Welcome to post number two of four for my independent study on adults and lifelong learning! (cue rainbow streamers, balloons, confetti) I had a lot of fun collecting my thoughts and questions in my first post on describing the current situation of adults in American life. It was heavily informed from the first half of Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life.
In this second reflection I want to build on the last by wondering why churches should care about lifelong learning, and the adults that would take advantage of it (at least, I hope would). I finished In Over Our Heads and it pains me to report that the title is truly a statement, not a question – we are in over our heads. But fear not! The opportunities to work together and walk alongside each other as adult learners are tremendous and bring me a lot of hope.
Prof. Mary Hess pointed me to a doctorate student who did a “live draw” youtube video, outlining Kegan’s framework on how individuals know/understand/interact with the world (he calls it “levels of consciousness”) Check it out.
Now as I nerd out about how awesome lifelong learning is, it’s important that I share part of my story (unless you already know it from earlier posts!). I taught adult small group learning experiences at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater, MN before I jumped back into seminary life. When I arrived their lifelong learning pastor helped me stretch my wings a bit and helped me grow a curriculum that she and others created in the past few years. Working with older adults, hockey dads and moms, 40-year old civil servants, engineers, teenagers, bright young women about to leave for college – these lifelong learning opportunities mattered to these folks, and I’ll always be grateful for their willingness to try those experiments with me as I facilitated and created some small group curriculum (and preached and did some one-on-one coaching).
Another part of my story is that my mom was an elementary school teacher. Now she’s a tutor and has a huge passion to help kids learn, from classroom basics to gardening and helping them be eco-conscious, to building up leadership in kids (like she did for my sister and I for which I’m grateful). Growing up with a mom as a teacher will always inform how I see that learning is and will always be important for individuals as well as communities everywhere.
So now that the “cat’s out of the bag,” learning is important to me and how I understand my unfolding story in the world. Whether you know it or not, your openness to learn, in various contexts, greatly influences your confidence, growth, and sense of self. Whether the church knows it or not, its peoples’ openness to learn greatly influences their confidence, growth and sense of self!
Why, specifically, should churches be pivoting toward a lens of lifelong learning in their work? (As a general group, I’ll address the bigger faith community of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that I know as “the church”)
1. You said you would. Not to be blunt or anything, but it’s true! Parents, sponsors, and/or other people in the congregation promise to walk alongside people as they get baptized. The pastor asks, “As you bring you child (or adult, or significant other, or loved one) to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities… [here are a few:] to live with them among God’s faithful people, to teach, to nurture, to proclaim, to care, to work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship 228). Where in there does it say, “model for them that learning in community ends when you receive a diploma?” Unfortunately by offering little to no lifelong learning opportunities for all ages, we’ve made it a cultural practice to not advocate for and create a strong presence of learning in our congregations. And yet we promise to be with them for their whole lives, which implies a life full of rich, hard, beautiful, and life-giving learning.
2. Because learning grows empathy and you step into another’s world. Money is a tough subject to talk about because it’s emotional. Most conversations about money aren’t about money at all. Money is tied to our relationships, our sense of purpose, our sense of home, and the way we understand ourselves and the world. So when I got the chance to coach and facilitate a financial workshop for couples, I jumped at it. One of the things that we teach couples is that financial conversations are enriched by using a couple of improv rules (there’s rules? It’s true!): one of them is “step into each other’s world.” Feel the height, walls, ground, values, dreams, and voice of the others’ space.
What is required to do that? Learning! Learn what the other is thinking by asking and listening compassionately. Ask what is so important to them about their particular view of money. Stories might come out, ideas, or more questions for more learning. This is why learning is so important and is a lifelong practice. It helps us have empathy, and step into the worlds and perspectives of others – in our homes, right next door, or all the way around the world. Like Sharon Creech writes in the award-winning novel Walk Two Moons, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”
3. Learning changes you. Yes, that might be your number one reason not to learn! Sometimes it feels easier to hide, but I know I would rather live as myself instead of pretending to be someone else because I refused to open myself up to learning. One of my colleagues was an executive coach at a large Saint Paul company. This company gave its employees the opportunity to learn about themselves, their motivations, their stories, where they’re being lead (big picture), and their alignment with their values and beliefs. Yes, individuals could discover that their current job is not where they should be! But this learning is for the sake of the learner (not for the maintenance of the institution), and how they might show up in the world as their most unique self.
This kind of inner-work is crucial especially for leaders. Finding out the “why” of their work and sense of vocation and identity is huge – and learning is the root of this work.
4. Because they’re learning without you. Get on the bus. Your adults, young and old, are leaning how to make a difference outside of church – don’t you want to contribute to those conversations? Bigger questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” are explored all over our world in different ways – through graduate school, through Pinterest boards, through thought-provoking podcasts, or life-enrichment opportunities through work. Why not contribute to those conversations and jump in the water? Intrinsic to the gospel is a claim about who we are (children of God), and what our purpose is (varied, diverse, beautiful vocations). The church has something to say! Yes, it requires the risk of individuals rejecting or ignoring you, but why not try?
These are just a few reasons why lifelong learning and church go together for me. Communities and groups are starting to see the need to provide adults with lifelong learning opportunities (see this awesome illustration of learning). When In Over Our Heads was published in 1994, Kegan predicted that America would see an increased amount of adults who seek out formal learning opportunities (Kegan 271). Luther Seminary is experiencing the biggest distance-learners community it’s ever seen – around half of its students. How might congregations be a part of this movement? How might congregations sense God’s nudging to care for and walk alongside all of its members in their learning, young and old?
I think congregations wonder about lifelong learning, but I’m not sure if all sense a need, or have the capacity to think creatively about these things. Either way I think adults desire to learn, but are tentative to admit that they have more to learn (i.e. they don’t want to look stupid, because who does?). I wonder what might be creative ways to encourage lifelong learning in safe and welcoming environments.
I think congregations could be these places and communities, and in baptism they promise to be – but do they want to be?