In the first eight chapters we have been trying to answer the question: What does it take to be effective in urban ministry?
In this chapter, our focus will shift to:
How do urban practitioners learn? Here are two very different responses:
Life experience was helpful but honed by formal training (graduate school, leadership development programs, field-specific institutes)... and the training itself tested by life experiences. But the formal training did not all take place in seminary. Other disciplines and schools of thought were extremely instrumental in my work. Such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, urban planning, political science, public policy and economics and fields as communications, business administration and management.
For me, life experiences were absolutely foundational and formational. Formal training came in drips and drabs and enhanced the ministry I was involved in. Life experiences were guided however through a mentoring process (I was not just learning on my own). I was involved with a ministering community so that the learning experience was both guided by others and protected by others.
By life experiences I mean "guided doing." Experience does not necessarily teach you anything. You need to be guided into the right sort of experiences (i.e. ministering to people) and then, in those experiences where analysis of the experience is important, come to the right conclusions about the experience (i.e., one can learn the WRONG lessons from an experience).
IUA Associate, Henry Kontor (a Ghanan doing urban ministry in London) has yet another approach to learning:
In 1993, I visited John Perkins' ministry in Pasadena, CA. John Perkins told me I was free to visit any of the staff meetings being held, as well as any of the consultations. I observed the way staff and committees worked, as well as the way the entire office operation was organized. Perkins never told me what to do, or indicated an approach or a method in urban work. I just followed John around, listened, observed, took notes, and then reflected on all I was seeing and experiencing.
I would return to ask John questions for clarification and by way of comparison with other experiences I had in other parts of the world.
I came to the moment with both formal training and prior experience. But this particular two week period added fresh information and insights that kept prior formal and informal learning from becoming frozen or unengaged in current realities.
A year and half later I again traveled to the United States from my base in London to Atlanta, GA to participate in an Urban Strategy Institute. In this commitment to stay on the cutting edge, I also dealt with ways of sharing and passing on to others what I am learning about the urban agenda.
Formal training and life experience; life experience and guided learning; independent, self-directed learning: from three different practitioners we have three seemingly different models of learning.
What we are looking for are some of the underlying principles of learning that prepare us for urban ministry. These basic principles will transfer to other contexts, countries and cultures but the applications will take different forms.
A number of foundational themes on learning came out of our writing and interaction at the Urban Strategy Institute. They were: the city and the learner; intentional learning and active reflection; pushing the learning envelope; finding resources; and creating a learning environment.
Cities in our world today are in a process of continual change and any Christian work which addresses the true needs of the city must embrace this fact. It is therefore important to stay creative. There is always a danger of becoming reactive. Like the city itself, learning is a dynamic experience where change is the only constant.
Within the city, each learner is unique. Life experiences, training and culture all conspire to create unique learning styles. Learning styles are not definitive. We all use a variety of styles. Nevertheless, each person will have a dominant style that he or she needs to recognize and balance with other styles to make the best use of learning opportunities.
Conventional ways of learning include:
In talking to urban practitioners, they tend to be more experiential and hands on learners (#4). Exploring the urban frontier also appears to attract a certain kind of person: the adventurer, the risk-taker, the entrepreneur.
The Urban Entrepreneur
An opportunity motivates me to learn. When I see a deal to be made, a resource to be exploited, a creative person with an idea - I get motivated to explore. I learn what I need to learn to package and market a vision. I will become an expert in order to sell a new ministry venture. I will learn from experience, both personal and external, so that I can promote the mission.
However, there are others who learn differently, who come along later and settle into the established urban setting. Most of us in this part of the journey learn by watching (Observation, #2) and by working along side those who have already been down the trail (Apprenticeship, #3).
Intentional learning is usually thought of in terms of formal seminary or university training, or in such professional growth activities as acquiring bibliographies on philosophy, theory, praxis, anecdotes, etc., all of which enhance the learning curve. It may also include intentional participation in consultations that cross-fertilize, correct, stimulate. Intentional learning works, but as intentional as we are about learning, we must also be intentional about where we learn, i.e., seminary fortress versus the urban field and our own day-to-day experience.
One other key dimension of intentionality is sharpening our sensitivity to learn in the unguarded moments when the "a-ha" experience jumps out at us. That means we consciously put ourselves in an ongoing learning mode, recognizing the importance of the subjective and intuitive as well as the cognitive. This kind of daily learning and relearning are what we choose to do; they do not happen incidentally.
On the whole, experiential learning in the urban field is critical because it leads to internalization, whereas theory or observation may not provide practical applications. However, here too, experience alone does not posit learning. Only reflection helps move the experience to a truly learning activity.
It can be especially instructive to meditate on our negative experiences. Even as values do not develop apart from moral dilemmas neither does substantive learning develop apart from dilemmas, crisis or experiences. It is often in reflecting on our failures or in admitting to error that we come to new levels of success or understanding.
Unfortunately, in urban ministry pressures of time and schedule often dictate that only the tyranny of the urgent gets the immediate attention, and current crises are always competing with the time needed for reflection and internalizing learning experiences. Into our priorities it is important to plan for the evaluation of our experiences and for deciding how to integrate those lessons into our work. Retreat time is crucial in this regard, in that it affords the urban minister time to reflect on what God would have her or him to know through the learning experiences.
The city is ever evolving, and the urban landscape is an extremely dynamic text to engage. It is important that we challenge ourselves to move into new areas just beyond our level of knowledge and experience.
We need to approach this new learning creatively and holistically. It is critical to look below specific problems to find out why they occur, otherwise our lives and solutions will be reactive. It is also important to keep a positive frame of mind since much of our valuable learning may come from bitter experiences.
Here are some practical suggestions for pushing the learning envelope (see also "Entering the Community," Chapter 8):
The Cutting Edge Learner
I stay on the cutting edge by living in the city, experiencing on a daily basis the issues, wrestling with the full range of emotions that effect urban dwellers, and keep trying new things that may offer some practical solutions to the problems that the city brings. I refuse to become cautious. I continue to take risks, to fail, to learn from my failings and to try again. The books aren't written on this stuff yet I believe that we have to live out the books that will be written on how to do effective urban ministry.
There is in every large city a wealth of resources which makes the city a stimulating and rich learning environment.
City leaders in both private and public sectors are normally within easy reach. These individuals have valuable experiences and insights to share. Anyone can reach them by telephone, courtesy visit, or letter and obtain very useful information. They have notes and summaries in their personal files which are valuable. Some urban leaders may offer one hour consultations each month, cost-free. They usually have access to published books and periodicals in a variety of subjects which are available on a temporary loan basis. If not on hand, they will know where to access materials or persons with the pertinent information you seek.
Tools for urban ministry are also found in libraries, media centers, bookstores, video outlets, collaboration centers, global marketplaces, etc. These centers contain vast resources, voluminous data and technology, which, when fused, help us to stretch beyond existing boundaries into new, unexplored and unfamiliar informational terrains.
Many urban ministries have developed networks of field workers and retired executives who can provide in-depth guidance within their field of expertise.
The city, as a center for advanced technology, research and funding, is also ideal creative ground for developing new resources
In March, 1994, a friend of mine from Dallas, the president of a large corporation, wanted to make a difference in urban ministry in his city. He told me about a new project his company had just completed to identify the key corporate players in his field by mapping out all the ego-information patterns to show the connections between the various industries. He wondered if such a system could have any applications to urban ministry.
I worked with Lawton Higgs, whose twelve years as a Birmingham pastor had given him vast experience in urban ministry, and with computer expert, David Young, to create a ministries map of Birmingham. Through the device of symbology (the use of geometric figures) we pictured judicatories/denominations, agencies, public/private partnered ministries, and grassroots movements, with a particular color code and geometric shape for each type of entity.
With a computer-generated design of inter-connecting lines between the various symbols, we were able to see the city in a completely new way. Further, the mapping of people, programs, processes, and projects, and the points of intersection of all these yielded for us immediate insights about where and to whom to turn for almost any kind of resource needed. Interestingly, the map also showed that most of Birmingham's public-partnered ministries were outgrowths of the civil rights movement.-Bill O'Brien, Samford University, Birmingham
Read the local papers which identify important resource people, documents and programs in the various articles, editorials and features they carry.
Above all, people within the city are its best resource. People from within the urban community have a variety of experiences from all walks of life. They have in many cases the most practical and useful knowledge and insights. Their information about the neighborhood, and their understanding of why problems exist, will help us better assess how their lives are affected by our intended good works.
With all these resources at hand, the real question for urban ministry appears to be not "Where are the resources?" but, "How do we create better learning environments to take advantage of all the city has to offer?"
A personal learning environment is created by an attitude of flexibility, openness to change and the ability to take risks. The status quo, no matter how inadequate, always feels more comfortable than the unfamiliar alternative. Learning by its nature means facing the unknown and that is often threatening. The learner will sometimes become a dedicated follower, listening intently, working hard. Other times, learning involves launching out on one's own, taking risks and failing, learning from those failures, and returning to try again and again.
The urban field is an optimal learning environment because it is always challenging us to find practical solutions to new and existing problems. However, we need to be living and walking our mission in relation to and in the neighborhood with the people we are called to serve.
On an institutional level, the value of academic learning is limited unless it is directly connected with practical application in ministry. This is the great challenge for theological education. Unless Seminaries and Bible schools find a way to incorporate more community-based training, their graduates will have been trained for churches that no longer exist. This is not a condemnation of foundational classical curriculum. But that curriculum must be a part of a more holistic learning experience that integrates the learner into the very climate and places where learning is to be applied.
In organizations, learning is fostered by providing information and authority for decision-making to those closest to the end product. The old model of managers and supervisors holding back critical information while trying to motivate those below them to increased productivity is self-destructing. Smaller groups convened to solve problems and to create new procedures and products result in greater ownership of the process and in real learning.
Learning in organizations is also fostered by engaging in the process of understanding the systemic connections that underlie specific problems.
Too often organizations deal reactively with problems without understanding the causes of the problems.
Learning is a dynamic enterprise. For the urban minister this is a critical element a creative life-style that contributes to vital ministry. Yet it does not solely pertain to the minister's own personal development but also entails the transmission of such learning to others.
Most Urban workers have little time to pass on the lessons and skills we learn. This is sad because many times we will find ourselves reinventing the wheel. While many of us have a passion for the pursuit of knowledge there needs to be a desire to not only share that knowledge but to also share where and how knowledge can be acquired on one's own.
We ourselves need to teach as much as others need to learn. As any teacher knows, the learning process is a mullet-dimensional, dynamic experience where the teacher or facilitator also learns and gains new insights, both from the interaction with the context and from the learner. In other words, both the teaching and the learning are reciprocal.
This section will briefly outline a process for sharing urban knowledge. In this process, we: know the objective; put a value on what we know; know the teacher; know the learner; choose the tool. While the outline itself is fairly complete, most of these areas could have used more input. Perhaps one reason they were not more fully developed is because as urban practitioners we have not given the transmission of our knowledge the priority it deserves.
In each individual teaching situation, it is important to have clearly defined educational objectives. Our overall objective is to strengthen each other and to transmit what we know about urban ministry in order to prepare the next generation of urban leaders. The specific objective to achieve such a goal will be determined by the context or the setting of ministry.
The urban leaders' teaching role is to guide as well as directly provide any relevant information that is available. In doing so, we must make sure that what we know and want to share is something that has been rooted in real work, day to day life and proven to be practical and of benefit.
A first step in determining the actual value of our urban knowledge would be to ask questions such as:
The urban minister as teacher should appreciate and be fairly comfortable with the knowledge, skills, and information she or he may have. However, just as important as recognizing what we know is being honest about our limitations. Knowing our own strengths and weaknesses in transferring information and skills is crucial to the learning process. A good teacher will know where to find the resources to fill in the gaps.
The effective teacher will become aware of the learner's style through questions and observation and then take a look into her tool kit of methods and materials. How a person learns is often shaped by his or her personal history. As such, the teacher or facilitator of learning will need to have a solid sense of the learner's life experience. The result is personalized discovery.
What tools, techniques, technologies can we use to transmit our knowledge to a new generation of urban leaders? Again, everyone has a particular learning style and the teacher must be sensitive to the appropriate tool or pedagogy to help the learning process take hold.
Approaches to transferring knowledge and skills parallel the four conventional learning styles: theory, observation, apprenticeship and experience.
Through teaching modules, inter-term courses, regular semester offerings, and continuing education opportunities, the practitioner can pass on valuable lessons honed on the anvil of involvement. While classroom learning is limited, it can be enriched with field trips and by bringing in resource persons. Another way is through classroom teaching. I found this to be less appropriate with adults, but given resource and time constraints, this option has nevertheless been constantly used. This learning can be enriched with field trips and the use of resource persons brought into the classroom setting.
An urban practitioner can become a mentor to others. It is even more effective when the teacher, with intentionality, chooses a group of willing learners who will commit to this process. One way or sharing what I know has been through mentoring colleagues and friends in the same field of ministry.
Another tool is found in the formal urban exposure program design, usually as a component of an academic program, sometimes called "field-based learning." This design seeks to provide transformational experiences though intimate immersion in environments which contain cultural diversity/ various urban communities/ various urban churches and ministries. Included in this exposure would be local, national, and international communities experiences. A one or two year internship in the inner city while part of a formal training could be a more valuable learning experience than a Ph.D. at a university in a disconnected setting.
This is a comprehensive formal concept of ministry training which requires thorough study of the historical, theological, cultural and scriptural contexts of ministry in addition to a working knowledge of urban studies. The residency program includes:
The practitioner either joins or creates local, national or international forums for the sharing and comparing of experiences, challenges, opportunities and needs. Locally, this can easily be accomplished through brown-bag lunches on a regular and ongoing basis. National and international networks of urban workers can be created by teleconferences and Internet.
The tool of networking deserves special attention because it speaks to the relational and communal facets of the Gospel. Since the Gospel depends upon relationships and community for effective witness, networking is valued because it creates and nurtures shared visions and missions. Networking permits the flow of critical information between and among persons and communities, establishes appropriate boundaries for critiques, celebrates and affirms the creation of new knowledge, identifies critical information gaps, challenges and confronts universal application of the traditional and protects urban ministry from the domination of the pedestrian.
Essential tools for urban ministry can be found in economic development activities. For example, organizations like CCDA are appropriately equipping urban churches to function entrepreneurially. Churches are encouraged to assume what Bakke calls "ecological theology," in ministering to the numerous and complex systems that make up the urban landscape. Economic development tools can be found thought the creation of small business collaboratives, community co-operatives, housing initiatives, etc. The use of this tool seeks to empower the local community through the strengthening of its financial base.
By harnessing this technology a practitioner can dial into forums and/or join or create bulletin boards that provide almost limitless avenues for disseminating information and insights birthed in the urban arena.
Another Internet application might be an on-line ministries studies degree program with input from urban experts all over the world. Such a program would allow students anywhere on earth to access a high level of urban training while greatly reducing the need to travel abroad. The problems mentioned earlier of seminaries and universities being out of touch with the realities of urban life could also begin to be addressed by direct interaction over the Internet between faculty and those in the urban field.
The Internet would allow documents (such as this book) to be uploaded in one location and downloaded anywhere on earth, for free. On the Internet, books need no longer be static documents, obsolete as soon as (or perhaps before) they are published. Rather, they can be part on an ongoing international dialogue that can inform and encourage the whole church.
Seasoned urban practitioners can write and distribute training materials and write books; They can also visit city churches to motivate urban congregations and ministers.
The STEP UP/STEP DOWN tools and the Interactive Urban Network used to write and distribute this book (see Chapter 1) make up an integrated system for accessing and sharing urban ministry information. Introduced at the 1994 IUA Urban Strategy Institute, the purpose of this system is to provide a new kind of resource for all those involved in urban ministry.
The Interactive Urban Network combines a variety of technologies: groupware, computer networks, the Internet, metaphors, artwork and storytelling. Each activity informs the others, helping to draw out and extend the collective and individual urban ministry knowledge base.
The process is still largely untried in the urban world where one encounters every imaginable level of computer literacy and/or technophobia. To succeed, everything will depend on building trust and a continual flow of encouragement in a non-coercive atmosphere. However, by introducing the Interactive Urban Network, IUA hopes to stimulate awareness of how high and low technology can contribute to urban ministry and to bring this knowledge to those on the frontlines of urban ministry where it is needed the most.
Many of the other resources discussed above could also be expanded through the creative use of technology. Resources for urban ministry are everywhere. To gain full advantage from these resources, we need to choose the best tools we can.