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Who Has Time to be Thoughtful?

I always look forward to autumn — the weather, the trees changing, a new “school” and program year getting underway.  And then autumn arrives, and from now until next summer, I suddenly recall, will be one banana peel after another, navigated at breakneck speed.  Ready or not, it’s already time to start planning for next year, just when this year is getting underway – budgets, event scheduling, logistical arrangements requiring long lead-times, break over me like a surfer’s nightmare wave.

Just at the time I’m hoping lots of people will become involved in the sort of lifelong educational opportunities that the Alban Institute offers, I rediscover the question that looms over all of us in our leadership roles in congregational life: “Who has time to be thoughtful anymore?” My email inbox level rises inexorably, like a slow-motion tsunami threatening to wash me out to sea.  Committee meetings beget more follow-up sub-committee meetings. And these require more emails and conference calls, and … need I go on?

Online or offline, there just isn’t time for the sort of thoughtful deliberations that are essential to continuing learning for leaders in communities of faith.

The thing is, I know that I am in no way unique.  And this isn’t a church problem; it’s a larger social and cultural challenge that is indicative of the times we live in.

I’d like to find someone to blame this on.  Nicholas Carr this past summer wrote an article for The Atlantic Magazine that proposed one potential culprit, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  It’s really a very thoughtful article about the effect of our learning technologies on the process of learning itself.  Carr want us to think about the ways that the availability of an exponentially increasing volume of information encourages us simply to skim the surface, rarely taking the time for thoughtful reading and reflection.

I’m not sure, however, that I can blame my own lack of thoughtfulness on Google.  After all, I found Carr’s article by ….. Googling it.   In any case, most of what I learn about anymore has at least a tangential connection to Google — it’s how I even find book titles to buy from Amazon to read in all their inky, pulpy tangibility … which I still do, and with regularity. And yet, as I skimmed over Carr’s article, I realized I was one of those people who, hearing the clock ticking over my shoulder, can easily find myself unwilling to maneuver even the 4220 words Carr needed to express his thoughts.  Email notifications, as you can well imagine, continue to pop up even as I write.

Maybe, too, it’s the political season, when facts often seem disposable in debates, when emotion and perception and style so often are stand-ins for thoughtful, intelligent, substantive dialogue.  I keep waiting, at the end of a 60-second strategically placed TV campaign spot, for the candidate to come on and say, “I’m the person this is talking about and I don’t approve of this ad!”

Obviously, however, all too many of us feel all too often that thoughtfulness is a luxury that our schedules simply no longer permit.  It makes me wonder what this is doing to all the older approaches to continuing education for congregational leaders?  I fear that even these are more and more frequently prone to getting packaged into shorter formats, full of pithy sound bites, and ending in three, five, or twelve-step action-plans.  I wonder what we can do to encourage the kind of learning that needs time, that can’t be reduced to slogans, and that convinces us to hold off on acting precipitously not just until more is known, but until what we know already is more deeply understood?   Thoughtfulness is not an excuse for inaction, but an alternative to brinksmanship, which looks good on TV but rarely works out for the best in real life.

Learning is always about more than information, however much we need accurate knowledge about a subject before we start pontificating about it.  The deeper kind of learning that is capable of instituting and sustaining creative growth and change in the life of congregations doesn’t just need explanations of how things are, but a deeper, interpretive understanding of how they got that way and the implications of continuing or challenging things in the future.

Google need not be antithetical to thoughtfulness.  But it will be, if we can’t learn to make the time to think about all the information we can have at our fingertips.   Opportunities for thoughtful, imaginative, and insightful learning are vital, indeed essential, to congregational life if we are to resist the emotion-driven, thoughtless, power-hungry manipulation that gnaws away at the bonds that unite us in our society and our churches, as well.

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