Over the past 22 years, continuing education has been a big part of my life: I earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology, mastered the art of creating wheelthrown ceramic pots, and completed an Executive MBA program. During that time, I was pastor of an evolving urban congregation blessed with worship attendance doubling and our age demographic becoming about 25 years younger. So how did I have time to be both pastor of a growing congregation and student? Why did I—a minister—pursue an MBA and want to learn pottery? And what do a theology dissertation, a ceramic pot, and accounting skills have in common?
The answer to the last question is “my heart.” As I contemplated the thought of mastering the subject of systematic theology, the potter’s wheel, and disciplines such as accounting and finance, my heart started to beat a bit faster. I got excited about what I might learn. Of course, there was also a fear factor because I felt more than a little anxiety that I might fail (especially in the MBA program). But in each case, I felt drawn to the educational project just as I feel called to ministry. I experienced a call to move deeper into the complex and fascinating doctrines of the church, the untapped artistic side of my being, and a totally alien world of monetary policy and financial reports. Following these calls to grow has been as important to me as anything I have done in ministry.
While I have definitely increased my skill set with these projects, I am not convinced that better skills should be the primary goal of our continuing education as clergy. I think we need continuing education projects that feed our souls. Ministry drains and depletes, empties and exhausts us. Continuing education can revive and renew, fill up and fuel us. After a challenging day of pastoral counseling, dealing with stubborn problems in the congregation, or handling administrative tasks, I have loved coming home to read a few chapters of Aquinas, throw a pot, or work through a managerial economics problem. These totally different worlds have been my world, a world where I can think about things that the very specific demands of my ministry don’t normally allow me to consider. In these worlds, I feel the Spirit moving within me—creating, destroying, re-creating. New parts of my mind and heart come to life, grow, and evolve. My continuing education has been a place where I have felt the biblical promise of re-creation coming to fruition.
How I was able to pursue my various continuing education projects while still serving my congregation was largely a function of communicating with the members of the congregation about how they would gain from my pursuits. They, like me, came to believe that it was good for my soul.
Pursuing a Doctorate
Prior to beginning my Ph.D. program, I discussed my plans with my lay leadership and members. Fortunately, they were able to envision how they would directly benefit from my educational growth. In the years that followed, the congregation coped well with the various phases of the program. In fact, they were very supportive.
In the first part of the program, I needed time away from the congregation for classes. This meant blocking out specific times during the week when I wasn’t available to the congregation, although I did miss classes when there was an emergency. Over six semesters, I took 10 three-credit classes.
In the second phase, I studied for comprehensive exams. This involved reading about 100 books for five exams. I liked this part of the program the best. At the end of exams, I had a comprehensive and broad knowledge of systematic theology, and I felt a sense of self-empowerment that was exhilarating.
In the final phase of the program, I wrote my dissertation, choosing a subject that informed and helped guide my work as an urban pastor committed to social justice issues—the doctrine of grace in the liberation theology of Juan Luis Segundo. I was blessed with a wise dissertation director who advised me, “John, this is your union card, not a Summa.” Adopting that workman-like approach, I devoted several evenings a week to research, reading, and writing. While working on my Ph.D., I devoted 10 hours to study in an average week. I used study leave prior to comprehensive exams, and to finish my dissertation I used my days off, vacations, and any other available time to do research, organize material, and write. The program took 10 years to complete. During that decade, no hospital calls were missed, no phone calls went unanswered, and no Bible studies were taught unprepared. Since my congregation saw little disruption in their relationship with me, members were very supportive of my doctoral program. It is a resource I tap every day in my ministry.
Becoming a Potter
My journey to becoming a potter was far less logical and less planned than my decision to study systematic theology. I was on sabbatical at our home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, when this call came—and not very obviously at first. During a telephone conversation with my wife, I complained that I had already read all of the books I had brought with me. Her immediate reaction was, “You’re in Mexico’s art hangout; take an art class!” “I’m not an artist,” I responded. But Phyllis, a painter, wouldn’t let me off the hook. “Everyone’s an artist,” she said.
I decided to enroll in a pottery wheel class at a local art school. Pottery felt more like construction than art, so I figured I might be able to do it. As I watched my teacher Shozo Tanida, a Japanese potter, throw a pot, I knew I had made the right choice. Far from being construction, I immediately realized that throwing a pot on the wheel is a sublime spiritual experience. Shozo sat at the wheel wearing a golf cap, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and Miles Davis playing in the background. Out of the midst of a ball of clay emerged a perfect Japanese bowl, sides thrown at a sharp angle. When finished with his demonstration, Shozo looked up, exhaled a huge cloud of smoke and said in Spanish, “Al torno” (to the wheel). In our phone conversation later that week, I told my wife that Shozo was my new idol!
A lot of people stop throwing because they can’t master centering clay. For many in the U.S., I am convinced that this is a spiritual problem, not a technical one. Imposing our cultural values on throwing, we push the clay to conform to our wishes, rush the clay so we can move on to the next step. But clay can’t be pushed or rushed. Clay needs a thrower with strong but relaxed hands. I began to succeed at centering clay when I allowed the clay to center me.
Patience is a spiritual discipline required in ceramics. It is one of the major reasons ceramics has been such a powerful learning experience for me. By nature, I am an impatient person. Prior to studying ceramics, I wanted the world, my congregation, and my own personal life to change immediately. At times, my impatience has been helpful. At other times, it has been destructive and counterproductive.
In ceramics, impatience has only one effect and it is negative. Try to throw a pot too quickly and it collapses. Put a pot in a kiln before it is bone-dry and it explodes. Glaze pots too quickly and the glaze runs and ruins the pot. Only bad things happen to the impatient in ceramics.
So, as I learned the art of throwing and finishing pots, I learned the art and power of patience. It has transformed my life. While I still want injustices to stop immediately, I now realize that only the patient effectively battle injustice. I have come to view Martin Luther King, Jr., as a model of patience. Many of his followers wanted him to rush into this or that strategy. He refused. He worked with what I call an “impatient patience.”
Ceramics also taught me the importance of details. Even ceramic pieces that look roughly hewn, such as Japanese folk pottery, are done with excruc
iating attention to detail. When I was learning to throw tea bowls, Shozo made me throw 100 of them. After about 50 bowls, I realized that he was forcing me to pay more attention to the details of what I was doing.
I now teach the wheel in Mexico. While it consumes part of my vacation time, I want others to discover the joy of throwing. I love watching the faces of my students as they begin to throw something successfully. They are reduced to the same childlike wonder I experience every time I get on a wheel.
As with my doctoral work, learning ceramics required me to set aside time in my week for classes. I was always able to find a once-a-week evening class. I also built a studio in my home. This enables me to throw on my days off and during other free time. It takes a couple of years of dedicated work to become a fairly good potter.
My congregation has been a direct beneficiary of my pots. Perhaps the greatest benefit they have received is a more patient pastor, but I also give pots to members who have served the church in some way, and auction them off at fund-raisers for mission projects. They also decorate various rooms in the church.
For those pastors who are curious about how cultivating their creativity might offer a new dimension to their ministry, I offer one caution: There are lots of bad art teachers, so talk with others who have taken classes before selecting one. Where did they learn their art? Who were their best teachers? What did they gain from the experience? Talk to enough people to get a sense of what appeals to you, where you might find quality instruction, and then give it a try.
Getting My MBA
The same advice would apply to virtually any continuing education offering I can think of. Most important, perhaps, is the feeling that an offering is calling to you. At age 54, I thought I was done with major continuing education projects. However, an Executive MBA (EMBA) program at The George Washington University called me back.
I am of the opinion that our seminaries do a great job of teaching us theology and the Bible but a poor job of teaching us the professional skills we need to run the small business that every congregation is. An MBA seemed like a great opportunity to learn systematically what I had been attempting to do intuitively.
Perhaps even more than the skills I would acquire, the “executive” nature of his particular MBA program appealed to me because I knew it would provide me with an opportunity to interact with bright, enthusiastic people—people who lived in a world foreign to me. These programs use several filters to obtain high-quality, highly motivated students. They usually require applicants to have a minimum of 10 years of successful managerial experience. A steep price tag is another intentional filter (I was blessed to receive a scholarship). Because of these filters, the students in my program were a high-achieving group of women and men in their mid-thirties to mid-forties. I was “the old man.”
For 18 months, classes were held from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on alternating Fridays and Saturdays. In addition, there were three one-week out-of-town residencies and a two-week residency in Asia. Homework in a typical week could easily run up to 20 hours, so it was basically like having a second full-time job. The EMBA is not for the faint of heart.
A by-product of the program was that I became an incredibly efficient manager of my time. During the program, there was no more sitting at my desk and leafing through the Christian Century, no Websurfing, no attending judicatory meetings that might not be important! If I devoted time to something, it mattered and I was focused. In addition, for 18 months I barely touched a pottery wheel, rarely watched television, and spent greatly reduced time with my wife. When I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment, I had a book with me. If I was on a plane, I was working on accounting problems. Every minute counted.
As exhausting as it was, it was even more invigorating. I was learning important material for use in the parish. For instance, MBA programs stress team learning; by working in teams in my own MBA program I realized how little we use team concepts in the church and changed that pattern. I encountered research that showed that annual employee performance appraisals tend to de-motivate rather than motivate people, so I now urge the lay leaders of my congregation to evaluate the performance of the ministry and how individuals contribute to it rather than focusing on individual performance. I also learned that a congregation without a marketing plan (explicit or implicit) is probably a congregation that is not growing. I developed one for Western. The list of practical applications to ministry goes on and on.
As pastors, we all run small to mediumsize businesses, so it’s my belief that anytime pastors can gain access to what is being taught in MBA programs, they should jump at the opportunity. An MBA degree gives pastors skills for a lifetime. But the EMBA model is not for everyone. Most people work on their MBA degrees parttime at night rather than during workdays and on the more intensive schedule the EMBA program requires. However, EMBAs offer the advantage of being part of a classroom full of experienced, mature leaders/managers where discussion of a variety of issues is commonplace. In my program, the professor often just sat down and the class took over.
Communication, Contribution, and Calling
Each of my continuing education projects—the EMBA, the pottery, the doctorate—has added a new dimension to my life and ministry, which in turn has provided my congregation with a pastor more in tune with the power of creativity, more knowledgeable about the doctrines of the church, and more prepared to effectively deal with the leadership, managerial, and financial aspects of ministry. Yet whenever I describe my continuing education projects to other pastors, they always ask, “Didn’t your congregation object?” The only honest answer is, “Not to my face.” But I don’t think there was a whole lot of behind-thescenes complaining or I would have heard about it. Western isn’t that big!
If my congregation did indeed support my continuing education efforts, as I believe they did, it may have had something to do with how I communicated with them about these projects. Rather than trying to hide the amount of time I spent on continuing education, I constantly kept it before the congregation. I wanted my members to know what I was learning, how it benefited me, and how it benefited them. I mentioned my studies in sermons, in the church newsletter, at annual meetings, during pastoral visits, and anywhere else it seemed appropriate to do so. If I was taking a class on the Trinity, the congregation heard sermons on the Trinity. When I was taking MBA leadership courses, I preached a lot about the leadership styles of major biblical characters. And pottery? There has never been a deeper well of sermon illustrations than art in general and pottery in particular.
Clearly, I believe in the benefits of a variety of continuing education offerings. But I think the habit of taking a continuing education course here or there can fail us. Yes, we meet some good folks and gain some useful information, but are our lives shaped and transformed by such an approach to continuing education? I don’t think so.
I strongly encourage my clergy colleagues to look for challenging, substantial educational projects that will push them a bit—projects that push intellectually, push the creative side, or maybe push our approach to leading and managing a congregation. How a continuing education project pushes or stretches us isn’t as important as the fact that it does so. And most important, we must ask ourselves whether our continuing education feeds our souls, nourishes our spirits, and renews the heart. If not, we are missing the true gift of continuing education.
Questions for Reflection
Before selecting a continuing education program,consider the following questions.They can help steer you to a truly meaningful continuing education experience.
All Aboard! Winning Congregational Support for Your Continuing Education Pursuits
If your continuing education projects are time-consuming endeavors, you’ll need the support and understanding of your congregation to make them work. Here are some suggestions that stem from the actions I’ve found most effective in cultivating the support I needed for my own continuing education pursuits.