Yesterday, I had the great honor to launch a new learning academy in our annual conference — something we have been talking about for a long time, but for a variety of reasons couldn’t get launched earlier. We are attempting a conference-wide, ongoing Leadership Learning Academy for clergy and laity that focuses in four broad areas: spiritual leadership development, congregational vitality, relational excellence, and cultural competency. As a flagship training, we are looking at Small Groups for Transformation — training trainers to teach effective small group process. This isn’t a formulaic “seven easy steps to small group ministry,” but a college level deep dive into lifelong learning, developmental theory, group dynamics, facilitation, and communication. The first class was a blast for me — I had a great time. It is small — seven students on the first go-round — and I haven’t received feedback from everyone, but at least three of the participants thought it was great. Not just enjoyable/popular great, but beneficial/valuable great (which is always a concern of mine — sometimes confusing popularity for value…). But even more telling than those who said “yes” to participate are those who have been asked but had to say “no”.
The form of the “nos” come in three varieties:
- This is really great and I want to participate but I am simply too busy.
- I am glad we are getting serious about learning, but this topic has no interest for me.
- I have better things to do with my time.
Each of these answers trigger a response in me, and please hear that I am receiving all three as legitimate and acceptable answers, but they raise issues and thoughts in my head. I share the thoughts through a series of questions and comments.
1) What are the long-term implications for the church when key leadership becomes too busy to learn? Is learning a priority among our congregational leaders, or are we so swept up in our tasks and responsibilities that we have no capacity to be the disciple instead of the teacher? Has our commitment to Christian education made learning harder rather than easier? Are we learning “easy” stuff at the expense of being challenged to learn new, and often more demanding learning opportunities? Is our current penchant for quick-fix, simple (simplistic?), anyone-can-do-it programs, resources and campaigns hurting our ability to create, innovate and adapt key principles for more effective results?
The most frequent response I’ve been getting to this small group training is “thank God!” Many people feel that the conference has not offered depth and quality in many of our training endeavors. A three-hour Saturday morning workshop offers very little “meat” — and it is certainly a superficial swipe at any lasting change. Also, training is often topical — “about” something rather than “to do” something. The most common complaint received with our conference learning options has been that in the past they haven’t equipped attendees to do anything with what they learn. It is no wonder many people feel they are too busy to learn. If learning options are informational, but not formational, they hold limited value. And this is key: we love information. We think if we deliver good information we are making an impact. Training days with Gil Rendle and Marie Fortune (both three or four years ago) are regularly lifted up. In both cases, it was clear that the presenters knew a lot about their topic, they were entertaining, they spoke to very specific, widely experienced problems in the church — but they stopped there, at the diagnosis and illustration phases. Evaluations of both events were generally positive — they were fun, enjoyable, and interesting — but specifically many people were disappointed because they offered no tangible actions to take. They were “via negativa” events — “don’t do things that don’t work”, rather than “do things that do work.” Many were enthralled that Rendle and Fortune could so easily describe what they experienced (“these people UNDERSTAND me and what I am going through — which is a wonderful way to build positive regard), but naming what is wrong or broken or dysfunctional is a far cry from providing people with creative and adaptive resources and knowledge that allows one to do something about the problem or situation. So much of what passes for “learning” in the church is mere cognitive exercise. The gap between “knowing” and “doing” is too rarely bridged.
2) What does it signify when lay and clergy spiritual leaders are not interested in small groups? What fundamental understanding of human systems, group dynamics, transformative learning, spiritual development, and effective communication is NOT critical to all we do? How can we avoid improving our interpersonal skills when our primary role is spiritual leadership?
Statistically speaking, formative/transformative experiences occur much more frequently in diads, triads or small groups (primarily in the range of 5 to 7 members). More than worship, more than fellowship, more than committee work, more than program or events, small group interactions have a wealth of research to support that there is no better way to impact personal development than through well-designed, clearly focused small group engagement. If, for example, some organization defined its mission as, say, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the absolute best FORM to produce such FUNCTION would be small groups. Now, of course, such an organization would have to take very seriously the costs and demands of such a noble pursuit — holding its members to the absolute highest standards possible (so, any institution bold enough to do such a thing would have made the critical and difficult decision to focus on quality rather than quantity…) — and the resources, visionary leadership, and key decision makers would, of necessity, align their efforts in every way to fulfilling said mission. Churches would become discipling centers that measure their effectiveness by impact on the community and world, not their success by number of members. To do this effectively — to equip, educate, train, empower, support, enable, and engage all interested parties in the process — would require the formation of smaller cadres of people who would set goals and objectives and hold one another accountable to growth and performance. Only those who do not take seriously individual and collective discipleship as a means to the end of positive and lasting cultural transformation might say, “I’m not interested.”
3) What better things do we have to do than learn in order to teach? To develop in order to lead? To improve in order to empower? To engage in order to equip? What are we giving our time to that is worth more than learning? If we are not actively pursuing personal development and spiritual growth, what are we modeling for those we seek to teach? If we are not nurturing the graces of curiosity, wonder, innovation, creativity, exploration and pilgrimage, aren’t we setting a standard of mediocrity as the standard for contemporary Christian faith?
I confess my bias. I love to learn. I love to read. I love to play with ideas. I love to teach. I love the dynamic engagement when people disagree. Each time I encounter someone who holds a different view of the world than I do, they serve as a whetstone helping me sharpen what I think and believe and why. And I absolutely love it when the scales fall from my eyes and something I once “knew as true” is replaced by something much more wise and redemptive. I am a firm believer in the adage that the day you stop learning is the day you die. And I believe we owe it to one another to raise the bar, lift the expectations, and expect the best rather than pandering to the lowest common denominator. I am now part of a conference that only demands 1 Continuing Education Credit (CEU) for clergy — and they can earn it by reading a book of their own choosing. What utter contempt for learning! It implies that we all know more than enough and that there is nothing of value left to learn. It is a systemic verdict that there are indeed more important things to do than learn — like, say, anything…
I would love to see The United Methodist Church be a bastion of personal growth and development, not just encouraging, but demanding that every single active participant in the life of the church be engaged in regular, intentional, ongoing, and challenging spiritual formation and learning. Maybe, one day, we’ll get around to it — when we’re not too busy.