The following is a manuscript of a chapter for a book in process, MBA for Ministers


By Sharon Drury, Ph.D. (2004)

4959 words



Lifelong Learning for Ministers


Larry is an active layman in the Paddington Pike Church in Cincinnati.  The church is a stable and solid institution started in the 1960s.  However, while the church appears healthy, the figures show it has been slipping one or two percent every year for the last 16 years.  This is Larry’s childhood church so when he returned from the University with an M.B.A degree, he chose his home church rather than joining any one of the many vigorous suburban churches.  Larry is a senior manager in a large corporation’s home office in Cincinnati. In last night’s church board meeting, Larry proposed adding a new item to the church budget: $2400 for “Ministerial Continuing education.”   Immediately Blanche and Edwin “came up for air” and pronounced the line item extravagant.  Larry argued that the church was responsible to do everything it could to help their pastoral staff stay up with their profession by pleading, “My corporation spends more than this per year on some entry level employees.”  Eventually the board agreed to add the item, but they pared the amount down to $400.  Larry pled, “That would barely pay for one seminar a year for just one of our ministers—we have to do more than that!”  In the end, Blanche’s retort seemed to represent the feeling of the rest of the board, “The church is different than your company.  We don’t need to be sending our ministers off to get new ideas all the time; in the church we deal with unchanging truths from an unchanging Bible.” 

Do ministers need to be lifelong learners like managers and other professionals are encouraged to be?  Or, is Blanche right?  Does the church deal with unchanging truths and all the minister needs to know can be found in the Bible?  Certainly the church deals with unchanging truths, but while the foundation of the faith is found in the Bible, there surely is much to learn about leading an effective church that goes beyond basic Bible knowledge.

I. Why Ministers Value Lifelong Learning – the Need

Pastors are known to use a common quote in church board meetings in arguing for doing something new.  It goes like this:  “If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always got.”  The idea is that if we don’t change, "we’ll keep on getting what we’ve always got.”  False.  The truth is, if we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll not even get what we’ve always got.  Why?  Because the environment changes.  Ministers are charged with leading their church to reach and serve people in a new generation by passing on the faith to future generations.   While the faith does not change, people do change.  When the printing presses were invented, that provided the means for every member to have their own Bible—even their own hymnbook—and the church changed accordingly.  “Keeping on doing what we always did” would no longer get the church “what they always got.”  People change.  Culture changes.  The neighborhood where a church is located changes. Musical styles change, technology changes.  Architecture changes, even the color of carpeting communicates different messages as expectations for interior design change.  The minister may deal with unchanging truths, but he or she must do so in a rapidly changing culture. 

Lifelong learning is the way a minister can continually “keep up.”  Since the ministry deals with people, changes in culture are important to a minister.  Since a minister deals with communication, shifts in communication styles are vitally important to a minister.  Since a minister cares about outreach, he or she must be constantly aware of how the world thinks and receives messages from the church. Since ministers lead people, they must be aware of new approaches to leading new generations.  Thus, a minister must either become a lifelong learner or a lifelong loser. 

Fortunately, most ministers are wonderful examples of lifelong learning, therefore, chapter may be “preaching to the choir.”  However, many sense areas for improvement in the ministry (and local churches) even if ministers are already aware of the need to keep on learning. While a pastor’s message may stay the same, how that message is packaged and delivered is constantly changing. After all, a minister is not just trying to making a living or produce a profit—they are called by God to accomplish His purposes.   Learning how to do that better in a changing environment isn’t just good business to a minister.  They also have a divine calling to fulfill.

Most ministers reject the notion they have learned everything they will ever need for a lifetime of ministry.  The computer programmer in your church, or the businessman or nurse, would never imagine a lifetime career functioning well on what they learned in the 1990s.  Neither do ministers. While the computer programmer’s company may support lifelong learning more than the local church, an effective minister will need to find a way to keep up. This chapter is about enhancing and extending that desire for learning.


II. Lifelong Learning – a Definition and a Model

            In his book, The Three Boxes of Life, Richard Bolles argued that most Americans live their lives as if there were only three stages: the first is a stage of learning and formal education; the second stage is toil and labor, where learning is no longer important; and third is retirement and a self-indulgent stage of leisure and recreation.  That has increasingly become an obsolete idea for most professionals and those who are leaders in their organizations.  Because of the rapid rate at which the world around us is changing, learning is a never-ending necessity.  The model below illustrates two approaches to learning:


Static World Approach

           Acquire knowledge & skills …………………………………………….è Practice profession


Changing World Approach

Acquire basic knowledge + lifelong learning skills…………....è Practice profession and constantly learn


This model illustrates two ways of thinking about preparation for a profession. The upper track assumes one goes to school to get “all the knowledge you’ll ever need” for a lifetime of professional practice, then practices the profession based on that initial training.  This approach assumes a static world, e.g., a physician in such a static world assumes there would be no new discoveries or new treatments uncovered the rest of his/her life and would spend 50 years prescribing the treatments learned in medical school. 

The lower track is based on different assumptions.  This approach assumes one goes to school to acquire the basic knowledge for a profession plus the skills for lifelong learning. College or professional graduate training is initial in its nature, and ideally teaches students how to keep learning through life. In this model, the professional practices the discipline of lifelong learning throughout life, and adjusts and adapts initial learning in the following ways (adapted from Ten Across Workbook, Dr. R. Keith Iddings, Ph. D., p. 19-20):

  1. Curiosity and desire for more knowledge (which adds excitement to life)
  2. Openness to new ideas (especially when the old ways do not work)
  3. Awareness that every new situation is an opportunity for learning (rather than fearing the unknown)
  4. Capacity for self-monitoring and reflection (thinking about how you are learning, and seeking to improve the process)
  5. Taking responsibility for autonomous learning (actively seeking learning opportunities)
  6. Developing broad strategies for learning (knowing your best learning style, but adapting for other delivery systems, methods, and subject areas)
  7. Confidence and perseverance while persevering through a learning task (tenacity when learning is stretching your comfort zone)
  8. Able and willing to compensate for cognitive and learning deficiencies (seeking others for help; developing the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information from new sources, e.g., the Internet)

This Changing World Approach to learning is the way of all professions in today’s environment. Thus, we have the extraordinary emphasis on lifelong learning among professionals, including ministers.

The Changing World Approach affects the initial training of ministers, too.  If the world is static, ministerial education might be able to equip a minister in the content and methodology for a life of ministerial service.  In a changing world, this is impossible.  Therefore, initial ministerial preparation in a changing world tends to tilt more toward the unchanging basics—theology, church history, and biblical studies, more than practical programming that will change in less than a decade.  Ironically, the more the world changes, the more ministerial education may tilt toward the unchanging basics.  For example, any programming courses that seem most relevant that will become irrelevant first. In a changing world, ministerial education must not only provide ministers with the basics, it must also equip ministers with skills for lifelong learning so they are able to keep learning through their ministerial lifetime. However, if you did not develop lifelong learning skills in the past, you can develop them now, by putting into practice and or all of the eight ways listed above. 


III.  What Ministers Must Continually Learn – the Learning Content

As is true for most professionals that work people, the ministry is a complex profession.  A manufacturing company may face changes in markets, new equipment, price structures, or fresh competition—this drives the business person to keep learning.  But the ministry may even be more complex, because it involves intricate relationships, life change, and the supernatural.  What are the “content areas” a minister must stay abreast of?

1. New program methods.  Some criticize ministers for their preoccupation with new methods, but ministers have no choice.  There was a day when ten-day revivals, tent meetings, and cottage prayer meetings were the newest and most effective methods to accomplish the church’s purpose.  But these methods have been replaced today by newer methods that accomplish the same goals.  If a minister does not keep up on the best methods, the church will be stuck in the past and find themselves ministering only to a dying generation.


2. Technological changes.  While we readily admit the importance of technology to medicine or business, we might be tempted to see the church as an ageless institution that is impervious to technology.  Not so.  The Christian church has often been an early adopter of technology, from the use of the  “codex” –hand-copied books of the New Testament instead of scrolls, as well as capitalizing on the invention of the printing press for Bibles and hymn books.  When Television became dominant, Christians were there.  When projection was developed, churches were as quick to install power point as they were to adopt the hymnals centuries before.  When the Internet emerged, and email became a major means of communicating, ministers were quick to find ways to advertise and communicate through using the Internet.  As electronic biblical and theological resources became available, ministers now make use of them in sermon preparation.  All of this was done because ministers find it necessary to be lifelong learners.  A minister today who is not technologically developing may be as rare as a minister without an automobile.  And as technology continues to develop, ministers will have to stay on top of the field and its application to worship, communication, and personal study.


3. Shifting culture.  International businesses and missionary organizations have much to teach ministers about ministry as it relates to culture. They approach their work cross-culturally, studying the culture to determine how to approach people based on this knowledge.  The competent global worker does not assume “their way” is the right way, but allows for methods to develop in context of the culture.  Yet, what is true in Uganda, Sierra Leone, and the Philippians is also true in Michigan, Arizona and Ontario.  All ministry is intercultural and all ministers must learn to communicate cross-culturally as they lead the church to reach the unchurched.  Therefore, ministers must be lifelong students of culture.  For example, how do people expect to be spoken to by a public figure?  What sort of worship music do people most appreciate?  What terms have a shifting meaning in the culture—and which terms should be abandoned or adopted because they mean something different now?  What kind of leadership style is most effective with today’s people?  What common experiences do people have, e.g., real, as in community events, or via television and various media—that can provide illustrations and lessons in preaching?  Admittedly, these things are not as important as theology and the Bible, but if a minister is unwilling to become a lifelong student of culture, he/she is likely to wind up delivering their unchanging message in empty pews.  Ministers must be able to exegete both the Bible and the culture and bring them together.


4. The current wave of Christian interest. Ministers must stay abreast of the latest interests in Christendom.  These trends are not always wholesome or even right, but the minister has no choice but to at minimum be aware of them.  For example, when most Christians were reading “The Prayer of Jabez” or “The Purpose Driven life,” a minister could not dismiss these as irrelevant to the church.  Even if the minister sought to refute them, he or she had to read them.  Christian publishing has gone mainstream, and produces bestsellers just like the secular press.   A minister who does not stay aware of what all Christians everywhere are reading would be like a doctor totally ignorant of the Atkins diet.  While the popular Christian press may produce fad books with glaring errors and omissions the minister must nevertheless be aware of whatever the church members are reading.  For the minister, lifelong learning may be even more complicated than for the average business person, because the latter could survive in their field by staying abreast of whatever learning opportunities his or her boss suggests.  But the minister often has more than a hundred “bosses” in his church, each suggesting books that he must read.  A minister must be a lifelong reader with wisdom and discernment.


5. New developments in the discipline.   The lifelong learning of a minister is not limited to methodology.  While the basic learning for ministers—theology, history biblical studies, practical ministry—are foundational, that is not to say there are no new developments in these fields as well. Developments in the practical fields are most obvious of course—new methods of counseling, church planting, church development, small groups, worship, etc.  However, even the more static fields of theology, history and Bible keep developing in understanding.  For instance, a minister whose last scholarly study on the role of women in the church was made in college in 1975 has missed major contributions to scholarship on this topic.  Likewise, a minister might easily sit in a Sunday school class today where a lay person raises discussion of open theism.  If that minister closed off basic learning in theology in 1980, he or she will be ill equipped to help the lay person.  Worse, if the minister does not even know what open theism is, he or she appears ignorant in their own field—like a dentist who has never heard of a root canal.  Ministers must be lifelong students in practical ministry, as well as in the more static disciplines of theology, Bible, and church history.


6. Breadth of knowledge.  Ministers must be specialists and generalists at the same time.  They must be specialists in their field but highly aware of areas not directly in their field of study.  Why?  Because Christianity is about all areas of a person’s life.  Conversely, a computer programmer may be able survive saying, “I never read anything but stuff about computers.” A minister never could say that.  Ministers must be learners in all fields.  We do not practice our religion as part of life, but Christianity is at the center of life.  For instance, a minister totally unaware of genetic engineering is unequipped to help people apply their Christian ethics to genetic decisions.  Ministers are called on to lead people from a myriad of backgrounds and professions, and knowing something about a variety of fields enables understanding of their parishioners.  Otherwise, a minister who knows nothing but the Bible and sports will likely preach Bible sermons sprinkled generously with illustrations from Monday night football, and miss many in the congregation each week.  Ministers must be specialists in the fields of theology, church history, Bible, and practical ministry, but they also must be broadly educated generalists in all areas to which Christianity relates.  


IV.  Where Ministers Access Lifelong Learning – the Methods

            We have established the breadth and depth of learning a minister must continue to acquire even after their initial training is completed.  So, once a minister is finished college or seminary where do they go to get this learning the rest of their life, i.e., what are the venues of lifelong learning?

1.  Reading.  A primary means of access to lifelong learning for the minister is by reading.  Effective ministers spend from five to ten hours a week reading current magazines, books, and Internet columns.  It is the primary learning input for most ministers.  While a few ministers might claim to have not read a whole book since seminary, they are so rare as to be dismissed completely.  For a minister to even survive—let alone thrive—in today’s world, they must be avid readers. On this point most ministers are examples for their laity—a practice which dates back to Martin and Katharina Luther who taught many to read in their community.  It is not uncommon for a minister to have processed the equivalent of 50 books a year—an average of a book every week.  While they may not have studied these works, many ministers have mastered them enough to speak intelligently about their contents. 

Most ministers would be surprised by how much they read beyond their basic booklist, if they ever actually wrote it down.  Consider this testimonial:

“Beside books, I also read some periodicals regularly. Of course, I read my local the local newspaper every day to stay aware of what is happening here in my community—though I wasn’t going to list it since I do it over coffee every day—but actually I read it like research as pastor of this community, so I guess it counts.  Every Tuesday evening I read a Time magazine to stay abreast of national news, though I often read it during the evening news, which I listen to with one ear for the same purpose.  I read my denominational periodical once a month—but that doesn’t take too long.  I also take Christianity Today, Leadership Journal and Preaching Today, though I only read about half of the articles.  I get Rev. and another pastor’s magazine at my home address and read them in the evenings, since they are pretty easy reading. When I drive to a more distant hospital, I listen to audio books or seminar tapes.  My wife gets Marriage Partnership magazine and Today’s Christian Woman, so I scan those each month. Here at the office the church subscribes to several magazines for the entire staff: I usually read Worship Leader pretty carefully though I only scan Youthworker’s Journal and Men of Integrity.  Each week I read a series of Internet columns on my favorites list.  Four other ministers I graduated with send each other tips for Internet reading and we sometimes “discuss” it by email—I do that late Tuesday afternoons near the end of my office day until I go home for supper. Boy, when I got to writing all this down it is more than I thought at first!  I guess I am a pretty good reader after all.”


2.  Learning groups.  Perhaps the greatest secret for ministers’ lifelong learning is establishing a learning group—a group of ministers who meet regularly to learn together.  Most ministers on the cutting edge of learning have such a group, though it is seldom actually called a “learning group.”   For example, Phil meets Charlie and Ted every Monday morning for an accountability group—but it is also a learning group.  Elizabeth and Kathy drive an hour to eat lunch together once a month—just to stay in touch. They each bring a book each time and talk about it—so their monthly lunch is really a learning group. Dave, Chad, Rachel and Gordon all serve as staff ministers with Dennis, the senior pastor.  Their weekly staff meetings often last four hours and range everywhere from event planning to brainstorming to assigned book reviews. Every staff person who attends a convention or seminar is required to make a 15 minute prepared report on new learning.  Therefore, Dennis’ staff meetings serve as a learning group.   Ken is the ordained minister in the family, but his wife Debbie is almost as active in the church as he is.  They are both avid readers and several times a week meet at Subway® for lunch and talk about the books and magazines they are reading.  While others see them as a busy couple having lunch, they know this luncheon is the best learning group they’ve even been in.  Learning groups are gatherings intentionally designed to help each other learn.  And adults learn best when they discuss and process the content in groups (Knowles, 1985).  Most effective ministers have learning group—no matter what they call it.


3. Seminars & conventions.  Seminars especially designed for ministers are so ubiquitous that a minister could attend one every single week of the year and never actually do ministry!  However, the omnipresence of such seminars is a tribute to the quest for new learning among ministers.  While these seminars are often geared to practical (and thus temporary) solutions in the church, this method, along with reading, provides the primary input into most ministers’ lifelong learning.  Such seminars are often offered by regional mega churches and educational institutions. or sometimes by for-profit religious companies.  The offer practical tips and programming for ministers who understand they work in a changing world and are desperate for new approaches to accomplish ageless goals.


4. Degree programs and online courses.   Reading, seminars, and learning groups are wonderful venues for the minister who is a lifelong learner.  But each of these tends to be strong at the same point where it is weak—they are usually extremely relevant and thus temporary.  The popular press and seminars cater to immediate solutions to pressing problems.  Most are heavily program driven, as if the minister need only initiate the most recent iteration of a program and all problems of discipleship and outreach will be solved.  The missing element in many minister’s lifelong learning curriculum is not more practical ideas and programs, but foundational theology and theory. 

While church history has not changed much since Lois went to school in the 1980s, Lois herself has changed a lot.   She is more aware of the diversity of her church and has faced a hundred questions from new members transferring to her church from backgrounds as varied as Presbyterian, Charismatic, Church of Christ, and Lutheran.  She vaguely recalls her church history of the restoration movement, but not enough to intelligently discuss the matter with the Spauldings who came to her congregation from the Church of Christ.  She wishes she’d listened more in church history classes now—she was so interested in the practical courses then.  Actually, it turned out that the evangelism method they taught her then is completely outdated now, but the history of how the church of Christ got started and what they believe is intensely relevant to her now.  Lois just enrolled in a single online graduate course in Church History as a refresher and a “discipline to really study it this time.” 

Single online courses are being offered everywhere, but they are only an entry point.  Ministers are also rushing to enroll in both online and onsite degree programs.  They have done this in spite of the fact that few denominations require it and many local churches do not financially support it.  Ministers are so intent on lifelong learning that they will pay tuition out of their own pockets. This trend among ministers says something very positive about ministers (and something not so positive about churches and denominations that don’t support it).  Some ministers have not gotten advanced degrees because of the difficulty of being away from their churches when ministers are supposed to be on call locally much of the time.  However, online education has remedied that challenge, and we are now seeing an even greater stampede to formal degree programs by ministers, including the M.A., M.Div, and D.Min programs, along with other degree programs related to ministry like leadership and counseling degrees.  Ministers will always need immediate problem-solving, idea/program learning from their reading and seminars.  But increasingly they want to put a solid foundation under these temporary ideas with courses and degree programs in theology, church history and Bible. Not because these fields have changed so much (though some have), but because the minister has changed as a person and now sees the relevance of these foundational studies more than ever.  These ministers now know that a novel approach to a Christmas show that attracts seekers to their church might work a decade, but a deeper understanding of the incarnation will last a lifetime.


V.  Three Lifelong Learning Tips – for Ministers

We have noted that ministers provide a wonderful example of a profession bent on lifelong learning.  While that learning in recent years may have been tilted too much to practical, thus temporary programming, this is now in a stage of correction as ministers revisit the deeper foundational studies in online and onsite formats.  Ministers have hungry minds—even for areas outside their direct discipline.  .  This book offered no quick program to build church attendance and very little you can work into next week’s sermon.  But you read it anyway.  Why?  Because you are probably already a lifelong learner—enough to read a book relating the MBA curriculum to the ministry.  So what are the ideas you might continue (or initiate) to keep being a lifelong learner?  Consider these three:

  1. Make reading goals.  Write down your goals and be surprised at how much you read already, then expand reading.  Learn to speed-read if you have not yet developed that skill. For further tips and a resource list on how to read more quickly, visit this website
  2. Start a learning group.  You probably already have one, but it may not be intentional—make it more intentional.  Establish a policy of “learning accountability” in your group—each of you formally reporting the learning from conventions, seminars and books.  Even if you do this online with your friends somewhat now, make it intentional and learn from each other.  God often teaches us the best things through others.
  3. Get your church to financial support lifelong learning.  It isn’t selfish when you get the church to do the right thing.  If you don’t have a board member like Larry in your church to suggest the line item, cultivate one or do it yourself.  Get your board to support lifelong learning for its ministers—present and future.  It is totally unacceptable for a worldly corporation to be more interested in their employee’s learning than the church is in caring about their minister’s learning.  No, it isn’t just unacceptable—it is wrong.  Be more insistent—it is the right thing for the church, for you, for other staff members. and for your successors.  Perhaps suggest multiple lines in the church’s budget instead of one—a line for periodical subscriptions, another for seminars and conventions and a third line for credit-bearing courses and degree programs. 


VI. Ministers – modeling lifelong learning

            When ministers practice the discipline of lifelong learning, they do so often at great personal expense and with little financial or career rewards.  Why?  Perhaps because ministers know that if they become a lifelong learner and model continuous learning for their members, then the church will be the influential organization it is intended to be in the world.  This is similar to what Peter Senge calls a “learning organization.”  Leaders of learning organizations model learning by regenerating themselves and provide ways for members at every level of the organizations to grow personally and professionally.  According to Senge, “It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization. Organizations that excel will tap into people's commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization" (Senge, 1990, p. 4).

Ministers also understand that the church is a dynamic organism under the direction of the Holy Spirit.  The church may stand for static truth, but it is constantly under the leadership of the Holy Spirit to learn new ways to accomplish old and enduring purposes.  When ministers keep learning, they model what they want their church to be—a learning organization that is not static but a dynamic, influential organization.  And, that after all is most important, because ministers come and go.  They too, will some day join the ranks the other ministers who have passed off the scene. Yet, for the minister who practiced lifelong learning and influenced his church to be a lifelong learning organization does not have his life’s learning interred with his bones.  This minister leaves behind a church that has become a lifelong learning church.  And that is a worthy goal, for the church is never ending. 



Bolles, Richard Nelson (1978, 2003). The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them. Ten Speed Press.

Iddings, R. Keith (1995). Ten Across Workbook. Marion IN: Indiana Wesleyan University.

Knowles, Malcolm S. (1985) Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Learning.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Senge, Peter M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday.




2005, by Sharon Drury, PhD

Sharon Drury teaches Organizational Leadership in the doctoral program at Indiana Wesleyan University, 1900 West 50th Street, Marion IN 46953

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