Most pastors understand the importance of learning continually. There’s just so much you have to know to be an effective pastor, and the rapid pace of change in the modern world has only made that more difficult. So the pastors I’ve known all push themselves to keep learning and growing. Excellent.
The problem is with their approach.
With just a few exceptions, most of the pastors I know take a self-directed, independent approach to their continuing education. They stay sharp by reading books, listening to sermons, and preparing to teach others. They’re constantly learning, but mostly on their own.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with independent learning. Most of the greatest minds in history did the bulk of their learning on their own. I do the same.
Interestingly though, few pastors would advise the average Christian to do the bulk of their studying/learning alone. That’s why we encourage people to join small groups, Bible studies, Sunday school classes, and more. But as pastors, we seem to think that we’re above all that, skilled enough to do it on our own. Sure we’ll throw in the occasional pastors conference, but that’s about it.
And although there’s tremendous value to independent learning, there are some inherent dangers as well. Dangers which suggest that we should supplement our independent learning with some good, old-fashioned group learning. In other words, pastors need learning communities too.
John Henry Newman’s Advice on Learning
In his justly famous The Idea of University (1854), John Henry Newman expressed some key concerns about independent learning. Although he recognized the possibility that there might be people uniquely gifted for learning on their own, he feared that even people like this would be left at a distinct disadvantage:
“Few indeed there are who can dispense with the stimulus and support of instructors, or will do anything at all, if left to themselves. And fewer still (though such great minds are to be found), who will not, from such unassisted attempt, contract a self-reliance and a self-esteem, which are not only moral evils, but serious hindrances to the attainment of truth. And next to none, perhaps, or none, who will not be reminded from time to time of the disadvantage under which they lie, but their imperfect grounding, by the breaks, deficiencies, and irregularities of their knowledge, by the eccentricity of opinion and the confusion of principle which they exhibit. they will be too often ignorant of what every one knows and takes for granted, of that multitude of small truths which fall upon the mind like dust, impalpable and ever accumulating; they may be unable to converse, they may argue perversely, they may pride themselves on their worst paradoxes or their grossest truisms, they may be full of their own mode of viewing things, unwilling to be put out of their way, slow to enter into the minds of others.”
That’s a great thought worth reflecting on. And if we look more closely, we’ll see that he thinks there are six real problems with trying to learn on your own.
The 6 Dangers of Independent Learning
1. You lack stimulus.
Of course, there’s plenty of stimulus in the books and other materials the independent learner might engage. But there’s nothing like the kind of stimulus that comes from a learning community. Something happens when people get together to wrestle with difficult questions that is almost impossible to replicate on your own.
2. You lack support.
If suffering loves company, so does learning. And for many of the same reasons. Quality learning is hard, demanding, and exhausting. If you’re going to stick with it for the long haul, most of us need companions.
3. You become self-dependent.
Most independent learners think of this as a good thing. And there’s a sense in which it is. A lifelong learner needs to be internally motivated, able to push herself ever forward. But Newman rightly warns that this can also become “a self-reliance and a self-esteem, which are not only moral evils, but serious hindrances to the attainment of truth.” To the extent that independent learning leads to egocentric learning, it becomes a tragic failure.
4. You miss important material.
One of the biggest problems with independent learning is that you don’t yet know what you don’t know. You may be learning great stuff from a book, but you don’t know what the book isn’t telling you. And as much as I love books, they don’t respond well to questions. Without guidance, you can easily end up with a knowledge that is characterized by “breaks, deficiencies, and irregularities.” That’s true for all of us, of course, but the independent learner runs greater risks than most.
5. You become idiosyncratic.
The most helpful part of Newman’s comment was the warning about the idiosyncratic nature of independent learning. Without the guidance of an informed teacher and the alternate perspectives offered by other learners, independent learners easily lapse into an “eccentricity of opinion” where they go so far as to “pride themselves on their worst paradoxes and their grosses truisms.” And I think we see this in the blogosphere all the time: people pridefully certain of their opinions partly because they arrived at these unique conclusions all by themselves. Collaborative learning is no protection against pride, of course, but it can offer some defense against the eccentric isolation of the independent learner.
6. You might be less adept at engaging other ideas.
Newman’s final concern flows directly out of the last one. Once you’ve developed a pridefully eccentric opinion, you become less able to dialog with others. You’re so full of your own perspective that you’re “slow to enter into the minds of others.”
The Inadequacy of Independence
Once again, the key here is that there’s nothing wrong with independent learning. There are ways of mitigating each of these concerns, and one of my goals for all of my students is that they would become self-motivated, independent learners. That’s critical for every mature person, but even more so for those who seek to lead others toward maturity. So pastors especially should be independent learners.
But we need more.
We need precisely what we always recommend to others: a community of learners. We need people with whom we can dialog, other learners who can offer different perspectives, push back on our idiosyncrasies, and encourage us to keep learning. We need people who know more than we do to direct our learning, point us to new ideas, and help fill the gaps in our all-too-finite knowledge. We need to stop trying to do everything on our own.
And the occasional pastors’ conference isn’t enough. Conferences are great, but they’re not real communities of learning. We need something more sustained, more intentional.
I think that’s why many pastors end up in Dmin programs. They realize the inadequacy of learning entirely on their own, and they reach out for more. And if an academic program like that works for you, great. (Here’s one you should check out.) Others need something cheaper and less time intensive. If that’s you, then you need to get creative. Connect with other pastors in your church or town and create a learning community where you are. Set up something with your elders/deacons, but make sure that it’s not just another time for you to teach. Cover things together that will stretch you as a learner. Form a reading group with your neighbors. Find an online community that meets regularly to discuss things you need to learn about. Get creative.
Learning is too complicated to do entirely on your own. And pastoral ministry is too important and too difficult for us to fail at being good learners. So let’s work together.