When Does a Leader Stop Learning?

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Recently I read a book with a group of pastors in my town. The book focused on leadership, tracing the life of Peter in the New Testament. The author argued that Peter’s experience as a leader was divided into three stages. Stage one was learning, recorded in the four gospels. Stage two was leading, recorded in the book of Acts. Stage three was leaving a legacy, recorded in Peter’s epistles.

As I read the book and listened to my pastor friends discuss the material, I became increasingly uneasy with this “staged” approach to leadership. For one thing, I’m not sure Peter’s life can be divided so neatly, and I felt like the structure of the book was forced onto the pages of the New Testament.

Secondly, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that leaders ought to spend the last years of their ministry thinking about “legacy.” I’ve always leaned towards the sentiment expressed by Nikolaus Zinzendorf, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” This question of leaving a legacy versus serving in anonymity is one that I continue to wrestle with as a “regular pastor.”

Thirdly, I’m certainly not comfortable with the idea that learning is just a stage in a leader’s life. I have two degrees from the greatest seminary on earth. I’ve been a pastor for over a decade. I’ve had opportunity to teach at the undergraduate and graduate level. Nevertheless, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to learning. I feel like I just now know how much I don’t know. There are so many things I wish I understood better, including systematic theology, church history, Greek and Hebrew, missiology, apologetics, homiletics, and even leadership!

As a pastor, I can’t imagine reaching a place where I felt like I knew everything I needed to know. As a leader, I can’t imagine reaching a place where I felt like I could move past the learning stage and move to the leading leading stage.

To be fair to the author of the aforementioned book, I’m sure he doesn’t want church leaders to stop learning. However, I’m still uncomfortable with the idea that learning is a stage in the journey of a leader. Personally, I’m much more comfortable with the idea that church leaders need to be lifelong learners. In my own life I know this: If I’m not learning, I’m not growing. If I’m not growing, I’m not moving forward as a disciple, a husband, a father, or a pastor. As a leader, I must be a lifelong learner.

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