You are the solo pastor of a small-town congregation. It’s Epiphany and the snow is piling up in drifts outside your study window. You are glad that the rush of the annual stewardship drive, Advent, Christmas, and New Year’s is over. Now you have a few moments to consider what you might do for continuing education in the year ahead. Your parish board could not increase your study allowance due to the long recession. It remains $500 a year, payable by reimbursement. That hardly seems like enough, though many in your church consider it a generous amount. Your call includes up to two weeks for continuing education, but you almost never take that much time. Few members of your congregation receive a month’s paid vacation plus two weeks of continuing education. Still, you want to learn something this year and get a little time away from routine parish demands.
What are your primary concerns? Most of them are very practical. Can you afford to do much continuing education for less than $500? The travel to an event or workshop will take a lot of that allowance. Your car is old and the drive could be long and expensive. Yes, your spouse understands your need to attend conferences and seminars, but the trips always put an extra burden on the one left at home with your teenagers. Your parish board says they support their pastor’s learning goals, but you often have to leave workshops early for an emergency that comes up in the church. Maybe this year you can save time, money, effort, and stress by reading a few good books at home and using the Internet. Wouldn’t that be better stewardship of your limited resources and a relief to your church and family?
Besides, what kind of continuing education really matters to you ten years after ordination? What would you hope to learn? Churches always want good preachers, so a conference with a few big name preachers could be the ticket. Or a few days with a trained spiritual director who could help you to renew your sense of calling to ministry. Maybe they are offering continuing education units or certificates for that sort of learning. There is not enough time or money for you to go back to seminary for a doctor of ministry degree in worship and preaching. That will have to wait until you are pastor of a larger church. At least for now, what are your realistic options?1
The Self-Starter, the Slow Starter, and the Seldom Starter
In 1975, Union Theological Seminary–Virginia professor Connolly C. Gamble, speaking to the annual gathering of the Society for the Advancement of Continuing Education for Ministry, made the following observation. Approximately 10 percent of clergy are “self-starters” who take the initiative to seek out and regularly participate in continuing education programs apart from any judicatory requirements. Gamble called another 15 to 20 percent “slow starters” because they may go to one educational event every three years or so. The last and by far the largest group of clergy—70 to 75 percent—he described as “seldom starters” or “never starters” who rarely, if ever, engage in significant continuing education. Gamble noted with regret that those percentages had hardly changed since his earlier studies of clergy continuing education in 1960.
What made the most difference in whether clergy sought regular ongoing continuing education or not? The greatest factor was neither time nor money. “The chief unanswered question,” Gamble concluded, “is the linkage between felt need and actual participation.” Where the need is genuinely felt, clergy find a way to get additional training. “Idle wishes,” however, seldom translate into solid commitment to ongoing learning.2
If you are reading this article, then you are probably either a “self-starter” or a “slow starter,” though we can always hope for the “seldom starters” to catch on! And you have probably shared something like the experience of the aforementioned pastor considering options and issues attendant to continuing education for ministry. You know from scanning your recent issues of Congregations, other journals, and the Web that opportunities for ongoing clergy education abound. You may have tried a few options like preaching workshops, one-day seminars on the lectionary texts, retreat weekends at a regional conference center, or even a webinar or two. The whole thing feels like an educational buffet from which you choose a bit of this and a bit of that until you are full enough and leave to return perhaps next year. You find that you have become, perhaps with the best of intentions, a cautious consumer of post-seminary theological education. And you wonder whether your colleagues in ministry have come to many of the same conclusions.
The Survey Says
In 2009 the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation, where I serve as president, conducted an online survey to determine the type of educational programs that would appeal the most to clergy and lay congregational leaders in our thirteen-state Midwestern and Rocky Mountain primary service area. We were very interested in the specific programs desired and the resources available to our constituents. We received an excellent and detailed response to our survey from 267 Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors and commissioned lay pastors serving in congregations, specialized ministries such as hospitals and campus ministry, interim pastors, and honorably retired clergy still active in temporary pastoral relations.3
These are some of our key findings:
- Pastors, solo and head of staff, are the largest group (54.9 percent) seeking ongoing theological education, though the most notable increase in demand is from commissioned lay pastors (12.7 percent). A significant number of specialized clergy and retirees make up another sizeable group (25 percent), while associate pastors are least represented (7.5 percent). The age distributions of those responding to the survey were 56 to 65 (32.3 percent), 46 to 55 (31.8 percent), 36 to 45 (16.1 percent), over 65 (15 percent), and 25 to 35 (4.9 percent).
- Pastors serving small churches of 200 or fewer active members were the largest group of respondents (51.8 percent), followed by churches of 201 to 500 active members (24.9 percent).
- The most typical annual amount of continuing education allowance in the sample was $500 to $1,000 (37.8 percent),followed by more than $1,000 (28.9 percent) and $251 to $500 (16.3 percent). Many presbyteries (54.6 percent) offer some financial support for continuing theological education, though the amounts are typically less than $500 per scholarship awarded. Ordinarily, there are more clergy and lay pastors seeking a scholarship than funds available. Few commissioned lay pastors receive any continuing education allowance, as it is viewed more as a benefit than a necessity by their parish boards.
- When continuing education time was part of the pastor’s contract, two weeks was by far (82.5 percent) the most usual provision. Most presbyteries, for example, require the two-week allowance for continuing education.
- The preferred length of time for an extended event was four days (33.6 percent). Three-day and five-day events were tied for next in preference (26.5 percent each). Only 13.5 percent said they would choose an event of six days or longer.
- Shorter programs and events included options for a variety of content delivery methods. Among these, the one-day workshop was slightly preferred (42.7 percent) to an online course (39.9 percent), a two-day event (39 percent), a three-day event (37.6 percent), a webinar (24.4 percent), or a half-day event (18.8 percent). For this question, respondents could choose as many options as they wanted in rank order.
- Regardless of the length of an event, a wide majority (69.7 percent), if married, would choose to attend without their spouse. By contrast, 23.9 percent would select events that they could attend with their spouse, while 6.4 percent would prefer that their whole family come with them.
- Again, when respondents could select as many options as they wanted in rank order, the favorite topics for ongoing education content were spirituality (66.5 percent), worship and preaching (61.7 percent), community outreach and mission (48.3 percent), pastoral care (34.8 percent), conflict management (31.3 percent), staff development (23 percent), church administration (21.7 percent), and church finances (13.9 percent).
The profile that emerges from the survey is a small to mid-sized church pastor, age 46 to 65, with a continuing education budget of $500 to $1,000 and a time allowance of up to two weeks. That pastor will travel more than 500 miles each way to an event, preferably of four days duration or less. The content of that ongoing education event will likely be either spirituality or worship and preaching.
What is new that our foundation and others were not seeing ten or twenty years ago? The greatest single change is the number of lay pastors seeking ongoing theological training. There is also a significant increase in the number of female clergy and lay pastors searching for and attending continuing education programs. This is especially true of programs led by female clergy and theological educators or events in which female clergy and theological educators share in program leadership.
Regarding content, “worship and preaching” has remained a favorite topic for continuing education programs for decades. Often, the strength of the preacher at such an event is the greatest single predictor of registrations and attendance. Spirituality has risen considerably as a priority over the past two decades along with community outreach and mission. Biblical studies, though still widely praised, have fallen down the list of priorities. Newer topics such as science and theology are increasing in popularity but are still requested by only a few clergy and lay pastors.
The Art of the Possible
With such a variety of continuing education options available for clergy and lay leaders, how are the best choices made? Will, for example, your decision be based more on cost and convenience than content? Or will you return annually to an event or familiar location where you meet with old colleagues and find new friends? Perhaps you value content so highly that you are open to a variety of learning options just so that you can study a particular topic or develop a specific pastoral gift.
Certainly, your decision will take into account practical considerations. And you will likely feel very differently about your choices if they are voluntary rather than required by your judicatory or board. Some denominations have annual standards for ongoing ministerial education which require the accumulation of continuing education units (CEUs), so events and programs that offer such credits will be preferred in most circumstances to those that do not. Other denominations and boards require an annual report from clergy that includes information about the educational events they have participated in that year. That report may have to comply with a detailed list of written expectations that establish minimum standards for what qualifies and what does not as valid ongoing education for ministry. Variables may include such items as peer support, the credibility of teachers and program leaders, ownership of the stated learning initiatives, and multiple sources of feedback. All of these issues can make your selection of ongoing ministerial education a complicated task.
The first step in making a good decision involves “the art of the possible.” That process includes, but is not limited to, time and financial considerations. It begins with your commitment to grow in ministry. You must decide how important your ongoing ministerial education is to you and those whom you serve. Once you have contracted with yourself, then you are freed to move beyond fulfilling requirements to genuine spiritual and intellectual growth.
Second, I recommend that you consider taking a personal inventory of the types of continuing education for ministry that you have tried so far. What areas have you focused on—Bible, theology, ethics, pastoral care, preaching and worship? How would you evaluate what you have gained from those experiences? Has it been worth the time, money, and effort? Were you disappointed with a conference or elated? Do you know why or why not? What do you want to learn at this point in your ministry? What are you open to trying as far as an educational model—a retreat, a seminary classroom, a spiritual director, an online course, a peer group? Once you have made a thorough and honest assessment of questions like these, you can much more easily narrow the field of options available to you. Remember to seek supplementary funding such as grants and scholarships that can significantly increase the support available to you for your continuing education.
Third, it is important to have a written learning plan. That plan can serve as your personal contract for growth in ministry. A well-considered plan identifies a “core competence” or “set of core competencies” that you commit to developing over a period of years. Such an intentional strategy will allow you to avoid putting time, funds, and effort into programs that yield little lasting benefit to you. When you are putting your plan together, you might consider using the SMART technique drawn from Peter F. Drucker’s management by objective theory. That is, decide whether the “core competence” or “set of core competencies” is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound (SMART). By attending to these issues your plan will become much clearer to you and the people you serve. This is a very important consideration, as the best plans are developed in concert with your board and directly impact the quality of your ministry.
Finally, I would encourage you to try something other than the “Lone Ranger model” for ongoing ministerial education. While there is still a place for independent study and large conferences, the way to maximize the benefit of your learning experience is to commit to a peer group learning format. There are several types of peer groups available to you. Most are designed so that you can decide in collaboration with others who will be in your group, what you will study, and where you will meet. Grants are available to you through seminaries and other organizations such as the Lilly Endowment Inc., which supports the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas.4
May you find just the right combination of context and content for lifelong education in ministry to stimulate your heart and mind, for your sake and those to whom you minister.
1. In this essay I use a group of traditional terms such as “continuing education for ministry” and “ongoing education” rather interchangeably. In fact, there is a real and important distinction between “continuing education” models and more recent “lifelong learning” models. See the instructive article by Wayne Whitson Floyd, “Ten Lessons about Being a Learner-Centered Teacher,” in the Fall 2009 issue of Congregations, pages 27–28.
2. Connolly C. Gamble Jr., “Continuing Education for Ministry—Perspectives and Prospects,” unpublished address to the 8th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Continuing Education for Ministry, June 16, 1975. Later in that address Gamble added, “Continuing education is an individual’s personally designed learning program developed with the help of colleagues (laity and fellow clergy) to improve vocational competencies, which begins when formal education ends and continues throughout one’s career and beyond. An unfolding process, it links together personal study and reflection, and participation in organized group events in a related series of more-or-less organized events.” This is the spirit behind the peer group learning model advocated in this essay.
3. The 2009 survey conducted by the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation was distributed electronically to more than 1,600 Presbyterian Church (USA) pastors and commissioned lay pastors in our thirteen-state primary service region: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
4. See the Austin Presbyterian Seminary website (www.austinseminary.edu) for details. Other institutions use somewhat different styles of leadership, but the core model is still a peer group. An excellent alternative, especially if you are constrained by distance and expense, is the “connected learning” model used by the Wayne E. Oates Institute (www.oates.org).
Questions for Reflection
- When it comes to your own ongoing learning, are you a self-starter, a slow starter, or a seldom or never starter? What would it take for you to make continuing education enough of a priority that you would consistently be a self-starter?
- In what areas of your ministry could you benefit most from a continuing education experience?
- What steps do you need to take to pursue an experience in that area?
- What kind of information and/or education do your congregational leaders need in order to support your plan for continuing education?
- What kind of possibilities for peer group learning might be available to you?