What You Can’t Learn in a Classroom

I just received (and dutifully filled out) a survey from my seminary, Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, on how I evaluate my experience in their M.Div. program (now a good 25 years ago). I found my seminary experience a delight, but the survey got me thinking about the aspects of ministry you can’t learn in a classroom. All ministry leaders face challenges in relationships at church, and we can only learn how to deal with them when we’re in the midst of them, preferably with a thoughtful and experienced coach to give us some perspective.

I was blessed, in a way, because while I was in seminary the church where I was a member and did my field education faced a major conflict at a time between pastors. The clarity and calm of the church moderator was a remarkable testimony to me about the power of presence in leadership. I made some mistakes in that church conflict, including an ill-advised “confrontation” with one of the ringleaders. But we weathered the storm pretty well, and I learned a lot. Many years later I learned to ask the question “why now?” when an issue arises. The church had a perceived leadership vacuum with the departure of two beloved pastors. Yet it turned out there was a leader on the spot, whom people underestimated because of his quiet manner. He was well up to the challenge, and later became the long-term lay pastor of that congregation himself.

Leaders can learn a lot in the trenches of ministry, if they are open and curious. Yet leaders also get beat up and burnt out in the trenches and leave ministry and even the church disillusioned. This happens when we don’t understand how church systems work and don’t understand ourselves well enough. It takes a lifetime to understand the many factors in how people relate to each other. My own “bible” in this regard is Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation, a resource I highly recommend. But we can’t learn everything from a book. Workshops such as Leadership in Ministry are a way to continue our ongoing growth.

2 replies on “What You Can’t Learn in a Classroom

  • IGalindo

    One of my ocassional educational rants is about how much “pretend learning” we tend to do in formal schooling settings—including seminary. The reason for that is that some of the most important things we need to learn need to be learned at the time it needs to be learned (and not before) and in the context in which is needs to be learned (and not in a different one–like in a classroom). There is so much I don’t bother trying to teach seminarians precisely because they’re (1) not ready for the insight, and (2) they need to learn it in and from their congregation and not from me in the seminary.

    And, to echo your sentiment, I recently told our Dean that I found it ironic that the most effective teaching I do is not in the seminary context, but at the Leadership in Ministry workshops. That’s because, aside from having a sound learning model, it involves timely learning from the context in which the participants are actually practicing ministry.


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