MacTavish, the third of the graduates, lives in Waco and is youth minister of Bosqueville Baptist Church there.

The modular format made it possible for her to be a part of the program, she explained.

“Living in Waco, I wouldn’t have made the commute every day for a traditional program,” she said.

The modular format also lends itself to an auxiliary, but perhaps more important, form of learning, Gramling said. Since many stay on campus, after class they spend meals and evenings discussing the various parts of ministry.

“There is a great camaraderie among those in the program, so the classes become so much fun,” he said. “And because of that, they feel a freedom to discuss the issues that come up in their various ministries.”

A major benefit of the program was learning from youth ministry practioners and then putting lessons into practice, Tye noted.

She also felt the program was directed more at preparing one’s self to be a good minister than to memorization of techniques.

“It wasn’t so geared toward methods of youth ministry and texts but more the personal side of ordering our own lives so that we can do a better job for those we are ministering to,” Dye said.

Since the in-class portions of each course are only four days, students also are exposed to a greater variety of instructors, Gramling pointed out. In addition to HPU instructors Gramling and Rusty Wheelington, students also have learned from Richard Ross, Jeter Basden, Chuck Gartman and other youth ministry “all-stars” who would not be available to teach an entire semester at Howard Payne.

Most courses are offered every two years, while a few foundational courses are offered yearly, Gramling said.

Upcoming courses include advanced youth ministry, counseling youth and their families, Baptist identity, researching youth culture and communicating with youth audiences.

For more information on the program, Gramling can be contacted at (325) 649-8404.

“We’re not where we want to be yet,” Gramling said, “but we’re excited about how it’s unfolding,”


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