Learning for life

I AM currently studying at Australian Catholic University, where I find myself as the only non-school teacher in a room of teachers and the only non-Catholic in a room of Catholics.13_tree,-hearts,-hands

It’s a wonderful experience to engage in a new field of study outside of your area of expertise and to be opened up to new insights and ways of doing things. One of the things I most admire about my fellow students is their commitment to their own professional development and their desire to continue to be formed as faithful, well-resourced teachers and leaders.

One of the key principles in contemporary understandings of school renewal is a belief that students benefit when teachers pay attention to their own learning and professional practice in the company of other teachers. This belief is borne out by research that ongoing, peer based professional development and learning is a key contributor to the improvement of student learning.

One of the gifts of this time spent in the classroom with primary and high school teachers has been a renewal of my own vocation to encourage ministers within this Synod to take their life-long learning seriously, not just for their own sake but for the sake of their congregations, faith communities, agencies and schools.

So imagine my excitement when I recently came across research from the United States that showed there is a direct correlation between healthy communities of faith and clergy who participate in peer groups that are facilitated and engage in a shared learning project (So much better: How thousands of pastors help each other thrive Penny Long Marler et al).

Ministers who reflect and learn in a peer group are more likely to lead participatory congregations, with more shared leadership across the whole congregation, with a diverse group of people taking on leadership roles and a regular rotating of leadership roles. It is thought that, as ministers learn to share leadership within a group of colleagues, they are also equipped to help congregations and faith communities become more participatory.

Another sign of a healthy community of faith related to ministers being members of peer learning groups is a greater commitment by the whole faith community to engaging the community. This includes reaching out in acts of justice and solidarity as well as sharing the gospel.

Communities of faith led by ministers who engage in peer learning also experienced growth, both in their own sense of a growing faith, as well as numerical growth. They were also more engaged in ministry with young people.

While continuing education for clergy and other ministry agents is not a magic bullet, it is a key to developing and maintaining healthy, resilient communities of faith. In the coming year the way the continuing education program is offered will reflect what has been learnt from this research.

If your community of faith has a ministry agent, one of the things you can do, for the sake of the health of the whole community is to take an interest in the ongoing learning your minister is doing.

Create structures that expect them be engaged in life-long learning. Ask them about their plans, expect them to share their learnings, engage them in conversation about what they are doing in their continuing education and invite them to reflect on how their continuing education is influencing their practice ministry.

Those of us who participate in the life of our presbyteries, agencies and other councils of the church should be supportive of ongoing learning amongst our presbytery ministers and leaders. It seems likely that ongoing learning by presbytery and agency leaders could have a similar effect in the life of our presbyteries and agencies.

But don’t stop with thinking about how a faith community might encourage its ministry leader to engage in life-long learning. Extend this conversation to thinking about how life-long learning for all members of the congregation might form a community of participation, engagement, growth and outreach.

What learning might church council need to fulfil their role well? What do members of the congregation need to learn to share their faith and engage in justice and peace-making? How might life-long learning for all God’s people form and strengthen the whole community as people of faith? What do you need to learn to support you faith and discipleship?

Sharon Hollis

Continuing Education Coordinator

Centre for Theology and Ministry

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