I don’t recall where I first heard the phrase. Perhaps it was Father Richard Rohr in Breathing Under Water. He wrote: “All mature spirituality, in one sense or another, is about letting go and unlearning.”
Several years ago, the ministerial staff of the church I served as pastor realized we needed to engage in a season of “unlearning.” We were finding ourselves victims of what we knew, and that kept us from learning what we needed to know. We found much of what we had learned previously as students and on the job no longer was relevant to our changing circumstances. Thus, we used “unlearning” often and made it a focus of our leadership conversations and performance reviews.
The more I engage with churches across the wide spectrum of the American church landscape, the more convinced I am we need to pay as much attention to our unlearning as to our learning. To that end, here are seven suggestions for your “learning curriculum” in the new year.
Unlearn the curse of over-functioning. Too often clergy buy into the notion that we must do any and everything asked of us or suggested to us. We also are seduced by the acclaim and limelight that comes when we are seen as the primary actor on stage. Our over-functioning always means someone else is under-functioning, and that is bad news on multiple levels.
Learn the gift of collaborative leadership. Giving up control to enable others to participate and have meaningful input is good for them, the group and you. It’s biblical, savvy and wise. The adage is especially true in congregational life: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Unlearn self-absorption. Too much of our ministry is birthed in unresolved and unrecognized personal agendas. Our insecurities, ego needs and unaddressed trauma will inevitably skew our perspectives, sermons, interactions and relationships.
Learn to do your own fearless moral inventory. Seek help from a spiritual director, therapist or leadership coach to unpack what is within you and then claim the unique gift you are that God intended you to be.
Unlearn technical solutions. Most of what needs to happen in congregational life will not be remedied by easy or quick fixes. Changing a worship time, putting out a better sign, shifting the order of worship or painting the youth suite may make you feel like you’ve done something, but reality tells us something very different.
Learn adaptive solutions and thinking. The issues are much larger and more complex than any of us fully appreciate. As you embrace that fact, bring others with you on a journey into long-haul adaptation rather than tempting them to think of short-term solutions. As Buddy Shurden taught us: “Nothing that matters is automatic.”
Unlearn wishful thinking. Too often I hear versions of “if only” or “one of these days” thinking in churches of every stripe and flavor. There is often an unspoken hope that everyone who has left will return and all who ignore us will suddenly come to their senses and see just how right and attractive we are. It’s not going to happen, and simply wishing it were so will keep you from something much more important.
“Simply wishing it were so will keep you from something much more important.”
Learn realistic hope. Realism about our challenging context can lead to despair, or it can lead to motivation and energy. Biblical history and the church’s story bear witness to how God works in the face of long odds and unlikely scenarios. An entire industry is emerging to help clergy and churches reengage creativity and entrepreneurial thinking. Join the movement.
Unlearn politics. The toxic impact of political ideology upon the American church is hard to overstate. Sifting our preaching, worship, teaching and discipleship through the filter of political correctness is a shortcut to conflict and irrelevance.
Re-learn Jesus. The Jesus of the New Testament stands in harsh judgment of our civil religion and Christian nationalism. He is our antidote to this scourge, so visit with Jesus, talk about Jesus, preach about Jesus, lift up Jesus, follow Jesus, prioritize Jesus.
Unlearn pious God-talk. Condescending, privileged, cavalier and overly familiar talk about God is such a disincentive to the “nones” and the “dones” in our culture. You will have an increasingly smaller audience if the best you can do is sound like you’ve never known real grief, pain, temptation or failure.
Learn honesty and authenticity. Without gloating about your failures, own them and use them as portals for conversations with others who struggle. Your hard-earned life lessons will connect you to those who seek and struggle in ways a thousand pious truisms never will.
Unlearn pride. It remains at the heart of our sinful nature and is our Achilles heel in ministry. Much of the above could be included under this topic. It is our humanity at work and will require our thoughtful attention as long as we live.
Learn the path of humility. Jesus was as direct about this as anything he ever said: “I came to serve, not to be served.”
Let the unlearning commence.
Let the learning begin.
The present crisis for church staff | Opinion by Mark Wingfield