I still remember what a shock it was to discover, just as I was finishing my graduate training to be a theology professor, that I was about to have to start to learn to be a teacher. Suddenly I was faced with the realization that the art and science of teaching—pedagogy—wasn’t merely a gift that came with my facility as a student; it was a craft that I still needed to learn, if I was going to teach.

In the process, I inadvertently made an even more important and humbling realization: as little as I knew about myself as a teacher, I knew even less about my students as learners.

I had grown up believing that good students simply were good learners by definition—and that great teachers were merely born with the gift of teaching. Now I was about to find out just how much I needed to learn about pedagogy. However, the art and science of learning (“andragogy,” to use Malcolm Knowles’s coinage) simply never, ever got addressed in my preparation to teach. I didn’t know what my students were like as learners, or what they themselves contributed to the dance of classroom teaching and learning.

Over the years I have shifted from my original vocational focus on being a good teacher to the central role of the learner in the process of forming and sustaining vital leadership for congregational life. Here are ten lessons that I continue to learn about what this means.

  1. The move from a subject- and teacher-centered model toward a process- and learner-centered approach is harder than one might think. It entails significant unlearning of a number of deeply entrenched conceptions about teaching and learning. One is that teaching (transmitting information) precedes learning (receiving and appropriating that information as one’s own). In practice, however, the learner has an important priority. For, while without students a “teacher” has nothing to do, without a teacher “students” often nevertheless learn. One has only to watch a small child presented with developmentally appropriate objects to see someone imagining both what is to be learned and the learning of it simultaneously.
  2. Consequently, “continuing education”—being taught more by more teachers—became a less helpful label for what I did than the phrase “lifelong learning.” Whereas “continuing education” tempts us to focus on what someone else may teach us, “lifelong learning” speaks of the never-ending process of development and formation of vital congregational leaders, and thus came to be my shorthand expression of the andragogical ideal.
  3. Learning how we learn is about shifting from subject-oriented education to person-oriented learning. Teacher expertise, in this view, yields to learner readiness. The shift to learner-centered education does not involve merely a move from what the teacher (seller) wants to what the student (consumer) desires or demands. Learner-centered education shifts the focus to the way that students and teachers together identify both what and how to learn.
  4. Continuing education leads us to know something different; lifelong learning assumes that we will be someone different as a result of the process. The language of “continuing education” prejudices us toward an incremental, skills-based, apprenticeship approach whereby we add piece by piece to the stockpile of knowledge that we own (so-called “just in case” education). “Lifelong learning,” to the contrary, opens up a way of thinking about the cradle-to-grave process of identity formation of persons.
  5. We hardly ever learn the most important things alone; we learn in community, in relationship, in conversation with those who often are those most different from us. This means that the most enduring learning can’t be done apart from the congregation—it is woven into the life and experiences and dreams of a community of persons, lay and ordained. Thus, congregations need to think of themselves not just as communities of faith but as communities of learning as well.
  6. The whole process of lifelong learning applies to many congregational leaders, especially clergy, not just when they themselves are in the role of student, but also when they take up the role of teacher and educator for their congregations. As challenging as it is to move away from the teacher-as-expert model when we are students, it tends to be far more seductive when we take on the role of teacher ourselves, whether our temptation to become the expert comes in the role of coach, mentor, or spiritual guide.
  7. It is but a small step forward to conceive of both the teacher and learner as having things to give and receive in a process of mutuality. This means an intentional shift away from hierarchical relationships of control and authority toward a more level playing field where congregation members all are encouraged to assume the roles of teacher and learner as appropriate to their levels of spiritual and moral maturity. Each of us needs to be part of a “circle of trust,” to use Parker Palmer’s phrase, that encourages the recognition of ignorance as lovingly as it does the brilliance of insight.
  8. For congregational leaders, a learner-centered approach to ongoing education also means an important shift in the way that we seek to have that learning validated. “Continuing education” still too easily falls into a “certification” model of assessing our lifelong learning in which “credits” or “units” of “continuing education” are accrued toward the fulfillment of a standard of minimal educational competence. In a learner-centered approach, the best learning contracts are not with external structures of accountability set up by the church or the academy, but with ourselves. This requires, however, that lifelong learners engage in deliberate processes of strategic, long-range planning for their learning, setting goals and standards by which to measure meaningful progress.
  9. Learning for leadership requires not just the long view of a lifetime but the broad view of the whole range of contexts where that learning best takes place. Seminaries, for instance, no longer need to think of themselves as failures for not providing all the education needed for congregational leadership, but rather as having played one distinctive role in a lifelong process of learning. Seminaries then do not need to try to extend in a “continuing” fashion the education of classroom experience, but rather can see their role as helping students to remain learners in all that they do.
  10. Whatever our vocation, learning that matters always involves the deepening of our capacities not just of the head but of heart and hands as well. We long for opportunities for peer learning where we can hear from those who share with us in vocational callings the ways that they have grown as lifelong learners in all dimensions of their identity and ministry. In a fast-paced world where learning, like commerce, is often desired and delivered “just in time,” we long for the deep waters of a stream of lifelong learning that flows through the center of our daily callings and provides us with the momentum we need to address the challenges of life together in congregational community.

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Adapted from “Ten Lessons about Being a Learner-Centered Teacher” in Congregations Summer 2009 (vol. 35, no. 3), copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL385_SM Learning the Way:
Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities

by Cassandra D. Carkuff Williams

In Learning the Way: Reclaiming Wisdom from the Earliest Christian Communities, Williams explores early Christian communities and their practices in order to identify principles for discipleship formation. She then offers expert advice on how to approach modern-day issues of Christian education and discipleship formation based on the examples set forth by our earliest forebears in the faith. This book provides an overview of the past in order that we might take the proven example of early Christians and apply it toward our present and our future.

AL369_SM One Step at a Time:
A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living

by Timothy C. Geoffrion

Each year, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk el Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—a 500-mile route across northern Spain that has existed for over a thousand years. Tim Geoffrion made this pilgrimage with his wife and teenage sons in 2006. He writes not only about his own journey but about how God works in those who seek to be led by the Spirit. Using pilgrimage as a metaphor for the Spirit-led life, he offers his experiences, thoughts, and reflections as a catalyst for readers’ own spiritual pilgrimage—the lifelong journey of growth into the life Christ intends for us. Whether or not we ever travel a path like El Camino, we can each learn how to better walk our own spiritual pilgrimage, one step at a time.

AL289_SM Your Brain Goes to Church:
Neuroscience and Congregational Life

by Bob Sitze

Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, “What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?” Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: What does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Weaving together clear, accessible explanations about the workings of the human brain, Sitze shows how a congregation’s identity and behaviors are shaped by the work of individual members’ brains as well as by the “collected brains” of the congregation.

AL221_SMLearning While Leading:
Increasing Your Effectiveness in Ministry

by Anita Farber-Robertson

As the world changes, so do people’s expectations of their faith community and clergy. This book uses three case studies to speak to religious professionals about the challenges they face; to provide readers with specific, user-friendly techniques to become more aware of how they function; and to learn new ways to lead. Clergy will find real-life examples of how more effective leadership enhances the life of the community and promotes the deepening of members’ faith.


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