Pastoral Continuing Education: Fast Food or Planned meal?

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A four-day conference "Fragile Earth, Island Home" promises to help clergy understand "preaching connections for theology and science"; a university extension program announces its top billing, "From Civilization to Planetization: The Gospel of John"; a Resource Center for Christian Spiritual Disciplines offers a two-day seminar entitled "Sexual Spirituality: An Approach to Integration." And the list goes on.

There is no lack of opportunity for continuing education for pastors today. Seminaries, colleges, retreat centers, institutes, conferences all offer a great wealth of professional study that, strangely enough, has the potential of becoming a professional hazard.

Pastors who respond impulsively and without planning and forethought to the array of continuing education opportunities that cross their desks are like a family that eats too many meals at fast-food restaurants. They are not going to starve. Once in a while they will even receive a real burst of energy. After all, some fast food is good food.

The point is that, like fast food, many of these continuing education opportunities are good but could be better, especially if haphazard seminar-hopping has become the pattern for one's engaging in continuing education.

Over the short term fast foods may keep one on the go, but over the long term they lack variety, sustenance, and even interest. The same is true of ill-chosen education events. Clergy may fall into the trap of selecting on the basis of impulse as at the fast-food place where the staff seems to expect you to order as you walk in the door, before you've even located the menu! Over the long period of ministry, the fast-food mind-set can deprive pastors of the broad, solid basis and depth of learning required to do effective ministry today. The randomly selected growth opportunity may delight and please one occasionally and for a brief time, but finally, real education is like good nutrition: there is no substitute for planning.  What is the best way to plan your meal?

1. Separate interests from needs. Just as certain foods may appeal to your palate without contributing to your health, so the seminar that attracts your fancy may not enhance your ministry. To select from this vast menu the meal that will provide the nutrition you need, you must take a look at yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses as an evangelist, preacher, counselor, visitor in the home, teacher of children and youth, administrator in the parish, leader in the home, and so forth?

2. Separate professional competencies from weaknesses. Select at least one strong area for further development and one problem area you want to strengthen. For the former choose a seminar that will challenge you to an even higher level of competency profession ally or personally. For the latter select a seminar that will help you remedy a weakness. Don't choose all seminars from either category. Choose a balanced meal.

3. Separate immediate needs from long-range goals. Weight control may necessitate an immediate reduction of high calorie foods. The strategy is to set priorities. So also in planning a continuing education program. The needs that you have may be many and varied, but you cannot deal with all of them immediately. You should identify those areas of concern that need attention now.