Probably every pastor or leader in ministry considers the need for continuing education an essential, not an option. But what is the best way to get it, and where? Above all, why?


Kim May, a pastor in Liberty, Missouri, considers his efforts at growth and learning as a pastor through various courses and helps as just that: an essential. “Having been in the pastorate for thirty years, I definitely value it,” he says. “I have received continuing education through conferences and seminars and also my own personal research and reading.”

Almost any pastor or leader in ministry can profit from various kinds of continuing ed, depending on what they’re willing to spend on it, and whether they can find it locally or otherwise. May says that he has taken classes at a local school, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, that qualified him to supervise interns at his church for training in ministry.

For May, some of the most helpful resources were John Maxwell’s leadership seminars. “I’ve gone to two or three of those over the years,” he says. “I learned how to relate to people in certain contexts, whether they were confrontative or friendly, open or closed, and how to deal with critics and others. In seminary, at least when I went, they didn’t teach that kind of thing.” He attended Wheaton Graduate School and Fuller Theological Seminary, where he received an M.A. in theology in 1979.

Jim Rawdon, now out of the ministry because of a bicycle accident that left him with a brain injury, received a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) degree at Midwestern while he served at a pastor. He says, “I like learning. Going to seminary the first time at age 37, I heard guys all the time telling me they didn’t know why they had to take certain required courses. I always knew immediately why I needed that course, because of being a church member from in my twenties and early thirties. My M.Div. gave me a basic biblical theological education. The D.Min., though, gave me much more insight into social ministry, preaching, worship, administration.”

Lawdon asserts, “When you work for a D.Min, you’re learning after you actually know something about ministry because you’ve been in it. When you get out of seminary the first time, you go into the ministry with all these preconceived ideas. You’re stupid. Many of them don’t work, and you end up floundering and trying new things. After awhile, you realize you just need to know more. So, by being in the ministry, you go into the D.Min. with much more understanding of the questions you need to ask, of the subjects you need to work on. You know the kind of problems people have and you’re more eager to learn.”

Freddy Cardoza, Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Associate Director of Professional Doctoral Studies at Midwestern, says, “The value of continuing ed is that ministry is constantly changing. In the last five years, knowledge has doubled around our world. People that have a degree a few years back have an education that is dated — they’re behind the curve. Twenty years ago, PCs weren’t in the classroom. Education has changed. The world has changed. As a result, the ministry professional needs to be constantly involved in lifelong learning, whether formal or informal.”

D.Min.? Reading and studying? Seminars? Which is the best way to go?

Haddon Robinson, Harold John Ockenga Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, believes the Doctor of Ministry is the premiere way to go. “One kind of program that comes after graduation, the D.Min. program,” he says, “is the best education that seminaries do because it’s adult education. For instance, here at Gordon-Conwell, we have a cohort in preaching. People in that group come in with at least three years experience in ministry. They know the questions they need to ask, unlike at a Master’s level.

“I find that teaching the D.Min. is far more life-related and ministry-related,” Robinson indicates. “It deals with theory somewhat, but also with things people face in ministry. A person who is out for awhile needs to be refreshed, needs to be stimulated. When you preach every week, you don’t get much exposure to other ministries. Here you get that. I think it’s one of the most important things a pastor can do.”

Don Sunukjian, Professor of Preaching and Chairman of the Department of Christian Ministry and Leadership at Talbot School of Theology in California, has worked both in the pastorate and teaching. He says, “The D.Min. is absolutely the best thing for a pastor to do. It gets you back in the groove of reading things you should be reading. It gets you with other guys and you sharpen each other. I think it’s the best degree for an active pastor.”

Most of these men recommend not going after a D.Min. until you’ve been in the ministry for three to five or even seven years. This way you come back to formal schooling with the experience to maximize your use of the program.

What questions should you ask as you consider a D.Min.? Robinson recommends the following:

1. “To do it well, you’ll have to devote one day a week to do the program and do the reading. Are you able and willing to give that kind of time to it?

2. You have to look at the way the D.Min. is done. Cafeteria style is one course here, another course there. You take a little bit of this – meat, vegetable, dessert. I don’t think it’s the best way. I recommend cohort-style. Here, you pick a track and stick with it. Do you want to do some area in depth? Are you looking for a ‘worm’s-eye view’ or a ‘bird’s eye view?’ You get some real depth in the cohort. It’s tougher, I think, if you sign up for the cafeteria-style, because you’re pretty much on your own. In the cohort, you get a lot of support within the group. You’re much more likely to finish it because you stick with one group all the way through. You really get to know the people in your cohort and become lifelong friends.

3. Ask for a list of recent graduates and phone numbers and ask them what they thought of the program. Was it worth the time and money?”

Sunukjian adds a fourth question: “Who will be the faculty resources? Who are the people you’d be learning from? You can’t always know that in advance, especially in the cafeteria model. So it all depends on what your model is. You need to know who the experts are in the course areas. Is it a name you recognize because of publications or the esteem they have in the field? Will you have faculty who are real experts in that particular course of study?”

A Doctor of Ministry degree carries a cost — anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 or more, depending on where you attend. Most of the programs operate just two to four weeks a year of campus residency, where you stay at the campus and have intensive training. During the rest of the year, you do the reading, keep in contact with your mentor, and work on various projects. It normally takes three years to complete a program, but for some it takes longer.

Robinson is particularly proud of the program at Gordon-Conwell. They have had at least seventeen of their students get their D.Min. final projects published by mainstream Christian publishers. They also have one of the largest programs in the U.S., with about 590 students enrolled at present.

Today, most theological schools have a D.Min. program, and it might be wise to check out what’s available in your own region, as opposed to enrolling in a distant program which will require you to travel and pay room and board in addition to the normal tuition costs. Nevertheless, the quality of a particular program’s offerings or resources may outweigh the additional cost required.

Beyond the D.Min., though, there are many other resources. Sunukjian says, “There are seminars all over the place and conferences worth attending. You can simply take a course here or there, as needed. Large churches like Saddleback and Willow Creek offer leadership and pastoring conferences every year. You can do a lot just by reading books and journals.”

Michael Duduit, who edits this publication and has directed the National Conference on Preaching for more than 15 years, says that the number of ministry development opportunities for ministers has exploded in recent years. “When we started the National Conference on Preaching in 1989, there were few events of that kind available apart from denominational training programs. Today it would be possible for a pastor to attend a conference or seminar virtually every week, based on the programs now being offered. I just encourage preachers to carefully select those events that will be helpful to them in their own ministry journey, based on their own gifts and calling.”

Cardoza recommends that you make it an individual journey, tailored to your needs. All have different personal needs. He says, “Explore the world of knowledge and growing as a human being. Take individual classes. Those who have professional needs on new perspectives may take advanced degrees. There are also online programs. A doctorate is especially for people who like to do research. The D.Min. is great, too. But they’re not always practical for some people. Today, though, educational institutions offer many things from which to choose. The learner can come in and take what he needs. Ask yourself: Where am I individually?”

Kim May adds, “Go to conferences in the areas of leadership, keeping your family intact, and learning how to deal with people.” These are relatively inexpensive compared to a D.Min., and can be accessed locally most of the time.

Dr. Timothy Warren, Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, says the biggest question is, “What am I really looking for and expect to get out of this? If I were looking just at preaching, what I would do before I got involved in a D.Min. program, look at getting some personal coaching. If you’re looking for an education, I would hire a vocal coach, find somebody who is a professional who would be willing to mentor me specifically in the areas where I had need. There’s something to be said for reading the books and so on. You might have money well spent by hiring a coach. I don’t think pastors even think about that.

“Tuition for a D.Min. is often more than $500 per semester hour. To graduate, it’s twenty-seven hours of course work. There’s also travel and accommodations, so you’re probably up to about $30,000. Two weeks residency winter and summer, two or three courses in a year’s time, for three to five years.”

Thus, Warren suggests there are many other things to do besides go for a D.Min. He says, “Another idea: say you need to build up your preparation skills, your study skills for preaching. Could you go to a local seminary, find a professor in New or Old Testament who will coach you through your work skills? Or say your need is preaching. Could you take a course in public speaking? For instance, go to Google and search on what professional businesses do to prepare their executives to be public speakers. That’s a great way to get a cheap and very helpful education in that area.”

He adds that, “If you’ve already targeted the particular areas you want to beef up and get constant input, I would find some coaching or specific business kind of seminars. If you spent a couple thousand a year for the next fifteen years for a coach to help you with your preaching, you’d get some good insight into how you’re functioning as a preacher.”

He also sees a pastor’s personal life as an important element of continuing education. “Here at Dallas,” he says, “we have the Center of Christian Leadership. It hosts one and two week programs for couples. A refresher on keeping your relationship strong and vibrant.”

There are many such seminars both for ministry leaders and others. But the ones targeted specially to ministry marriages help people in ministry, which can have its own unique set of programs and difficulties.

Clearly, there are many options out there for continuing education, according to the experts in professional development for ministry. The real issue is: What do you most need in developing your ministry gifts and skills? How can you get that need filled best?

Consider a variety of options, then try some things you think might work for you. Try several smaller options -– a conference or seminar, for example — before jumping into a major program like a D.Min. Then get immersed in it for all you’re worth.


Mark Littleton is a speaker and author who resides in Gladstone, MO.

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