The Unintentional Specialist

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Imagine you have a family doctor. From the whole array of topics they might engage to continue developing their abilities, they’ve always found the specific area of neurology most interesting. Quite frankly, it’s also what they’re best at. The medical conferences they go to are always related to neurology, their bookshelf is lined with neurology texts, they subscribe to a regular newsletter to keep up to date with the newest trends in neurology, and so on. And so when you as their patient come in with a neurology-related question, you can see how their eyes light up.

It doesn’t mean that the physician lacks competence or interest in the other areas of medicine. Their medical training was broad, and they did, after all, sign up to be a general practitioner. But you as a patient might start to notice that the further they get into their medical career (and away from their original medical training), the rustier they seem to be getting in these other areas. They just don’t seem quite as up-to-date or sharp when you start having questions about cancer, cardiac health, or what you think might be a herniated disc.

While you admired them before for their vast learning and deep knowledge about neurology, those books on their shelf start giving you reason to pause rather than celebrate. You start wishing it was a bit more holistic. You wonder if your doctor has fallen into the trap of developing their lifelong learning more around themselves and their own interests than around those under their care.

It’s a trap that pastors can fall into as well. Most often, pastors serve congregations more like general practitioners than as specialists. It’s because our calling is not just defined by what we do but by who we serve. The learning we do is not really about us; it is an avenue by which God equips us to deepen and strengthen his church. The church, which Paul so eloquently describes as a living, growing, diverse, and, at times, complicated body.

So how do we pastor a whole body? We recognize the unique and important role that a generalist plays, not just in how we serve, but, just as importantly, in how we learn. 

 

Intentionally Broad Learning 

Think about the past few years and how you’ve engaged in ongoing learning. Books you’ve read, conferences you’ve attended, articles you read, etc. Is there a theme? Is it all related to (or absent of) leadership development? Preaching? Worship? Missional living? Pastoral care? Theology? Church renewal? Justice? Have you been learning like an unintentional specialist?

And how did you choose which areas on which to focus your learning? Were they all areas that you have greatest interest? Areas that you are gifted in and want to continue to grow? Areas that you knew you needed to develop? Needs of your local congregation that you would learn ahead in order to lead them effectively in it?

As someone concerned about the whole body, you want to learn about things you’re interested in...AND things you’re not interested in. Because, even if you don’t have much energy for supporting healthy and effective liturgical practices in worship, your knowledge of it can help someone live into it more deeply as their heart-song from God.

Or perhaps you’re not an extrovert that feels called to march over to the neighbourhood park and strike up conversations, but being aware of various missional opportunities and strategies can be the way you encourage someone else to do so. Or perhaps you have little or no experience with the significant impact that having a disability (or a child with a disability) can have on one’s participation in church, but learning about it gives you new eyes to see how someone with a disability may use their gifts more fully in you church community.

There will always be areas that you are drawn to, and you do well to develop them. And I’m not saying pastors should become specialists in everything. I’m talking about a pattern of lifelong learning that intentionally reflects the broadness of our calling. Where we as pastors can be competent enough (sometimes just enough) to help others as they pursue the calling God has put on their lives.

 

Using Five Callings

Here’s one suggestion, that comes from ministry experience. The Five Callings that we have collectively supported in the Christian Reformed Church can give some good balance. They are: Faith Formation, Servant Leadership, Global Mission, Gospel Proclamation & Worship, Mercy & Justice.

When I was in active congregational ministry, I started using them and found them to be great conversation partners for broad growth. I saw, for example, how I had devoted much of my ongoing learning to preaching and leadership development, but hardly anything to mercy & justice. It prompted me to join with members of the congregation in serving regularly at a local ministry which was focused on supporting those who experience food and housing insecurity in Thunder Bay. I did it not just to serve, but to learn, grow, and deepen as a pastor. I was glad I did. I think it also had the unintended benefit of strengthening my preaching and leadership. Win-win!

If you want to reflect on how you’re doing as a generalist in your continuing education, consider letting these five act as a conversation partner for you too. You may find that one of them has been lacking in your ongoing learning, and just naming it can spark some imaginative space for considering how God is calling you to grow. Perhaps your council can speak into it as well. Where do they see the needs of the church and how you might better equip yourself to support the congregation?

If you’ve perused the Continuing Education for Pastors committee page (see below), you might have noticed that we also offer a sample Learning Plan under the "Fruitful Practices" header. The Learning Plan is designed to help pastors ponder these types of “generalist” questions. I’d encourage you to check it out.

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