Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Minefields and opportunities in learning for pastors and congregations

The field of continuing education for pastors and congregations presents both minefields and opportunities for reaching a goal.

What are the minefields:

1. Cost. My congregation was faced with an opportunity for an educational event for both me and 2-4 leaders from the congregation. I won't go into all of variables for attending, only that attending is about as close to being a "need" without actually being a need. The event is semi-annual, with the next event gathering in Houston, Texas. Round-trip airfare, tuition, hotel and other expenses, we were probably looking at $2-4K to make that trip. I pondered the opportunity cost for that trip for several weeks. I go to the training because it's part of my job, and the training does have value. For others, I'm asking individuals in my congregation to invest at least 4 days away from work and family.

2. Efficacy. I have heard some great theologians, teachers, leaders and preachers over the years at educational events. Some presentations were a waste of time. Sometimes this was the speaker's fault (delivery, under prepared), sometimes it was mine (I can have a bad attitude), sometimes it was the planner(s) of the event. Sometimes the responsibility is shared. Some speakers had a profound effect on me during that particular moment--it was something I needed to hear. I didn't necessarily require that person's words would profoundly change my life every day for the next 10 years, only that their insight was part of my overall sustenance and encouragement. It's like a feast. Feasts everyday can lose their meaning over time. Occasionally shared, feasts are the spice of life. I think about this when I reflect on events where I've heard Will Willimon, Sandra Day O'Connor, Martin Marty, and Maya Angelou. These kind of speakers draw people to come to conferences. These are wise people, and their words can be helpful and insightful. However, in my experience, these kinds of events don't necessarily elicit much change in my work. From some learning events I have returned home with some books, a binder full of materials, or have my email inbox filled with Power Points and documents. Rarely do I look at these documents ever again. That may be just as much about my habits as it is about educational philosophy, but I also know that I am not alone in owning a bookshelf loaded with books, boxes and binders holding the dusty hope of personal and organizational renewal.

After attending Unconference11 in May, the minefields of education became clearer to me about how I would invest learning time and resources in the future. Rock star quality speakers are not required (but hey, if they want to come and participate like everyone else, great!).

Where are the opportunities?

Connecting communication technologies (social media, blogs, web) provide key components to any learning and change opportunity. Learning is just as much about relationships as it is information. This is not an educational newsflash--many educational approaches gain leverage through relationships. However, I have observed that in church circles, there's still a lot of weight placed in bringing a big name speaker and implicitly inflicting death by Power Point for an educational event. The problem is, if I want the material I gain to truly take root, there needs to be relationship networks ready and available to take my enthusiasm as a convert and weave it in to the fabric of my life. #Unco11 #Unco12 #chsocm (specific Twitter linked communities) have provided access and friendships with other learners so that I gain support, insight, challenge, and an opportunity to share as well.

As I look at the minefields and opportunities for goal reaching in continuing education for pastors and congregations, I fear testing my own theories. I want to host an educational event. I believe that communication strategies for pastors and congregations are important in their work of sharing the Good News of Jesus. I don't need to host a big top event. It's time to trust the relationships I have built and that God will be present in not only where two or three are gathered, but will gather again as the relationships continue.


  1. Cash money, homey. This brought to mind two reflections that would, I think, corroborate what you're saying: 1. I attend a yearly continuing ed event that is not published or open to the public. It is made up of colleagues of mine that date back to sem days, including a couple of us now who have advanced degrees and teach at some of our Lutheran seminaries and/or colleges. We gather at a family cabin for a week at a time. We all chip in for food and refreshments, a little bit for our esteemed colleagues, and a nice amount for the property taxes the family cabin corporation pays each year. We've been gathering for 11 years now. The topics always tend to orbit preaching & teaching and congregational transformation, since a couple of these guys are now recognizing, "The church we were equipped to lead and serve is not the church we're in." I get no c.u.'s for this, but I will NEVER miss this gathering. It is THE most important continuing ed I do PRECISELY BECAUSE OF the relational aspects--and I don't just mean the beer that is drunk and the golf that is played. I mean: the new experiences each of us brings, the nearly 2 decades of wisdom now, and the theological/intellectual rigor our "instructors" bring to the table. That sort of relationship takes time and effort to build and is nigh on impossible in traditional continuing ed opportunities.
    2. A few years ago, I and a congregation I was serving were afforded through a synod grant a coaching relationship with a consulting ministry. It was TREMENDOUS, and I have craved that sort of relational/coaching/accountable relationship ever since.

    So. As I said, "Cash money, homey."

  2. Thanks, Mike.

    I have to say I'm a little envious of what you have with your group (don't want to deny that), but I'm also glad for you, and glad to hear of examples. It seems the philosophy is present, but not present enough. I could be wrong. I've attempted other avenues for the relationship/learning combo, though nothing has stuck for that long for a variety of reasons. I won't quit trying.