Ongoing Learning a Key to Ministry

I love learning. So even though I’m officially ending my pastoral ministry this month, even though I’m technically on vacation that I postponed until now, I happily took part in this year’s meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion in Denver, Colorado (featured image: Denver in the morning on my way to breakfast). I’ve usually gone as part of my professional development as a pastor, but yes, this is also what I do for fun. . . .

Highlights for me this year include:

  • meeting some of the accomplished women who are part of Asian American Women on Leadership, since I’ve recently started blogging with them;
  • getting to know the Association of Asian North American Theological Educators, an organization which is new to me and whose members warmly welcomed me to join them for breakfast. While most work in universities, seminaries, and other academic settings, they also seemed quite willing to have me in their midst as a practitioner–i.e., as a pastor and writer engaged in grassroots theological education through my speaking and writing;
  • breakfast with faculty and alumni of Regent College, where I did my graduate work – I knew very few who were there this year, but had an interesting conversation with one of the alums sitting at my table about the politics and practices of academic life;
  • browsing the book exhibits where publishers offer great discounts on books and other resources, but for the first time ever, I actually went away without buying anything – since I’ve just finished moving about 25 boxes of books from my church office and well over half remain unpacked, I wasn’t about to add more books (just yet!);
  • making new connections, and meeting with long-time friends in the academic world who attend these sessions every year;
  • and, of course, choosing from among the over two thousand fascinating sessions–some more theological, others more biblical; some more historical, while others address contemporary social and political issues; some specifically Christian, others focused on different religions and religious movements; some more liberal, or more conservative, with plenty to offend sensibilities on all sides of the political and religious spectrum if one is so inclined. As with any other form of professional development, I’ve found it’s important to choose wisely.

Of the 9,427 attendees this year, I expect that many of the scholars chose sessions related to their own areas of specialization. So for example, my husband, who is a biblical scholar, scanned through the entire list of sessions, but all of the ones he actually went to were part of the Society of Biblical Literature. As a pastor and writer, I tend to favour the more theological presentations that are part of the American Academy of Religion, but I usually take in some Society of Biblical Literature sessions too.

These are the questions that particularly engaged me in the sessions I chose this year:

  • How do we understand mission and intercultural relationships?
  • What does it mean to be evangelical and who gets to decide?
  • How does the use of technology and social media shape faith and shape the church? How can social media be a positive tool in embracing those who are seriously ill?
  • How can we reclaim Jesus in our public discipleship? Do we have a moral responsibility to engage in politics and public life? What are the rewards and the costs?
  • What can we learn from Teresa of Avila’s experience and approach to suffering?
  • How can we preach psalms of lament, particularly those psalms that curse the enemy and call on God’s judgement?
  • How can we communicate truth effectively in the church and wider world?

I’m grateful for my congregation’s understanding in both providing financial support and setting aside time for me to take part in these gatherings over the years. But professional development doesn’t always need to be so formal or expensive or require travel away from home. I’ve also done some free or nearly free things close at hand. So if you’re on a budget, or if an academic conference just isn’t your thing, consider these options:

Read books and journals – if you’re near a Bible college, university, or seminary, you can borrow books or read them in the library. For resources “carefully selected through an Anabaptist lens,” you can also borrow from CommonWord.

Use online resources – choosing among the gazillion resources available on-line is a huge challenge. For a helpful overview and some tips on choosing wisely, see Professional Development for Pastors and Other Church Leaders.

For professional development related to pastoral care, see what’s offered through your local hospital or other community agencies – I’ve attended seminars offered by a local funeral home, the hospital cancer agency, counselling services, and other churches.

Take advantage of denominational opportunities – my denomination does not require a certain number of continuing education credits per year as some do, but it offers regular learning opportunities on maintaining healthy boundaries, a pastor-spouse retreat that includes some teaching, a leadership training day that’s often part of our annual meetings.

Be curious – learn about life and ministry from the people in your church, your next-door neighbour, the person who cuts your hair, and whoever else you meet along the way. Learn from ministry experiments that worked well and especially from the ones that didn’t.

I’ve always counted ongoing learning as one of the keys to long-term ministry, so I’ve always made professional development a priority in these and other ways. How is ongoing learning part of your work with the church or other Christian organization? I welcome your ideas.

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Lead Pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church and the author of Four Gifts, Christ is For Us, Sacred Pauses, and other books on spiritual growth and Christian living. Blogging on Writing and Other Acts of Faith (aprilyamasaki.com) and When You Work for the Church: the good, the bad, and the ugly, and how we can all do better (whenyouworkforthechurch.com).

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