Seminary: Just the Beginning
Many a young pastor leaves the seminary eager to pursue a life in ministry. Why, then, do so many face debilitating stress after just a few years of service, while others flee the profession before middle age? In a recent article in the New York Times,* Paul Vitello wrote, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.” The website www.pastorburnout.com notes that as many as 45% of pastors have experienced debilitating depression or burnout.
Teach Them to Keep on Learning
Seminaries have taken note of these statistics and responded. “From the perspective of the seminary, the new curriculum is designed with lifelong learning in mind,” says Rev. Kathy Smith, Director of Continuing Education for Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “Instead of trying to teach students everything they need to know, we try to teach them that they will have to be responsible for their learning from here on out. The new curriculum isn’t as much based on information as formation – teaching people how to keep on learning.”
The Lastest Practices
Smith compares the roles of pastor and family physician. “In addition to basic anatomy, you would want your medical doctor to know the latest practices and diagnoses and information,” she says. “You should want that of your pastor, too. There are new ways of ministering in the church and understanding the church,” says Smith.
Addressing Barriers to Lifelong Learning
Unfortunately, not all congregations support the learning needs of pastors. “Some churches don’t value their pastor’s need for continuing education,” says Smith. “They may ask the pastor to use vacation to pursue learning opportunities.” Smith notes that some denominations now require pastors to gain a certain number of continuing education credits each year to maintain their credentials, a system which encourages greater compliance across congregations. However, in the absence of denominational policies, a church’s encouragement and tangible support can go a long way. “Making time and funds available for a pastor’s learning is crucial,” Smith says.
Asking a pastor to share his or her learning is also important. “It is reasonable for churches to expect pastors to give a report,” says Smith. These accountability practices show the pastor that the congregation cares and is interested in his or her professional growth.
Smith advises pastors to inquire about a church’s commitment to lifelong learning prior to accepting a call. “I advise students to ask the question, ‘What will be provided in terms of time and funding for my ongoing learning?’” says Smith. For pastors already in the ministry, Smith recommends talking to church leaders or the pastor-church relations committee and asking them to advocate for funds – and time -- to be set aside for continuing education. “A pastor’s life is very busy, and there are a lot of demands,” says Smith. “Carving out time for learning takes intentionality on both the part of the pastor and the church.”
Smith advises pastors, with their church’s support, to schedule time for learning and reading. “Make learning a regular practice,” Smith says. “Schedule your learning time for the same day and time each week.” Learning with others is another way pastors can support themselves in keeping their learning commitments. “Don’t always go it alone,” says Smith. “Pastors who learn with other pastors or with members of their congregations experience that their learning grows exponentially.”
Finally, pastors can help churches understand the value of learning by communicating their discoveries with the congregation. “If you are a pastor who takes time for learning, share what you’ve learned,” says Smith. “Write about it in a church newsletter, include references in your sermon or create an adult education class based on what you’ve learned.”
Graduation: the End that Marks the Beginning
Seminary graduation, often viewed as the culmination of a pastor’s studies, is really just the beginning. “Ideally, all pastors realize that no matter what training they get, they can’t learn everything they need to know in seminary,” says Smith. “Being a lifelong learner is going to make you a better pastor. Having a character of humility and inquisitiveness will make you a better preacher, pastoral caregiver and teacher. Ministry is not just about teaching, providing pastoral care or preaching. It really is about learning along with the congregation.”