The following is a manuscript of a chapter for a book in process, MBA for Ministers
By Sharon Drury, Ph.D. (2004)
Lifelong Learning for Ministers
is an active layman in the
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):
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
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
Knowles, Malcolm S. (1985) Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Learning.
Senge, Peter M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning
2005, by Sharon Drury, PhD
Sharon Drury teaches
Organizational Leadership in the doctoral program at