How to develop a personal learning plan for the new year

Jack was frustrated as he stared at his laptop screen. He was on an annual personal retreat planning his twelfth year as senior pastor at Christ Community Church.

The screen showed all his learning activities from the year before — the conferences, seminars, and classes he had attended; the books he had read; the sermons he had studied; and the leadership groups he had joined. He was passionate about learning and kept himself accountable by compiling and checking this list each year during his retreat.

But this year he was not satisfied just having a list — he wanted to know if it was the right list. God was stirring his heart about fresh ministry horizons, and he knew he wasn’t prepared. Shouldn’t he be matching his learning to his future journey? All the items on the list had been helpful to him, but had they been strategic?

For instance, the books he read were chosen more by accident than by planning — he overheard someone talking about one and happened to see another advertised online. Could other books have been more helpful? And one of the conferences he attended was more out of habit than for ministry development.

Jack thought to himself, ‘I need to get a better handle on my learning choices.’

Can you relate to Jack? If you are reading this article, you are probably a leader with a long list of completed seminars, conferences, books, and courses. The continuing education possibilities for leaders today are endless — and that is the problem. A busy leader may be tempted to choose learning based on opportunity, schedule, and cost rather than according to personal development needs.

I call this ‘shotgun learning.’ It may have worked well a generation ago when you could choose a seminary program, seminar, or conference simply because it fit your schedule or your pocketbook. You could always count on stumbling across information somewhere that was helpful to you. Today, your choices are too many and your time is too valuable to make ‘shotgun learning’ decisions. A better way is to develop a learning focus based on your ministry development needs.

But how do you do that?

A ‘Personal Learning Plan’ can guide you to make strategic learning choices and serve as a tool to evaluate their usefulness later. The effectiveness of your plan depends on how well you tie your learning to your calling. Here are four steps to help you get started:

Step 1: Rediscover your ministry horizon
How is God stretching you? What do you see on the horizon of your journey with God? How is your call unfolding? What is the direction of the faith steps God is asking you to take?

No matter how long you have been in ministry, God has a ministry horizon for you — future ways he wants to stretch you and use you. Sometimes leaders make the mistake of connecting all of their strategic planning to their current ministry position, causing them to lose touch with their personal calling. They forget that their calling is a journey of experiencing God that is greater and lasts longer than any ministry position.

Step 2: Conduct a personal assessment
Assessing the gap between where you are now and the future ministry horizon you envision is important. Yet it may be the most difficult step, since personal assessment can be so easily influenced by denial and self-deception.

Daniel Goleman defines ‘emotional intelligence’ as ‘the ability to know yourself.’ Spiritual leaders develop emotional intelligence through the discipline of personal and spiritual reflection, through the practice of journaling, and through relational channels of accountability and feedback.

Honest personal assessment is most difficult for the leader not yet free to be that unique person God designed and shaped. Trying to be someone you are not, even after years in ministry, can keep you in denial about the ‘real you’ God wants to develop. Rediscover your personal ministry horizon and honestly assess how prepared you are for the challenge. Then think about the ministry competencies that need further development.

Step 3: Identify priority learning pathways
Once you rediscover your ministry horizon and honestly assess your starting point, you are ready to identify priority learning pathways. These learning pathways will guide your personal ministry development in the direction of your calling.

Keeping the number of pathways to three of four at a time will help you focus your learning. Once you are pleased with your development in one area, you can replace that pathway with another.

For instance, Jack saw on his ministry horizon a greater emphasis on mentoring future leaders. Yet his tendency to be emotionally distant made close, authentic relationships difficult. One of three priority learning pathways he chose was ‘to learn how to authentically express my feelings in community.’

Step 4: Consider the resources available to support you
With his learning pathways identified, Jack saw with ‘new eyes’ the learning resources available to him. He immediately thought of books, conferences, study programs, and learning clusters with other leaders that could help him develop. Choosing resources became much easier with his learning pathways identified first. Now he could get a better handle on his learning choices!

Jack opened a new file on his laptop and smiled as he typed at the top ‘Personal Learning Plan.’

This article is adapted from the Rockbridge Seminary course ‘Developing the Focused Life.’

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Sam Simmons. Dr. Simmons is co-founder and vice president for learning design at Rockbridge Seminary. © Copyright 2010. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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