Design for Clergy Lifelong Learning
My current context for ministry is theological education in the seminary. We see our mission as preparing clergy for congregational ministry, as well as leaders in other ministry contexts (non-profits, missions, etc.). As with most seminaries we do this by offering the professional M.Div. academic degree, as well as five other advanced professional and academic degrees.
But we are also committed to providing professional development opportunities through continuing education for clergy and other leaders through the Center for Lifelong Learning in several forms: courses, seminars, online courses, clergy sabbatical programs, scholars programs, consultations, workshops, retreats, pilgrimages, travel seminars, and certification programs. We understand that educating clergy goes beyond the delightfully heady challenges of academic study. The process of lifelong learning needs to continue beyond the awarding of a degree.
I recently heard a speaker say that “…everything and everywhere is a classroom and therefore an educational setting….” While the hyperbole makes its point, the use of the term “classroom” posits a danger for a misunderstanding that leads to ineffectiveness. While I agree with the sentiment, there is risk in using a classroom as a metaphor for anything other than . . . well, a classroom.
I think the speaker was correct to stress that learning happens everywhere and anywhere, and so, any place can become a context for learning. However, the traditional classroom facilitates a certain kind of learning (instructional, academic, didactic), but not others. In fact, one contrarian idea to the traditional learning experience is, “schooling is inimical to learning.” Simply put, the classroom experience can inhibit certain kinds of knowledge and other kinds of learning and modalities. We “get” this at some level, which is why we go through the trouble and expense of, for example, persons to a retreat setting in order to facilitate a “different kind of learning.” Or why we use phrases like “on-the-job training,” make the distinction between “book learning,’” or, say that someone went to the “school of hard knocks.”
People desire lifelong learning; but they don’t want to be perpetual students.
We often fail to fully appreciate the significance and power of situated learning. I ran into this at a recent conference where I served on a panel. At one point the question of the issue of seminaries and the formation of clergy came up. My response was to say that seminaries need to stop fretting so much about attempting the “formation of clergy” because, ultimately, it is something they just cannot do. Seminaries are good at the formation of seminarians, but only congregations can do the work of the formation of clergy.
You learn to be a pastor in the church, not in seminary. You become a pastor by learning the practices of doing ministry in the ministry context, rather than mastering the skills of being a good student in school. Much of that has to do with the power of situated learning, and both are good toward their end and in their time. While in school it’s important to learn the skills that make one a good student. But ministry requires learning in a different way, with more agency, initiative, responsibility and risk than schooling allows.
This is why it is important, in my thinking, to avoid misunderstanding educational concepts and approaches, and, to avoid confusing one for another. A church is not a school, a seminary is not a church, and a school is not a community. Likewise, schooling is not formation, and apprenticeship is not mentoring. When we confuse one for another, or even attempt to use one as a metaphor for another, we often slip into ineffective ways of educating because we go contrary to the nature of the context.
Effective continuing education opportunities for clergy are vital to both church and clergy leaders. Too often, however, continuing education for clergy mimic schooling or academic models of learning which, in the end, are inimical to the kind of learning that clergy need. I’m often struck, for example, with how often continuing education events for clergy feature an academic in the role of lecturer or plenary speaker. The problem is that, for one thing, the focus of learning becomes a topic (rather than a practice). The second is that academics are not immune to the formative influence of context. The dilemma is that even if the presenter has had pastoral experience, within three years a seminary professor becomes an academic. The context of the academy shapes the professor’s perspective and concerns, in ways that often are inimical to learning ministry, or even about ministry.
The most dramatic evidence for this I see is the phenomena that when seminary professors gather together they talk about certain things, and when clergy get together they talk about totally different concerns.
Here are the components in continuing education that I am convinced provide the most effective learning experience:
- Effective continuing education is peer-oriented. Practitioners learn best about the practice of ministry from other practitioners, not from “experts,” consultants, or from persons outside of their field of practice. This is not to say that clergy cannot learn important things from persons in other fields or from scholars and academics. Indeed, a varied exposure to many fields is almost a necessity for clergy, who need to be more generalist than specialist. But the dynamic of peer-to-peer learning is consistently one of the most powerful learning relationships, often, more effective than mentoring relationships.
- Effective continuing education gives attention to the pastor’s context, either by facilitating situated learning, or, by allowing for context-specific application. The importance and power of situated learning remains one of the most un-realized approaches for clergy development and formation. The educational principle here is “you learn to do what you do, and not something else.”
- Effective continuing education is Androgogical. It follows the orientation of adult education (in contrast to pedagogy): it is learner-centered, makes us of personal experience, and is focused on problem-solving. Having an experience is not in itself sufficient for insight and change. The practice of reflection-on-experience, an reflection-in-experience is how professionals and practitioners learn and get better.
- Effective continuing education experiences provide a minimum of a three-year format. One-shot workshops have minimal impact; one-day seminars too often are educationally benign.
- Effective continuing education experiences provide a specific frame of reference for ministry: theological, theoretical, or practice (in contrast to ideological, devotional, or metaphorical, though interestingly, those are frameworks many prefer).
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning.