Thursday, February 24, 2011

Continuing Education for Ministers

If you have any professional license and practice some skill in the United States generally the board that provided your certification requires some form of continuing education. This is particularly true for those who work in the medical field. From physicians all the way down the totem pole there is a general requirement for at least 24 hours of continuing education in the course of a two-year period. This is a way for the varying boards that provide licensure to help keep these people at least remotely proficient in how they practice.

I am for this sort of activity because it sharpens the mind and usually provokes the mind to focus a bit so that certain skills will improve. It also keeps you aware of the various changes that are taking place in the field. However, since most ministers do not have someone holding their feet to the fire for continuing education, if it takes place at all, it is because of self-initiative and motivation.

If a man is not careful, after he has been in the ministry for ten years or so, the pounding his soul and mind takes through the normal avenues of ministry creates a very stale and often pessimistic view toward the church. Add to that various other hazards of ministry, church life, and denominational politics that he has to endure along the way and continuing education becomes an afterthought if it even merits that much attention.

I can remember the first John Maxwell seminar that I attended back in 1994. He made a very profound statement about putting yourself on a personal growth plan. I remember the three things that he said that personal growth would cost: time, money, and discipline. At the time, Maxwell was just beginning to step into the leadership genre that would move into the church world. Some of his influence has been very good while some other areas have obviously hurt the church. Particularly in areas where doctrine and lifestyle were directly sacrificed on the altar of convenience for church growth at any cost. But if there was anything that Maxwell said that stuck with me, it was the fact that any personal growth that took place in my life was going to be my responsibility.

Recently I have been reading Decision Points by George W. Bush. As I was reading one of his anecdotes about one of his history professors at Yale, I was bowled over by the statement that this professor made. He said, “My business is history!” Former President Bush said that this professor could make historical characters so real it was almost as if they were walking the aisles of the classroom and they were teaching instead of this professor. I thought to myself as I read, “My business is going to be the Bible!” I am going to give myself to it in such a way that when I preach or teach, I want people not only hear the Word but to encounter the Word. There is a price tag on being able to do that! That is where continuing education will have to take place.

Here are the challenges that a preacher faces with our generation:

• A very low-level biblical knowledge of any kind has become the norm for even regular church-goers.
• A highly distracted society because of the various forms of electronic media that is overwhelming our minds.
• Shortened attention spans because of the effect of television and highly appealing mental and visual stimulation that takes place.
• A mostly unconcerned population concerning what takes place after they die.
• A lack of hunger for spiritual things or instruction.
• A mentality that is appalled at a sermon that lasts for an hour but thinks nothing of watching a sporting event that may last 2 ½ to 3 hours or a movie that lasts for 90 to 120 minutes.
• A population that rarely reads anything but web-pages and text messages (txtn mkng us dummer n dummer 2day). Thought I would throw that text message in for you so you could see!
• An attitude that scoffs at anything that even half-way promotes an absolute view of anything. Which is what the Bible does.
So how does a man who has the very words of life combat all of this?

First, he has to be a man who is given to prayer and the care of his soul. Continuing education has to start with a minister forcing himself into a place of prayer. I do not speak of the kind of prayer that we do when we are in our cars traveling to various pastoral appointments and so forth but the kind of prayer that puts the world on hold until the soul can be emptied of the world and filled with the things of God.

How many men are willing to put themselves on a personal growth plan for prayer? We often relegate prayer, especially in Pentecostal circles, to being spontaneous, vehement, and passionate. Spontaneous prayer holds an important place but what if our praying was more prepared and systematic than the disorganized way that it often is. What if for six months you developed a list of specific people and specific needs that you desired for God to take care of? I am mostly told that prayer doesn’t work as if pragmatism is the whole reason that we pray anyway. My standard response to people who say that prayer doesn’t work is that the only prayer that does not work is that which is never prayed. The common reason that prayer does not work is because we are not given to consistent and organized prayer. America is mostly prayerless until some national disaster strikes and then people pray for a couple of months after that and then drop back into their prayerless state. Just in case you are wondering, listening to someone else pray does not count for you praying.

The continuing education of a preacher means that prayer is on the agenda. I doubt you would want a surgeon to perform surgery on you if he did not scrub his hands for ten minutes prior to the procedure taking place. I can only wonder how many times that Charles Conner and Joe Sugg, two of Dothan’s finest general surgeons to operate and who have both retired been several years, washed their hands in a standard ten-minute surgical scrub prior to surgery? If a surgeon scrubs his hands prior to surgery, don’t you think a preacher ought to scrub his soul in continuous, sincere prayer?

The Lord needs for his servants to be abiding, praying, and fruit-bearing. Prayer attaches us to the Vine that is mentioned in John 15. Once I start abiding in the Vine, I will find that I want to relate to the Lord. I will want to reject what the Vine rejects and conversely in doing this I will receive great nourishment from the Vine. That is way that prayer works.

One of my favorite quotes on prayer was one I ran across years ago in Ralph Turnbull’s fine volume entitled “The Minister’s Opportunities.” Thomas Armitage said, “A sermon steeped in prayer on the study floor, like Gideon’s fleece saturated with dew, will not lose its moisture between that and the pulpit. The first step towards doing anything in the pulpit as a thorough workman must be to kiss the feet of the Crucified, as a worshiper, in the study. (Preaching: Its Ideals and Inner Life, 1880.)

Another way to jump-start the passion and purpose in your prayer is to memorize Scripture. I have undertaken quite a task this year. I am endeavoring to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. I am doing so in fits and starts but I can quote more now than I could at the beginning of the year. This is despite being about a week behind on the schedule that I discovered last November. The more Scripture you know, the more weighted your praying will be. You are going to find that Scripture pushes your prayer into areas you had never before contemplated. You cannot ask God in prayer to help you be humble, meek, and pure in heart and then go directly into the mud-holes of the world and have a clear conscience about it.

The prayers of the Puritans will help you grow too! You cannot read the prayers of Thomas Manton, Richard Baxter, and Thomas Watson and it not affect the inner spiritual life. Consider a portion of one of their prayers: I bewail my coldness, poverty, emptiness, imperfect vision, languid service, prayerless prayers, and praiseless praises.

Another tool to help your prayers grow is a little Moleskin. Go spend the $5 or $6 it will cost you and then set it up as a personal journal of sorts. Write down the date and then keep track of how long you prayed that day. I am certain that there will be those who will accuse me of being a legalist with this method but you have a choice with that. You can call me a legalist while I will smugly call you prayerless! No, not really. I would not want you or I to drop down in such a slime pit but I am challenging you to take a look at how little you really pray every day and the way you will assess it is to keep track of the time spent in prayer.

So I am encouraging you today to get yourself on a continuing education path for prayer. If Maxwell can cause us to reach for levels of excellence in leadership, then maybe this blog can cause you to turn the corner toward godliness and fresh revival for our day!

More tomorrow for continuing ed. . . .

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