It Takes a Lifetime to Learn


“So, it seems like you read a lot of books?!”  Yeah, I get that often.  My college-aged son says he was raised at “the library” and he means our home not a publicly funded book depository.  And this photo below shows you what is on my reading pile for today.  What is wrong with me anyway that rehab for bibliomania won’t cure?


Before I got serious about listening to God and answering the call to a lifetime of Youthwork, I was in sales and management (in what I like to call “my other life”).  What I learned at an early age while I was still navigating the learned halls of high school and then eventually community college was that there was a ton of stuff to learn in order to excel outside of traditional “school” in the classical sense.

It all started when I trained to be a “Master Paint Specialist” for Montgomery Ward Corporation at the ripe old age of 17 (at the age of 14 I was working weekends as a logger, so working inside in AC was a great step up!).  I Think minimum wage back then was like $2.10 so if I became a Master Paint Specialist I would get a .50cent bump up in income.  I had to learn about chemicals, siding, weather, etc. and I had to do it all with a bunch of cassette tapes and one well-worn VHS tape.  Then I had to take a long test and mail it to the Home Office and wait about two months to find out I had the glorious new title.

As I aged, so did my training.  I learned sales techniques, management techniques, and I became a frequent participant at Stephen Covey Seminars.  Sometimes I learned things hands on.  Sometimes in small practice groups.  Often I would read a book or two and pick up new skills.  This was all outside of formal education.

I was certified or received a certificate in a number of things related to business.  So, when I took that first Youth Ministry job, I started asking where the training tapes were.  Where is the seminar?  The first thing I found was that my annual conference had something called CAFÉ, which stood for Conference Academy of Faith Education.  I met Duffy Robbins there among others.  Then I went to Perkins School of Youth Ministry and picked up several Rev. Walt Marcum handouts (which back in those pre-Power Point days were about 100 pages each).

I learned a ton.  And I avoided a trend I saw.  The trend was for Youthworkers to get fired in 3 years or less.

The next step caught me off guard.  This was primarily because having put only about 3 years into my new craft of Youthwork I knew for sure I didn’t yet know enough to really help Young People in their faith journeys the way I wanted to.  The next step for me was being asked to teach now that I was a tested veteran of Youthwork.  What???????  No way I thought!  But my ego said, “hey take a chance”.  So I did.  It sent me back to finding books and working on what I was to teach: Spiritual Growth in Youth Ministry (something I was sure hat I didn’t know enough about).

In conclusion (I like when the pastor says that about ½ way through a sermon) I am moving quickly toward having 30 years in as a Youthworker and I find myself constantly trying to learn.  I consult, I teach, I coach Youthworkers all over the place.  And I still work with a Youth Group every week.  I have to keep learning.  But, along the way, I have found some terrible practices in Youthwork.

#1 pet peeve: Youthworkers who are not life-long learners.

You know who you are: you have about 18 months worth of tricks in your Youth Ministry kit so you start looking for your next gig about month 11.  Or, you are still doing 80’s fun and games yet you have not paid attention to Christian Smith’s research (and plenty of others) showing that much of what we have been doing in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in Youth Ministry hasn’t seemed to help mature faith development.  Or you think Safe Sanctuaries is a fad.  Or……you get the idea and I know that you know who you are.

The last 3 decades has also seen a drastic DECLINE in the number of training opportunities for Youthworkers.  When Perkins School of Youth Ministry started 25 years ago there were about a dozen other similar training events around the country for United Methodist Youthworkers including a national event held every two years.  Now they are all gone except PSYM.  There is the National Youth Worker’s Convention by YS and Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry and a few other smaller events.  Many annual conferences have eliminated their monthly training events and even their yearly events as budget cuts as well aseliminating veteran Youthworkers on staff to resource, coach, mentor and train conference Youthworkers for the long-haul.  So that leaves para-church organizations to do the training, which is not always very Wesleyan in orientation and often expensive.  And each one seems to be selling products as much as teaching youthworkers.

So what does that leave?  You and a pile of books.  Or several blogs to read.  Or maybe you have a network covenant group you go to.  But how formal, disciplined, and consistent is your learning?  How cutting edge is your thinking?

I am not 100% sure what to do.  So my goal is to help train the next wave of trainers.  And maybe that is you.  But it is only you if you are committed to life long learning.  Maybe you will only train a dozen or so other folks in your network to be better Youthworkers.  That is GREAT!  My BIG idea is that we can actually train more folks for the life-long calling of Youthwork that way.  As opposed to a national event or even a 1 day regional seminar.  We can reach the people who don’t have a $1,500 Continuing Education budget to go to a 4 day event.  We can reach the people who hold a full time job so that they can do Youthwork for free on the weekends.

What do you think?  Are you in?  I mean, what if it starts with us just sharing what we are reading?  Will you join the conversation?  I am looking forward to hearing from you.

Charles W. Harrison


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