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Not long after becoming a lifelong learning director, I ran across a lively Facebook clergy group dedicated to all the ways seminary didn’t fully prepare them for the demands of ministry. Members use the group to (of course) post questions about things they didn’t learn in seminary and need to know.
But in and among the queries of how to hold a baby over the font for baptism or deal with an oppositional session member, members also use the group to vent, garner moral support, and voice the joys and heartbreaks that punctuate their ministries.
Each time I scan the most recent posts in the group, I’m struck by the deep hunger among ministry professionals for skills and community and how challenging it is to be a minister. These days, the stakes seem higher than ever.
Recent research reveals that nearly half of Protestant clergy are thinking about leaving the ministry post-pandemic.1
Of course, no one seminary curriculum can prepare people comprehensively for ministry. It’s more than just too many courses and insufficient time. As with any practices-based profession, much can only be learned on the job. Add to this the rapidly changing contexts in which ministry happens, and the limits of degree program curricula are even more pronounced.
Five years ago, could any seminary have anticipated the need to teach people how to hold worship online or do pastoral calls while quarantined? Being a lifelong learner can make the difference between a vibrant, resilient ministry vocation and one that might count itself among the growing numbers of disenchanted clergy.
Lifelong learners share these qualities:
I once had a mentor who rubbed his hands with glee whenever I went to him with a problem. I saw it as an obstacle; he saw it as an opportunity for exploration and creativity.
Sometimes, it drove me nuts, but his winsome and hopeful posture toward life’s inevitable curveballs gradually worked its magic on me.
Ministry is always enacted in a particular place and time, and its incarnational character means there will always be curveballs. Turning towards the unpredictable with a posture of curiosity is one of the hallmarks of a lifelong learner – and a resilient vocation.
Lifelong learners take responsibility for their learning.
This means recognizing their growing edges and seeking the resources they need to be effective. The need to grow is part of being human; change and transition are the norm, not the exception. An oft-quoted statistic notes that the average worker will likely have five to seven different careers over a lifetime, never mind shifts within the same career family.
Being able to function well amidst a changing landscape (and an evolving sense of self!) means actively seeking out the knowledge, skills, and opportunities you need to navigate those shifts.
A benchmark study on exemplary ministry formation, Educating Clergy, observed that the best training programs contribute equally to building students’ cognitive, practical, and vocational identities.
In reflecting on the data, however, the researchers observed a fourth quality crucial to formation – the capacity for ongoing critical reflection on one’s practice.
In other words, effective ministers aren’t just able to “do the job;” they must also be reflective practitioners, able to see the performance and the self they bring to that work daily. The reflective practitioner knows that the job and the self constantly evolve and actively seeks opportunities to engage in that reflection.
Ideally, this happens in the company of others; as Parker Palmer points out, “Truth is practiced in community.” And Jesus was onto something when he sent his disciples out in pairs.
Resilience and vibrancy in ministry require that people be lifelong learners.
Lifelong learning isn’t just a way to fill a knowledge gap – it’s a way of life marked by curiosity, agency, and reflective practice.
Where are you in your ministry vocation these days?
And where do you seek out your opportunities to become a lifelong learner?
To learn more about the Center for Lifelong Learning, click here.
Dr. Helen Blier is the new Director of Lifelong Learning at the Center for Lifelong Learning. She is deeply knowledgeable about lifelong learning for ministers, church leaders, and theologically curious laity, having served in the field for over ten years.
1 See Barna Group’s report from its Resilient Pastor Initiative and Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s recent report titled, provocatively, “I’m Exhausted All the Time.” The Hartford report is the latest installment in its series on Exploring the Pandemic’s Impact on Congregations and states that over half of its 1700 respondents report having thought about leaving ministry entirely since the pandemic. The Barna report supports these data, adding that pastor satisfaction has declined 20% since just 2015.