Learning how to learn

Lisa Misner —  January 7, 2016

LeadershipIf you have been in a leadership role for very long, you have experienced organizational insanity! It can be described as doing what you have always done, the way you have always done it and expecting different results. We chuckle when we hear that because we know how easily it can happen.

It would be nice if annually articulating a clear vision based on the Great Commission, creating a strategy based on the five functions of the church, and then providing training for our staffs and volunteers were all it took to be effective in ministry. Unfortunately, it is not. In addition to these important leadership activities, we must help the churches we lead become learning organizations to prevent drifting off mission.

A church that is a learning organization will stay responsive to its ministry environment. It will learn better ways to meet the needs of its community and create new on-ramps for the gospel.

We see the principle of being a learning organization in Acts 6:1-7. When the early church had success in reaching Greek people with gospel, the need for reorganization and new staffing to meet the growing ministry needs became evident. These believers learned what needed realignment by looking at the ineffectiveness of their food distribution system and were able to transform their ministry structure, resulting in greater disciple-making capacity.

We live in a time when there is a lot of talk about church revitalization and church planting. I am for both. Let me suggest that when churches need revitalization, often it is because they have quit learning. They no longer know how to make adjustments to their mission efforts because they are not learning from their field efforts. They might not even think that it is necessary to learn from their results in the field. I contend that after we have done our theological homework, the next source for vital organizational learning is the mission field we are trying to reach.

Here are three ways churches can stop the insanity and become learning organizations.

1. Establish a supportive learning environment. Create opportunities for staff or volunteers to express their thoughts about the work they are currently doing without fear of being belittled. Help people become aware of opposing ideas that are present. Help them move beyond fixing problems to creating novel solutions. I have found asking these four questions about how things are going is a helpful place to start:

  • What is right about our methods and results?
  • What is confusing about our methods and results?
  • What is missing from our methods and results?
  • What is wrong about our methods and results?

2. Create helpful learning processes and practices. In order for an organization to learn, helpful facts and information must be gathered, processed, interpreted, shared and acted on. Probably the best known example of this approach is the U.S. Army’s After Action Review. It is a systematic debriefing after every mission:

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What will we do next time?

3. Model learning at the senior leadership level. Senior leaders who model learning:

  • Invite input from peers and subordinates in critical discussions.
  • Ask probing questions.
  • Listen attentively.
  • Encourage multiple viewpoints.
  • Provide time, resources and venues for reflecting and improving past performance and for identifying challenges.

Remember, you will lead the organization that you allow or the one that you create.

Bob Bumgarner is executive pastor at Chets Creek Church in Jacksonville, Fla. He will be the featured speaker at the Illinois Leadership Summit, January 26-27, 2016. Reprinted by permission from the Florida Baptist Witness.


Lisa Misner


Lisa is IBSA Social Media/Public Policy Manager. A Missouri native, she earned a Master of Arts in Communications from the University of Illinois. Her writing has received awards from the Baptist Communicators Association and the Evangelical Press Association.