Spotlighting the Center for Continuous Learning
VALLEY FORGE, PA (12/08/2023)—As cultural and other changes take place, the role of clergy shifts. With many shrinking congregations and reduced pastoral staff, ministry leaders are often expected to possess wide-ranging skills not necessarily taught in seminaries, such as financial, fundraising, IT, or management skills. The extra responsibilities put strain on pastors’ lives. This became particularly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many congregations were at a loss about what to do about clergy burnout, while pastors left the profession at an increased rate.
Observing these trends, Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, executive director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, concluded that there was a need for more in-person practical mission education that was responsive to challenges of today’s world. He envisaged mission education that would embody current trends in leadership training, critically engage the cultural moment for healing and justice, and deliver mission education creatively.
The Beginnings of CCL
The Center for Continuous Learning (CCL) was the result of this vision casting. Inevitably, the COVID-19 pandemic changed some parameters of CCL’s operation as a delivery framework for the American Baptist Home Mission Societies’ (ABHMS) delivery framework. Officially launched in June 2021, CCL began its existence as an online education center, introducing its website with a Learning Management System (LMS) for distance learning.
On January 1, 2021, Rev. Rebecca Irwin-Diehl, PhD, became director of the CCL. In the first quarter of 2021, she collaborated with a web design company on the final details of the website that would become CCL’s online home. Subsequently, ABHMS staff were involved in consultations about potential online course offerings they could develop. CCL was subsequently integrated with the former Discipleship Ministries unit, including Jennifer L. Sanborn, now the national coordinator of learning initiatives, and Leda Carter, program coordinator for the Center.
The inaugural webinar delivered via the CCL was “Starting the Money Conversation,” sponsored by ABHMS’s In Support of Excellence (ISOE) program (directed by Sanborn) and facilitated by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). The May 2021 offering was a lead-up to the June 2021 launch of the CCL website and a celebration of the culmination of ISOE’s Lilly Endowment Inc.-funded financial education program, which had been providing cohort learning and debt-relief grants to pastors since 2016. The live webinar, attended by 150 participants, received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
In an official ribbon-cutting event on September 21, 2021, the CCL opened its physical doors in the Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III Learning Center at the Leadership and Mission Building (LAMB) in King of Prussia, Pa. The CCL’s first in-person learning experience was held in October 2021, when the Discipleship Summit convened a group of 35 ministry leaders to learn from church consultant, pastor and author Michael Beck of Fresh Expressions about equipping churches with a model for thriving in the midst of overwhelming cultural change.
CCL’s Offerings Driven by Demand
Since its online launch, CCL has delivered dozens of courses; some have been synchronous and cohort-based; others are on-demand for individual and small-group use. Some are free, and others are priced according to intended audience, format, organizational investment, missional goals, and industry standards for distance and hybrid learning.The learning experiences offered in the first year included: “Starting the Money Conversation” that expanded into a webinar series delivered in both English and Spanish; “Holy Currencies” and “Intercambios Sagrados,” an on-demand series from Kaleidoscope Institute in both English and Spanish; and “Chaplaincy Skills for Community Ministry,” a popular 6-week certificate course.
The selection of CCL courses on offer has been driven by need and demand. “Being Baptist: History, Identity & Polity” is a synchronous cohort course that satisfies many regions’ Baptist polity requirement for ordination; the ABHMS’ offering is an accessible and affordable option for those whose seminaries or regions do not offer a similar course. Rev. Diane Badger, coordinator for the Commission of Ordained Ministry of the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, took the pilot “Being Baptist” course out of professional interest in Baptist history—she works on an archive of Massachusetts Baptists’ works—but also because she wanted to ascertain whether the course would be accepted by her region for ordination purposes. She said: “I liked the way they [CCL] took it and related it to today. So, for example, separation of church and state—which of the issues that we see happening now should we be talking about in connection with the principle of separation of church and state? I thought that was really well done and valuable for people to know. They really brought forth the tenets of our faith in a constructive, thoughtful manner.”
Life-changing Impact of CCL’s Offerings
One of the participants of that inaugural course, Ch. Rev. Derek White, enrolled because he was seeking ABC recognition for his United Church of Christ ordination after he accepted a call at a federated church in Norfolk, Mass. He was brought up in a diverse religious context; one of the churches he attended as a child was a very conservative Baptist church in Massachusetts. As he matured in his faith, Rev. White was uncomfortable with the strictness of that congregation. He said: “I didn’t know if I felt comfortable identifying myself as a Baptist because of that.” The course gave him more in-depth knowledge of the diversity among Baptists: “A great part of the course was to help me to understand other Baptist perspectives, so that I understood that I could identify as being Baptist, but I didn’t have to identify with that very conservative branch perspective of Baptists.… That probably was the biggest takeaway from the course. It was just understanding the identity of what it meant to call oneself a Baptist.”
Faithful Finance courses build on the success of earlier In Support of Excellence offerings. This track helps ministry leaders improve their financial acumen by connecting money skills with spiritual discernment around finances. Clergy leaders who complete courses in this track improve their ability to be good stewards of their own resources, as well as gain confidence as a first port of call for their congregants who might have financial questions or issues.
Student loan debt is a primary concern of pastors participating in financial education courses. In response, CCL has hosted multiple workshops on student loan management and forgiveness. Pastor Vince Godfrey from California, who attended one of these workshops, was in $80,000 of federal loans debt that was part of the financial aid package provided to him as a student from a lower socioeconomic bracket. He said: “My wife is a social worker, and I’m a pastor. And as anyone who knows we love what we do, but we are not getting rich by it. We could pretty much only pay off the interest, so that that main amount just stayed there. And we really tried. And so we just thought this [debt] was going to be something that was going to be part of the rest of our life.”
The information that Pastor Godfrey gleaned from the CCL webinar changed everything. With surprise, he learned that he qualified for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. He spent a long time completing the application and required documentation for PSLF, then waited an additional year for his paperwork to be processed. When the response to his application finally came through, he could not believe it: “At that point in time we had $77,701.61 debt. I know that number very well, because I looked at that every day for well over a year. It was forgiven, completely, down to zero. It was a very emotional moment. It took us several weeks to kind of really believe it.” The erasure of the debt has changed Pastor Godfrey and his family’s life: “It opened up a thousand dollars a month in our budget so we were able to do things that we could not do before. My daughter went to her first ever camp. She is special needs, and the camp is $1,500. I could never have done that before. All those things just opened doors and took this weight off of the shoulders.”
What Comes Next?
CCL continues to change lives by ministering to the American Baptist community. The signature tracks that are envisioned include Being Baptist (offerings in history, polity, identity for clergy and lay leaders), Chosen Generations (resources for ministry for/with youth and young adults), Faithful Finance (curating and continuing the legacy of ISOE) and Vocational Discernment. In 2024, CCL is offering a plethora of courses and workshops that will empower and equip believers in Christ in the spirit of the ABHMS missional priorities. They will include two online workshops, the “Why Sabbatical? Planning Workshop” on January 5, and “Domestic Violence Training for Clergy” on January 29 (in partnership with American Baptist Women’s Ministries). January will also see the launch of a new webinar series for Asian American Pacific Islander leaders on the topic of mental health.
Registration is already open for two cohort courses starting in January 2024, a new section of “Being Baptist: History, Identity, & Polity” and the brand new 4-week cohort, “Hungry for Spiritual Direction.” The spring will bring additional webinars in the Faithful Finance and Chosen Generations course tracks, with a focus on ministry with children and youth. For details, go to the Center of Continuous Learning website at ccl.abhms.org.