Do you ever think about what it would be like to go back and relive a portion of your younger days? Everybody’s experience growing up is different, of course. But many who have crested the hill of the decades and now find themselves gaining speed on the downward slope might find it appealing to go back to a time in life when there was a little less responsibility, a time when they could move a little more nimbly, a time when they could eat whatever was set before them without having to dread the numbers on the scale or the results of a cholesterol test. Some folks have asked me lately if I feel like I’m reliving my younger days. You see, when a new professor is getting started at the seminary, they have him audit the courses he might teach down the road. So, I’m a student again, at least for a little bit. After a long time standing in front of classrooms, the new perspective is different, but it’s enjoyable.
It’s not an entirely new perspective for me. Through the Grow in Grace program, God has richly blessed parish pastors with opportunities to temporarily be students again, something I was able to do for many years. When they come back to the seminary classroom, whether that classroom is on campus, online, or at a satellite location, pastors who have been the teachers of Bible studies, new member classes, and the catechism get to see things from a student’s perspective again.
But that’s not the only change in perspective that’s taken place in them.
Our pastors come back to the classroom with the changed perspective that comes from experience. They come back having known the undeserved joy of stepping into a pulpit every Sunday. They come back as men who’ve counseled the crushed and brought comfort to the grieving. They’ve smelled the Easter lilies at a sunrise service and have proclaimed “He is risen!” They come back, grateful to God because he has allowed them to be pastors even though experience has now made them very aware of their shortcomings. They have the God-blessed confidence that comes from experience and the God-blessed humility that also comes from experience. They come back knowing how much they don’t know, and that makes them highly motivated.
Adult learning pioneer Malcolm Knowles referred to this as the student’s “readiness to learn.” For example, I never cared all that much about the mechanical inner workings of my car’s passenger side window. After all, it worked. I had no need to care. But when my car window got stuck open in February in Wisconsin, you can bet that I was instantly on YouTube, trying to figure out how to fix it. I was suddenly “ready to learn” because a real-life situation had shown me the need.
Pastors approach continuing education with the same readiness to learn. Maybe they’ve been through or are currently in the middle of a tricky counseling situation. Maybe they see young people disconnecting more and more from faith and the church. Maybe they recognize there’s a need to refresh their sermon writing skills or to learn new teaching skills. Or maybe their interest is elevated simply because they’ve learned how much more there is to learn when it comes to church history or Biblical languages or systematic theology. They’ve seen the need in a real-life situation and, therefore, they are motivated to learn.
One of the challenges of training future pastors is that seminary students don’t have the benefit of “readiness to learn”—if we’re going by Knowles’ definition. Don’t misunderstand. They are serious about their studies and are eager to learn the skills necessary for the parish ministry. But what they haven’t yet experienced, through no fault of their own, is the need, a gap in their knowledge, brought to light in a real-life situation, which stirs the urgency, the immediacy, the readiness to learn. The parish pastor is ready to learn and then can go home and immediately apply what he’s learned to his ministry. That context makes continuing education a rich blessing both for him and his people.
You might think that finding a gap in your knowledge is a bad thing. We all like to know how to handle a situation when it arises or how to answer a question when asked. We want to appear competent in every way. Pastors want that, too. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, realizing how much he doesn’t know is one of the most valuable lessons for a pastor to learn.
So, fellow pastors, if you’re aware of your ignorance, congratulations! Thank God for that realization—it is true wisdom. And please know that there’s a seat for you in continuing education at the seminary. You will bring with you a perspective that you couldn’t have had the first time you were here. And you will gain additional perspective by learning together with your brothers in the parish ministry.
Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact [they were] doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Today, continuing education is a chance for brothers who have experienced the rigors of life in the parish to sit side by side and “build each other up” for their important work. This collaboration still exists in online courses as well! When a pastor hears about the experiences of his brothers, he can be encouraged by what the Lord of the Church is doing around the world. And he can be built up through what his brothers bring to class discussion. One adds an insight he hadn’t thought of. Another applies a point in a way that hadn’t occurred to him. The collaboration of continuing education offers him a broader perspective while also benefiting his work at home.
Why take a continuing education course from Grow in Grace when a pastor has access to a wealth of materials on his office bookshelves and online for free? Self-directed learning is indeed vital and to be highly commended. Some of us, though, need a more intentional commitment. We benefit from the structure and discipline of a formal learning situation. With so many demands on the schedule and so many potential distractions lurking, a course with a planned-out agenda and defined learning targets is just what many of us require. Don’t forget one additional perspective that is brought to a seminary classroom—that of the professor who knows the material well and has spent many hours preparing to share it. While the prospect of going back to relive your younger years might be fun to consider, most of us would probably prefer to hold on to the wisdom and perspective that God has given us over the years. With continuing education, a pastor gets the best of both worlds. He gets to look at the Holy Scriptures both as bright-eyed student and with eyes informed by the years. That is a blessed perspective.
Professor Paul Waldschmidt was installed in February 2022 to teach education and Old Testament classes.