Pastor and author Karl Vaters said on a recent podcast I listened to: “The pastor has to be a learning pastor…” (Productive Pastor, Episode 96, 36:5-37:12)
I don’t know about you, but my anxiety goes up. More learning?! Between sermon prep, denominational demands, leading a staff, preparing Bible Studies, and attempting to keep up with my kids and wife at home, my brain literally cannot take in any more information.
While I was trying to do some research for this article, everything I saw was about more education, reading more books, and improving your Biblical languages. Right now, those things are just not in the cards for me- or maybe ever again. I am not the fastest book reader- so I’ll never be that “smart pastor” that reads 50 books a year or a book a week or anything like that.
Learning doesn’t have to be a stresser. I am not suggesting you read more books or go back to school, though that could be certainly included! Listen to a podcast; read a magazine or a blog post; watch a Youtube video; watch a documentary or a currently running sitcom; talk or work with someone in your community or context. Do not limit learning to schools, books, and your normal avenues.
You can do many of these things in your normal routines during the commute, over lunch, or in the regular rhythms of life. The following list is different types of things I believe we should be learning as pastors- all pastors, bi-vocational, part-time, or full-time; good readers, bad readers; highly educated or just high school diploma. Hopefully this list will help get your mind going and learning in some areas you maybe hadn’t thought of before.
1. Learn From Your Own Faith Tradition
You belong to some kind of “tribe”: Reformed, Wesleyan, Catholic, Baptist, Holiness Movement. These are just a few examples, but whether you belong to a denomination or some broader faith tradition, I am going to bet that your “tribe” is putting out some kind of resources. Get a hold of these.
You’ve likely had some training, been to seminary, or read the famous authors’ books or sermons. I don’t say you should keep up with your own tradition because you don’t know it but because it is continually good to refresh yourself on the ideas, beliefs, positions, and teachings of your “tribe.” I don’t spend the majority of my time here, but we need to be reminded of who we are as I suggest below some of the other kinds of learning.
2. Learn from Christian Traditions Different From You
I think that this is a really important one. Why? I believe that other Christian faith traditions have a lot to offer, and it often gets neglected and left of reading lists. When I go to denominational retreats or when I was at seminary, many of fellow pastors read the same authors and types of books. When I ask an opinion on a matter- often times there can be a repetition of thought because we all read and study the same things.
By reading a variety of Christian traditions you are going to be able to pull the best things out of those traditions. I am not suggesting you suddenly believe the same as a Catholic or a Disciple of Christ, but can they not teach us something about proper reverence towards the Lord’s Supper? Can a Wesleyan or a Reformed believer learn something about the holiness of God from the other tradition? Absolutely- either by adding some new wrinkle that you had never considered or even to strengthen your own position wherever you disagree.
I don’t believe any one tradition, one tribe, one author can fully encapsulate in a book or teaching who God is. As J.I. Packer wrote, “A God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image, and therefore an imaginary God, not the God of the Bible at all” (J.I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God).
Learn from the work in your brothers and sisters in Christ! They have something to offer, too, and shouldn’t be cast aside because they have the wrong label.
3. Learn Something From a Nonbeliever
Atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Secularism. It is a brief listing of different beliefs you will run into on a regular basis. What does the Hindu say of creation or how things came to be? What does the Muslim believe about who Moses was? Why do Buddhists meditate? Are there insights into how these individuals, religions, or groups of people see the world that could either help me as a pastor be a better Christian, leader, or even evangelist?
Nonbelievers have a lot to teach us- even if we don’t agree with every position. Paul said that he became different things to different people in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Why? “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:23). We cannot speak to an atheist to tell them of the Gospel if we do not understand even a little bit of their own position.
We should not fake it; we should not pretend; nor should we become these things and abandon our faith! We should be able to understand them enough to have an intelligible conversation that could lead to positively sharing the Gospel.
The example I use with my church all the time is basektball. I am not the greatest player, by far. I just enjoy and have been playing on playgrounds and gyms since around 5th grade (in my 30s now). Basketball has it’s own language; it’s own traditions; its own culture- which in my experience transcends ethnic groups, races, and languages.
One of the things my church does in its currently is have an open gym time at our church where few from the church play (including me), but many different people from the community come and play, usually between 17-25 years old.
Because I speak the “language of basketball” with all of its trash talk, cursing, acting tough, etc- it is much easier for me to speak into that group of people in that context than just standing on a corner trying to tell them to love Jesus. It does not mean that I do those things (though I am no stranger to a little friendly trash talk), it makes everyone feel comfortable that on the court we all speak the same language despite me being older. It has led to some cool conversations off the court.
One of the other ways that I find regularly reading things that are even anti-Christian is that I like to see how others perceive me. I regularly listen to an Atheist podcast whose soul mission is to talk faith and politics- which usually means a lot of Christian bashing. The people in your pews may not see your church this way, but it is possible that through belief or through hurt, people in your community may see your church negatively.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know some of our faults, acknowledge them, and attempt to grow from them? How can we learn where those faults are?
4. Learn Something With Your Hands
A lot of pastors spend time reading, praying, teaching, speaking, and visiting people. It doesn’t leave a lot of physical activity in your life. Give your mind a breather and try something physical.
I’ve served in fairly rural settings. Education, degrees, and reading books (my natural inclinations) aren’t always as highly valued in these regions as others. Hunting, fishing, and working with your hands is highly valued! By learning how to do something with your hands, you can open yourself up to new conversations with people in town who share the skill, members of your own congregation who value fixing cars, and in one case it even led to a husband being more involved in the church!
I was able to have really cool conversations with farmers, welders, mechanics, carpenters, and other skilled laborers at my last church in Iowa. I also found a passion for composting. How? I admitted to someone with those skills that I didn’t know how to do it and I wanted to learn.
“Would you come to my house and teach me?” Pastors, if you are having trouble reaching that one guy for your book study, wouldn’t you love to spend 2-3 hours talking with him? You can really reach that one guy in your church that is good with cars but refuses your Bible study by spending 3 hours under your car and talking (i.e. discipleship). You will also value him and his contributions at the same time. Isn’t that what it’s all about?
I’m not saying you need to be a gearhead, be able to build a house, etc. I wish I knew how to fix cars because I would love to be able to share that gift with other people in the community who can’t afford a good mechanic for basic repairs. I wish I knew how to hang drywall who I could help a parishioner finish that remodel before the baby gets here. I wish I could hunt so I can give free quality meat to families that are struggling to buy groceries.
Your church and community have a lot of needs- not all of them can be met by a pastor. What does your community value in terms of manual labor? Hunting? Farming? Cars? Building? It is amazing the discipleship opportunities or chances to spread the Gospel that can come from learning more about using our hands. I’m excited to learn how to use a crossbow this summer from a guy in our church!
5. Learn Something that Has Nothing to do with Religion
It is easy to spend all of our time reading books about church: theology, church growth, discipleship, trends, conferences- there is always something to listen to or read! My “to-read” pile never seems to shrink. My advice: mix in something that you are passionate about or something you wish you knew better.
Sometimes on my drive home from church, I’ll listen to an NBA podcast. I love basketball, as I’ve said. I also love history- so I’ll watch a documentary one night on the American Revolution. What is a fun hobby? What do you just enjoy knowing more about?
The number one benefit I have found from this is that my sermons became more interesting. I have more resources to draw on, more illustrations to draw, new vocabulary to explain a complex topic, and honestly I have found more people engaged in what I am saying. If you could use some help becoming more interesting or having better sermons, could I suggest you broaden what you learning? Find a new podcast, movie, blog, or book! One of my favorites is the Art of Maniless– which I have used in several memorable sermons last year!
6. Learn Something About Yourself
I left this one as last on purpose- not because it is the least important but because hopefully it will stay in your mind longer after you finish reading. You could be a great pastor- but if you are a bad parent or a bad spouse, if you lose your temper quickly on your staff, if you don’t know how your mind ticks, and if you don’t know your natural inclinations are you will not be nearly as effective.
God is in control, and I realize that He can do anything with nothing. But why not put yourself in a better position to succeed? We recently hired a new youth pastor at my church. It my first hire as a Lead Pastor, and I wanted it to be a good fit. The most important criteria I had: I needed an extrovert that was good relationally with people (especially teens).
Why? I am an introvert (well, severely introverted). I do not want more of me around. I know what I can do as an introvert and what is more difficult. I’m not a good greeter; visiting people in their homes or inviting them to mine isn’t a forte. I need to be around people who push me to do those things by their presence and those who will fill in the gaps of our church’s ministry that I can’t possible fill.
I’ll end by saying again: I am not asking you to read more, abandon your beliefs, or go back to school. We can learn from these different sources by watching a tv show, listening to a podcast, reading a blog or a book, being in nature, or interacting with others. The danger, in my opinion, is that we get too hyper focused, too pigeonholed, in one area (i.e. our faith and “tribe” as pastors), and we forget how to meaningfully talk to and lead others who are drastically different than us:
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” -1 Corinthians 9:19-23