Life-long learning is stressed and required in many professions. Requiring this in various policies has become the trend. Pastors are part of this push. We are required by our denominations to put in so many hours in learning each year. I was actually surprised when my denomination made it a requirement to have 20 hours each each year because I figured pastors should always be improving. Even to prepare a sermon or Bible study takes a lot of time and study, at least for me. I cannot simply stand up and start talking about something spontaneously. It takes me time to pray, think through, and prepare the message I believe God has laid on my heart. Some pastors, however, struggle with learning new things. They were lucky to get through college or the course of study! This week I want to reflect on some issues related to life-long learning for pastors.
- Learning is part of seeking God’s wisdom and living out our call. As ministers of God’s word, we are not simply speaking psychology, history, or good stories. We are stewards of God’s mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1) and must live out our calling in the pursuit of wisdom. It is impossible to do our ministries without knowledge (see 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Hebrews 13:7). Learning is part of making disciples (Matthew 28:20).
- Learning is both hard work and a gift. Learning new things is mostly hard work. It takes discipline, time, and energy. Some people are gifted in active learning. Paul and Barnabas, some of the first Christian missionaries, must have worked hard as they traveled to new places, learning new customs, languages (though mostly Greek), and cultures. Paul was a student of the Scripture and even carried around expensive and precious manuscripts or scrolls. There are also people who have a gift for knowledge and learning new things. They may have “learner” as one of their Strength Finders abilities. They are like Apollos, an early Christian scholar who was a learned man. People who have the gift of knowledge have a special place in the church as the scholars and teachers who can help the church think and apply more deeply its beliefs. Even those who do not have this gift can work hard to learn knew things.
- Learning is not an option. Learning depends on what will take our time and attention. We are learning new things all the time. Most pastors at least read the news or watch TV. Many can even quote the latest sports scores or the names of famous actors. If we can spend so much energy on things that do not matter, how much more should we spend time on the things that do matter? Even if the learning is small, it will accumulate over time. I have a lot of respect for people who go back to school or learn a new language later in life. I have taught many college and seminary courses. The average age of most of my online students has been around 40 years old, with some as old as 80. There will come a time when our thinking capacity will be limited, but as long as we live and are able, we can do our best to be learning things that matter. Learning God’s word will keep our minds and spirits engaged.
- Learning must be intentional and planned. Create space and time. This will require that we set aside time from otherwise busy schedules. Most of us seem to drift from one urgent deadline (Sunday morning sermon) to the next (Bible study, board meeting). It is a challenge to find time or set aside time for new learning. Developing a study plan for personal growth can be helpful. For example, some people try to read a new book every week. My reading is usually more scattered than just reading one book. My personal goal is to write a major book every five years of my career. Since I made that goal, I have kept it, but another five year mark is coming up and I need to get going on another book. Writing is a good way to learn because it takes research and thinking to come up with what to say. I have learned a lot from doing my daily blog. If it is difficult to discipline ourselves in this, we can sign up for a class that costs us something. This is a way to reinforce our need to learn and puts some pressure on us to be engaged. Getting the church to support and then report back what is learned
- Learning may need to be creative. It is not always easy for pastors to attend conferences, especially if they live far away from centers of learning, such as a college or seminary campus. With today’s technology, we can easily overcome this hurdle with planning and a bit of ingenuity. Many conferences are now recorded and available after the event. Watching a recorded video can be great, but one thing that is missing is the opportunity to dialogue and network. That is difficult to replace except through actually meeting face-to-face with people.
- Be cautious about jumping on board the latest ministry fad or topic. I have been to many ministry seminars. I can always learn something, but many presentations were theologically shallow or only the experiences of a “successful” pastor. We learn what is working well in some areas, but this learning must always come secondary to prayer and listening to God’s will for each church. Authentic love-filled churches can do a lot more to bring glory to God than a church trying to imitate the latest ministry idea.
- Determine your priorities for learning. Do we have a particular interest? Do we have a weakness that we want to strengthen? Does our church have a need? Do we need start or finish a degree to put our learning at a higher level? We should not be afraid to be challenged by new or different ideas. I have learned much by being shocked into re-evaluating my own thinking. In educational circles, they call this “transformational learning.”
- Be a model of learning to the church. The word for “disciple” basically meanings a learner. As disciples, we always want to be learning more about our Lord Jesus. If the church sees its pastor learning new things, this will inspire people to learn also. The pastor and/or church can provide learning materials, produces locally or from other ministries.
- Find time to be creative and imaginative. We need down time for rest. So often any of our free time and energy is sucked up with entertainment. We need “think time” to contemplate and consider the depths of God and God’s purposes in this world. A fresh mind and rested body will be better able to process new thinking.
Our goal in all of our learning is to develop the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) by filling ourselves with the teachings of and about Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to help us find ways of living this out.
For more pastoral reflections, click here.