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  • Writer's picturesonnyholmes

The learning curve

Let's go morbid. The Social Security Administration has another age calculator. If you go right here you can calculate how long they expect you to live. The calculations are based on actuarial data that is used by the SSA, many insurance companies, and financial analysts to predict your monetary needs till death. It's not, of course, absolute. None of us knows the day of our death (see Ecclesiastes 8:8 and others) and there are many lifestyle factors that further shorten the expected human life span, as well as the unexpected. It may occasion a time of personal reflection when you let this reality sink in. Truth is usually a moment of clarity.

There's plenty of data about the classifications that define our years. You can survey your working life span, years and stages of parental influence, the seasons of marriage, your personal effectiveness as an employee or manager, how your golf handicap will change as you age, as well as the predicted chapters of your life as a spiritual leader. Research into pastoral tenure, the reasons that longevity in ministry leadership is shortening, and turnover in spiritual leadership are interesting studies, if not mystifying. Attempts to portray a generational map for spiritual leaders has been another dilemma in the mire of statistical analysis. in most instances cookie cutter depictions just don't seem to fit the times. Every church, institution, family, and location of spiritual enterprise is unique and the people who lead them vary as well. Trying to map them in an overlay is difficult.

In any event, I've mapped my thirty five years of pastoral ministry in an illistration. There's no suggestions it's the norm for other spiritual leaders and, without a research department, there's no statistical data to back up my assumptions. The only supporting information are the grunts and sighs and guttural noises of some friends who've given me the privilege of an audience. The diagram below is my amateurish view of ministry over these thirty five years.

The entire generational map is a learning curve. Effective spiritual leaders are lifelong learners. This particular map involves five learning phases of five to nine years each. Since seven is the perfect number I've usually experienced the phases of ministry in terms of sevens. You know, like the seven year itch in marriage. In seven years you know people, family realities, and churches about as well as you ever will. I've adjusted the seven up and down to five and nine because of the times. Some people and places move faster or slower than others. Each stage has been labeled with a name and traits of that learning experience. The five descriptives under each phase represent the character, major learning subject, outcome, spiritual vision, and personal attitudes, from top to bottom, in that order. There aren't any notations of crisis, difficulty, breaks in service, hardship, or changes in ministry locations. These designations represent what is happening in the life of the spiritual leader through a career. These other realities can certainly accelerate or decelerate the learning process.

Once again, age is not the defining factor of a generational map. My own spiritual leadership learning curve took a turn at age thirty when Harriet and i answered God's calling to ministry. During our educational period I was usually the oldest guy in most seminary classes. Since I didn't have a religion based bachelors degree my learning curve in the Information Overload segment was steep. As I learned I wondered if God could ever use someone like me, the assignment piece. Dreams and aspirations were of changing the world. There was a blessed innocence in expecting God to provide and care for our family, and the joys associated with serving him in a local church. My age helped somewhat. But, there were many younger and older people in that world with us.

Now, we're on the opposite end of that spectrum. My energy is down, my experience is up. Reflecting back the deepest spiritual responses are blessing and hope. Does your generational map look exactly like this? Probably not. My wording and explanations are pretty elementary and basic, and broadly presumptive. My prayer is that this may provide some encouragement to those in the process of learning and be a springboard to your own personal generational map.

Three framed Scripture passages have been displayed over my various work spaces during these thirty-five years. They have provided Scriptural guidance in each phase of spiritual leadership---

Life Verses:

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.

Psalm 40:1-3, NIV

Ministry Verses:

Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

Ephesians 3:8-9, NIV

Passion Verse:

Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Psalm 71:18, NIV

When I retired from active pastoral service someone asked if I thought God was through with me. The answer, of course, was and is emphatically "no". When he's finished with me, I'll be in a box or urn. Till then, I'm praying to hear these words at the finish line---"Well done, good and faithful servant".

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