Pastoring is a drastically different experience today than a generation ago.Along with a rapidly growing membership, we have an increasingly embarrassing nonattendance at worship.
Members are more than willing to challenge the preacher's authority. We are unsure of how to confront the changing face of our congregations.
And then there is the "paradigm shift" in our culture: a tendency to set aside the "old way" without a clear idea of what to do instead. This in itself is not all bad, and its impact on the churches may indeed be reformative (if we see a breath of fresh air flowing from the gospel into our lives and that of our congregations); on the other hand, it could be destructive (if these changes threatened our integrity, identity, and mission as a church).
Continuing education can play a role in this new dynamic. It can help ministers face the challenge of the changing congregation and the "paradigm shift." It can help us focus on priorities of the ministry.
Here are some of the practical aspects of continuing education.
Priorities of ministry
Encountering the Scriptures. The first priority is the clergy's authentic encounter with the Scriptures. Ellen G. White cautions: "Of all men upon the face of the earth, those who are proclaiming the message for this time should understand their Bible, and be thoroughly acquainted with the evidences of their faith. One who does not possess a knowledge of the Word of life, has no right to try to instruct others in the way to heaven."1
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, in their penetrating analysis of ministry, Resident Aliens, write: "To the extent that the church and its leaders are willing to be held accountable to the story which is the gospel, ministry is a great adventure of helping to create a people worthy to tell the story and to live it. The faithful pastor keeps calling us back to God."2 Ellen White resonates: "The tame, dull sermonizing will cease. The foundation truths of the gospel will be present in a new light. There will be a fresh perception of truth, a clearness and power that all will discern. Those who have the privilege of sitting under such a ministry will... feel the energizing power of a new life."3 Indeed, success in ministry will be seen in "a minister's familiarity with God's word and his submission to the divine will."4
This "familiarity with God's word" points to a critical need on the part of the clergy to be continually exposed to current, exciting, and refreshing scholarship that brings new and challenging insights to our understanding of the Scriptures. Such an encounter with the Scriptures can heal the ministry. It is here where clergy suffering from burnout and high stress can refocus on their source of life and energy.
Willimon argues in Clergy and Laity Burnout that clergy burnout is not so much the product of stress and overextending of resources as it is the loss of meaning in what we are doing.5 That is an important distinction. It moves pastors away from gimmicks and techniques into the very heart of faith itself. We are renewed when we encounter the work of God afresh and through the Word experience God anew in our lives. Listen to Ellen White: "The minister who makes the word of God his constant companion will continually bring forth truth of new beauty.,.. The Holy Spirit will fill his mind and heart with hope and courage."6 "The heart that receives the word of God is not as a pool that evaporates, nor like a bro ken cistern that loses its treasure. It is like the mountain stream fed by unfailing springs, whose cool, sparkling waters leap from rock to rock, refreshing the weary, the thirsty, the heavy-laden."7
Models of "extra dependency." The second priority is instruction in models of "extra dependency." These models refer to methods whereby we renew and reenergize our bodies, minds, and spirits by standing back from the day-to-day demands of the parish.
These models include making full use of opportunities for continuing education that are directed to addressing the needs of parish ministers. Seminaries haven't paid much attention to the clergy once they turn them loose. In fact, seminaries have not had much of a close connection with the church, a situation that can have only a negative impact on the clergy.
Among the models of extra dependency I would include two-day to one-week seminars on biblical studies, preaching, and current trends in theological thought, as well as such serious practical issues as conflict management, leadership skills for the twenty-first century, ministry of the laity as the whole people of God, and how such a ministry impacts upon our traditional ways of doing things as people of power in the church (Personally, I have greatly benefited from Alban Institute, the Academy of Parish Clergy, the College of Preachers, and insights on the male-female continuum that Roy Oswald provides in his biannual Clergy Development Institute).
One of the most difficult things about continuing education is follow-through. It is not enough to take a week or so and fill yourself with new and thrilling ideas. Too often the first time you talk to one of the elders about this great new idea, a whole barrel of cold water gets dumped on it.
A second difficulty is funding. Churches and seminaries neglect the issue of funding in continuing education. Would it be too much to suggest that in developed countries churches set aside a minimum of $ 1,500 as a continuing-education allowance for each of their clergy and take steps to establish funds to assist clergy in developing countries to attend international programs that would make an impact on their ministry?
Certainly, some of the high-end courses are expensive (management-training pro grams for business people can cost up to $10,000 or more). Yet the same people who would authorize such programs for their own managers would not consider that effective (and much less costly) programs may be made available to their clergy.
In the future, continuing education is going to look a whole lot more like consultation and support for people in their particular situation; it will address the needs of not only clergy but also of parishioners. In such a situation, the church will have to cease to view clergy as power and position holders and instead let the laity assume their rightful and necessary roles in the church as its front-line ministers. This would involve learning a new way of leadership and working—a way that lets go of things that have made clergy feel indispensable, so the laity may become what God has called them to be.
We need to learn how to teach laity the Bible. We need to teach laity to think theologically. We need to be enablers rather than doers of everything. We need to strongly encourage the laity to participate in continuing education courses. The response of lay people to programs like Stephen Minis try Training in Pastoral Care and religious studies courses at universities shows that people are ready to participate in substantive and insightful programs that address the laity where they are.
The ministry of the laity as the whole people of God is the long overdue direction for the church, and only an equipped and challenged laity can respond. One hundred years ago Ellen White observed that "The work of God is retarded by criminal unbelief in His power to use the common people to carry forward His work success fully."8
In the face of all these changes and new demands, continuing education itself will need to undergo change. It will have to re define itself more to be involved in the church, more in touch where clergy are needy and hurting, more aware that the laity needs the best possible resources to live out its role as "the whole people of God," more creative in the use of resources, and above all, more consultative with clergy and laity alike.
For us this has eschatological consequences: "The work of God in this earth can never be finished until men and women comprising our church membership rally to the work and unite their efforts with those of ministers and church officers."9 The connection between continuing education and the church's mission is inescapable—especially considering the new face of the church as we enter the twenty-first century.
1. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 249.
2. S. Hauerwas and W. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), 142.
3. White, 252.
5. W. H. Willimon, Clergy and Laity Burnout, Creative Leadership Series, Lyle E. Schaller, ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 25.
6. White, 253.
7. Ibid., 252.
8. White, Review and Herald, vol. 72, no. 27 (July 16,1895).
9. White, Gospel Workers, 16.