Friday, February 28, 2014

10 continuing education methods that will change you, human history, life, the universe, and everything

There may have been an era when even mediocre pastoral ministry led to growth and "success." If that utopian era existed at some time (maybe from about 1955 to 1979?), it certainly doesn't anymore, at least not in North America. Many church leaders sense that it takes Herculean efforts just to maintain. Daily ministry can feel

Anyone who feels like they spend each day pushing a rock up a hill, just to see it roll back down that night will, in desperation, latch on to any kind of fix, however desperate.

Enter church marketing. At its best, publishing houses and conference planners faithfully try to offer resources equipping leaders for more effective and faithful ministry. But the habits of the marketplace sometimes drive these same conference promoters to overstate their case. Come to our conference, and your church will grow exponentially. Attend this conference, and learn to emulate these proven and incredibly successful pastors.

So you go. And the conference was fine. But very little changes. Either you didn't have the equipment in your portfolio to translate what you learned back into your context. Or perhaps all the heroes up on the stage were part of a perfect storm of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, a perfect storm most conference-goers will not be able to replicate in their context.

On the other hand, most of us in ministry (and this really applies to any profession) know that getting away, networking, studying, all of these practices really do benefit the work we do in our congregations when we return. There is something about going away and returning that has value in and of itself, regardless of the destination. And it is an almost universally acknowledged truism that lifelong learning is an essential part of the toolset for dynamic leaders.

This being the case, those of us with the time and the resources really do need to select events or conferences to attend. We need to design intentional methods for continued learning. Towards that end, I offer here a top ten list for "gaming" continuing education so it really accomplishes something for you and your ministry.

Spend a week with a church and pastor you respect

So many conferences take place in hotel conference rooms with experts up front and everyone else around tables, laptops open as they browse Amazon. Although you can learn something at a conference, it is not a good context for life-on-life formation. To really learn from another person, you need to spend time with them. So find a pastor or church you respect, and ask if you can simply shadow them for a week. Conversations can take place in the context of the daily, and you will return with a picture of another church that can mirror and challenge your own.

Plan an unconference with friends

Sometimes I like to say you shouldn't attend a conference because of the speakers, but because of the other people who will attend that you can skip the speeches with. Lots of conference-goers already know this. It's why SXSW is so popular. The events are great, but the after parties and networking opportunities are a primary reason people attend year after year. SXSW organizes networking opportunities. In the evenings, the coffee shops and bars are also simply full of people networking on their own.

But you don't have to shell out the big bucks for a conference in order to network with friends. Just sit down right now and make a list of ten people you wish you could spend time with in conversation for a week. Then rent a cabin, or get sleeping bags set up in your house, and invite everyone together to simply spend time together. Create an informal agenda (loose conversation topics for the morning and again the afternoon), prepare and eat your meals together, and plan recreation, especially walks.

Save up and go to the absolutely best conference on the planet

If you are going to attend a conference, go big or go home. Although I haven't been to any of these yet because of their cost, I think I will try some year. The ones that intrigue me the most include:

Go to a "normal" conference but "mod" it somehow

For example, I am presenting at the Revitalizing Your Congregation conference in Chicago in April. There will be excellent content. But ideally if you attend it, you should also bring some friends, or experience some outside of the box Chicago things, or network with the event organizers prior to the event so you get more out of the conference when you actually attend. Follow their Twitter. Strike up a conversation. Conferences don't begin and end when they meet. They have a pre-life and an extended life in social media. My favorite conference for this personally is the ELCA Youth Ministry Extravaganza.

Get Creative

Attend a stand-up improv training, like I/O in Chicago. Spend a week at the Grünewald Guild. If you still really want to do a "ministry" conference, go to one that focuses on creativity, like the Calvin Symposium on Worship, or the Notre Dame Liturgy Symposium. Go to the Sundance film festival.

Go way outside your comfort zone

Maybe in this era of decreasing returns for increasing effort, the best thing we can do is get out of our comfort zone and stretch ourselves. So, go to a camp and learn how to build a guitar. Learn to paint icons. Spend a week camping out on the streets. Live with a Catholic Worker community.

Take a week long retreat

Don't do anything for a week. Just stop. Some folks do this at retreat centers, entering time for silence and the daily prayer offices. Some people do it by walking the Appalachian trail solo. The point is, don't do anything you would normally do, and let your brain recalibrate. This will be the most difficult and rewarding week you ever spend.

Connect to a global movement

You might need to save up for this one, but getting connected to a global movement of fellow pilgrims may be a good move. Many people travel to France to go to Taizé. Others do the Walk of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. Start saving now to travel to Germany for the 2017 of the Reformation. Consider the spirituality of anniversaries as you prepare.

Hide and read -or- get out all over the place

Pick a table at the local library, and commit to being at that table for six hours a day for five days. Bring a stack of books you have been meaning to read. Go to the library stacks to burrow down into footnotes that intrigue you.

Alternatively, spend a week in your community going to all kinds of places you wouldn't normally. Walk into the thrift store you always drive by. Buy a comic book at the local anime store. Walk every street in a mile radius around your house or church. Meet the wait staff at your local restaurant. Volunteer for a day at the literacy council. Go to concerts in styles of music you don't like. Take your instrument to the farmer's market and be a busker for the day.

Have a trusted colleague or friend assign you the continuing ed you would avoid but really need

This one will prove interesting. It is difficult to submit to the insights of others, but worth your time. You will learn as much asking this of a friend as you will in completing the assignment. Thank them in advance.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it takes you some distance in planning learning events for the next few years that will truly change you and give you life. I hope I'm brave enough to try a few more of them myself.


  1. When you say "Daily ministry can feel Sisyphian" are referring to increasing the size of your congregation, the spiritual growth of your congregation or something else?

  2. You know, that's a great question. My answer is probably, "Yes." It can feel Sisyphian to try and grow a congregation numerically, spiritually. It can feel Sisyphian even to grow spiritually yourself, or grow your leadership skills. Which isn't to say that pastoral ministry is impossible or exasperating. Far from it. But some of the benchmarks many conferences offer as what will happen if you attend them far outstrip the actual outcomes, and this can feel Sisyphian to participants also.

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  3. I would also suggest if you want to learn about a topic, go to the conference for the professionals in that topic, not conferences for church leaders about that topic. For example, one of the best, most valuable day-long conference I ever went to was the Fundraising Day conference hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Too often it seems we church people call on the same small group to talk about every single topic when there are people who specialize in these same topics who can open up a whole new world to us.

    Another great conference I attended that I heartily recommend is the World Domination Summit:

  4. The absolute best Continuing Education if ever did was to go visit the most healthy, vibrant Lutheran congregation in North America that I'm aware of. It had the added benefit of being similar to my congregation re: demographics, size, location, etc. I attended congregational events - including worship, learning, and fellowship. I visited active members and asked them how they got connected and why they stay connected. I visited lay leaders. And I interviewed the pastor. I cannot speaking highly enough of this experience. (The congregation, btw, was St. Paul Lutheran in Oakland - my wife was an intern there back in 1996.)