There is a trait that I have observed in successful ministries and successful leader: learning. They are always learning new things and challenging themselves to learn new things. Periodically I meet people who are “unteachable”. They are usually highly educated in an engineering field or successful in a business or another field. When you are around them, they do most of the talking. Even though I have lived in Cambodia for twenty years, they want to tell me about the culture of Cambodia after their first day in country. I have little patience for such people. There are also local leaders, pastors and missionaries who are the similar. When they talk about Cambodia it is as if their sole source of information was the 1998 Lonely Planet travel guide. Some of their strategies are clearly outdated: Pastor’s had out rice as if we were still in an emergency relief operation during the civil war over a decade ago. Missionaries speak of Cambodia as if no one has heard the gospel, yet you would be surprised to find that even the Prime Minister is known to quote scripture during his speeches!
Too many people get into ministry and quit learning. It is as if they get stuck in a time warp. This is one of the products of our hierarchical education structure. Once you attain a Master of Missiology you assume you have learned everything about missions; those who achieve a Master of Divinity assume they know all of God; those who get a job at a NGO assume they are now experts in development. At least that is often how they act! They become like a knife which was sharp when purchased at the store, yet never put to the grinding stone again.
Never quit learning! We live in a dynamic world which never ceases to change. Languages change constantly, cultures change constantly, laws change, opportunities come and go, even the political nations of the world are always changing. We must change with them. We need to continue to learn and study our own environment continually so we can adapt our ministry.
Ministry strategies which worked in the 1990’s, much less so the 1950’s, are often too dull to be effective in 2011. Most missionary training and strategies which have been taught for decades are in danger of being irrelevant. Pastoral training through theological institutions is criticized globally as not creating cutting edge leaders for churches. There comes a point when the old knives simply have to be replaced.
Being a learner does not happen by accident: it requires effort, discipline and a hunger to hear from God.
- Force yourself to read books, including academic articles, about your country and culture.
- Study the history where you live and minister.
- Ask lots of questions of local people (without assuming you know the answer).
- If you work in a cross-cultural situation you MUST become fluent in the language.
- Travel and visit other ministries so you expand your own vision.
- Spend time seeking God, listening for his voice daily, and obeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit.