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Relevant ministry in the twenty-first century: Continuing education for ministry

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Archives / 2017 / February



Relevant ministry in the twenty-first century: Continuing education for ministry

Adam Fenner , Sharon Aka

Adam Fenner, PhD, is director of the Adventist Learning Community (ALC) in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.


Sharon Aka is associate director of the Adventist Learning Community (ALC) in the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists. She is pursuing a PhD focusing on pastoral continuing education.


We live in the Information Age. To put this unofficial title of our times into perspective, consider the following assertions: Ninety percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years.1 This means that humankind’s knowledge about the universe has grown by more than 90 percent in the last 24 months. Human knowledge is doubling at a rate of every 12 months.2 Every 60 seconds 150 million emails are sent, 2.78 million YouTube videos are viewed, and more than 700,000 Facebook logins are made.3 The Internet, social media, and the rate at which we receive and cognitively digest information have all created seismic cultural and societal shifts that happen seemingly overnight. Consider how rapidly society has changed its thinking regarding same-sex marriage, immigration, populist politics, and religious terrorism. Entirely new worldviews and ways of being are formed every few years; previously these transformations took decades or even generations. The world is changing at an unbelievable rate.

In such a world those in ministry are faced with a fundamental question: How do we stay relevant in the Information Age? The answer to the query of relevance is biblical and vital to all of us. The secularization of our institutions and philosophy, shrinking congregations, attracting and retaining youth within our churches, and the ever-increasing difficulty of evangelism all point to the need to be more relevant and meet the spiritual and human needs of contemporary audiences. Let us be clear, being relevant has nothing to do with “watering down” our beliefs and values. Being relevant has everything to do with rethinking how we share the love of Christ and the importance of His teachings in the everyday lives of those living in the modern world.

The question of relevance in an ever changing world can largely be answered by never ceasing to learn. Professional development is both biblical and foundational for our church and, therefore, should be a core component of any ministry. According to the Bible, the true measure of a professional is the eagerness to continually improve. Biblical support for lifelong learning is unmistakable. Proverbs 1:5 states, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance” (ESV). Speaking directly to ministers, 2 Peter 1:8 states, “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (ESV). In both of these texts, the Bible speaks to the necessity of continually seeking knowledge and self-improvement.

In The Acts of the Apostles, Ellen White expands on the biblical principle by writing, “Those who are chosen by God for the work of the ministry will . . . by every possible means seek to develop into able workmen.”4 Sister White went a step further and made the matter of continuing education for pastors plain when she wrote, “The gospel is not properly taught and represented . . . by men who have ceased to be students.”5 Pastors are not alone in this endeavor of lifelong learning. Sister White writes that as ministers “manifest earnestness in improving the talents entrusted to them, the church should help them judiciously.”6

Pastoral professional development is the intentional growth of skills and knowledge related to specific areas of the ministerial profession. It is learning that deliberately focuses on an area of identified need. We all have strengths and weaknesses, both personally and professionally. However, what matters most is not that we have shortcomings but what we do to overcome them. Professional development is all about being the absolute best you can be at your job. It helps you maintain your expert status throughout your career, even decades after formal education. Physicians, electricians, teachers, and bankers all have professional development requirements. Most licensed professions do. These occupations require continuing education because times change: technology improves, culture evolves, expectations vary, and unexpected challenges constantly emerge. Whether you are a plumber or an attorney, professional development is key to maintaining specialized relevance and effectiveness in our ever-changing landscape. It’s also customizable, because learning how to enhance skills can take many forms, including reading a book, attending a seminar, or taking a college course.

Often in ministry, the pastor is supposed to have all the answers: a Bible verse at the ready, an expertise in conflict management, and the strategic vision to accomplish anything. No longer are pastors, teachers, administrators, or lay leaders seen as the unquestioned “go to” experts they once were. Pastors are scrutinized for relevancy, professional currency, and effectiveness at every turn. It simply isn’t realistic to think that once a person earns a graduate degree, they know it all or that a person has no need for professional growth.

Professional development is learning that takes place after graduation from a formal academic institution. It is evidenced by continual professional growth until retirement and beyond. Regardless of institutional ranking or the significance of your diploma, it’s ill-advised to think that after receiving your degree you have learned everything there is to know about your area of study. Professional development provides opportunities for specialists to hone their craft throughout their lifetimes, and it fills the learning gap that the cessation of formal education leaves. Lifelong learning is key to maintaining specialized relevance and effectiveness in our ever-changing landscape.7

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1 SINTEF, “Big Data, for Better of Worse: 90% of World’s Data Generated Over Last Two Years,” ScienceDaily, May 22, 2013, /releases/2013/05/130522085217.htm.

2 David Russell Schilling, “Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to Be Every 12 Hours,” Industry Tap, April 19, 2013, /knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to -be-every-12-hours/3950.

3 Jeff Desjardins, “What Happens in an Internet Minute in 2016?” Visual Capitalist, April 25, 2016, http:// -minute-2016/.

4 Ellen G. White, Acts of the Apostles, 353,

5 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 48.

6 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, 353, 354,

7 For further information on this topic see www

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