This month I complete 32 years of full-time ministry, and find myself more passionate than ever about God’s Church, kingdom causes and relationships within the body of Christ.  I would say I’m more energized than ever, but with the caveat it is not the boundless energy of youth.  As one would with a tight financial budget, I find myself managing my energy more carefully since there is not as much “discretionary”!

Why do I find myself at this place when, tragically, many of my contemporaries are no longer in ministry, or have settled for a life full of diversionary activities, or succumbed to cynicism?  I do not take the credit for this sustained passion, but I do find myself reflecting on its causes.  We’ve been exploring lately, in an effort to serve ministry leaders even more effectively in every season of ministry, the issue of “pastoral persistence.” That’s the positive way of expressing what is often oppositely and negatively expressed as failure to launch (never making it from one’s educational preparation to vocational ministry), pastoral burnout or attrition.

A partial list of my reasons for sustained passion includes a clear and compelling call, an amazing spouse, serving a congregation that was supportive and affirming, an accountability partner who helped prompt a life of wholeness in all dimensions, and the one I’d like to focus on now…life-long learning.

I graduated from Marion College (now IWU) at 21 years of age, and went to plant a church in Kentwood, MI under the leadership of Dick Wynn.  From the beginning Dick encouraged me to attend seminars, build my self-awareness through various assessments (personality style, spiritual gifts, motivated abilities, etc.) and continue my formal education.  Although I only served under his leadership two years before becoming the Lead Pastor of Kentwood Community Church, he remained a mentor for me from a distance and those initial years of ministry set the trajectory of learning for my life.

I became a Seminary student while also serving a growing church on a full-time basis.  I was fortunate to have a Seminary nearby (this was before the days when seminaries like ours were committed to “come to you” rather than having to leave your ministry context), and over the next decade completed an MA and then MDiv equivalency.  While the studies were not vitally connected to ministry, they did teach me to reflect theologically, balancing my strong pragmatic tendency.  I then went on to complete my DMin in a program built on one-week intensives, allowing me to work it into my ministry schedule.

My formal, Seminary education continued until I was 36 years of age, covering the first fifteen years of vocational ministry.  My focus was on continuing, not finishing, education…even though I was grateful when it was complete!  During those years I experienced the richness of Seminary and Ministry side-by-side.  Perhaps that’s one reason I’m so committed to what we do at Wesley Seminary, especially with the added value of a faculty and curriculum that highly value practical ministry and make the local church the “living laboratory.”  And why I’m grateful we’ve created the opportunity to “audit” classes for those who are focused on continuing education without a degree.

Beyond the formal dimension of life-long learning, my life has been enriched as I’ve sought and found mentors – some of whom met with me personally, some of whom impacted my life from afar as I read their books or heard them speak.  At most times in my ministry I’ve had more than one mentor – some of us need more help than others!  Multiple mentors, each with unique strengths and experiences, contributed to specific dimensions of my personal and professional growth.   I’ve also had the benefit of “iron sharpens iron” peer relationships, such as those I now enjoy as I work with colleagues who have given their lives to understanding and communicating various dimensions of ministry fruitfulness.

I’ve found that motivation for life-long learning is strengthened and deepened as I identify “learning links.”  For instance, if my learning is linked to my primary spiritual gifts (leadership and communication) then I energized as leaders such as John Maxwell and Bill Hybels speak into my life.  Learning linked to my passions (multiethnic ministry and church planting) motivate me to learn from Mark DeYmaz and Phil Stevenson.  Links to my interests (John Wesley’s ministry and theology, serving the world) deepen the impact of thinkers such as Steve Harper and Timothy Tennent.  The stronger the link, the more sustainable the learning!

So I invite you to reflect on these questions:

What and who has contributed to your continuing education, your life-long learning?

What are your “learning links” – your gifts, passions, interests and experiences that provide sustained motivation for growth?