At Work

How Ministry Experience Develops Critical Thinking

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This is what I hear from employers all of the time when I ask them about the skill of critical thinking: “We need people who, when they run into a problem, think through the issue, come up with a few solutions, and bring them back. For example, Solution A will get the job done more quickly but cost more. Solution B will take an additional week but save us $4,000. We are finding that our younger employees run into obstacles and then come back to management to ask ‘What should I do now?’ Management doesn’t have time to come up with every solution.”

As I mentioned previously, the skill of “critical thinking” is one of the eight competencies necessary for any job. If your experience is mainly in ministry, here’s how you can understand and explain how you’ve demonstrated critical thinking.

On the one hand, you were born to do this. Seriously, the first time that you were ever hungry, what did you do? Cried. What happened next? You were fed. Ever touch a hot stove? Did you do it again? See, you are a natural problem-solver. But of course, everybody has that same foundation. Your ministry experience has built upon those instincts in ways that you may have never considered.

Problem-Solving in Bible Study

My most substantial critical thinking training came while pursuing a degree in biblical studies. I was faced with the task of examining an ancient text, written in an ancient time, to an ancient culture, by a person who has long been dead. Then I was supposed to make sense of that text and present it to a contemporary audience, using contemporary vocabulary. I was then to provide a timeless truth to that audience while hopefully keeping them from dying of boredom.

If I came across an agricultural term that I didn’t know, like yoke, I had to look it up and then figure out what it meant. I had to ask questions like, “What’s the big deal about the dad of the prodigal son hiking up his man-dress thing and running to his son? Is that some kind of cultural thing?” Not only is critical thinking necessary to our spiritual development, but it also is a key work skill. (In fact, all of the liberal arts help to develop critical thinking skills; that’s one reason that they are SO important.)

While Bible study is a foundational skill for a Christian leader, it is certainly not the only transferable skill. Much like other student organizations, campus ministries develop problem-solving skills in a number of other ways; you just need to learn how to talk about them.

Have you ever led a small group? What happened when the meeting time didn’t work for some of your members? How did you resolve the issue? Did you ever market the group to others through fliers or personal invitations? Did you create a fun and welcoming environment by providing snacks? Did your group have an end-of-the-semester Christmas party? These questions may help you identify examples of problems that you have solved. Consider the following: what choices did you make, why did you make them, and what was the result?

Translating Ministry Experience into Résumé Relevance

It’s funny, no one ever comes in and asks me whether an RA (residential assistant) position should go on their résumé, or whether it is relevant. They assume it is. Christians, on the other hand, come into my office and say, “I led a Bible study, is that relevant?” No. It’s not. The company is not hiring Bible study leaders. But they’re not hiring Resident Assistants at their company either. You need to talk about transferable skills like problem-solving, which demonstrate critical thinking. Here’s an example:

I was a small group leader and we had the difficult task of growing attendance for our weekly meeting. I was able to ask some analytical questions regarding what nights of the week work best for students based on other campus activities. In addition, I identified high traffic areas to advertise our group. Recognizing that retention is as important as recruitment, I made sure that our meetings were fun and welcoming. You could say we wanted more customers, but we also wanted loyal customers.

The fact that it was a Bible study needs not be mentioned. It’s not irreverent to call it a small group because it was, in fact, small, and a group. You will be working with small groups of people in my company, but you likely won’t be leading a Bible study, at least not on the clock.

Of course, you can tailor this to whatever kind of job you are seeking—education, marketing, social work, etc. Just remember these three takeaways:

  1. As a person of faith, you rely on analytical skills all of the time to develop a robust and reasonable faith.
  2. The skills you use in “ministry” are general skills that are used by everyone. Why would yours be less relevant just because you developed them or used them in a faith-based context? 
  3. We are just scratching the surface here, but I trust that you can use your critical thinking skills to bring these ideas into your personal context.

In my next article, we’ll look at the skill set of “leadership.”

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the new booklet Qualified: How To Think About Your Ministry Experience In Relation To Your Job Search by Jeff Eads, available now on Amazon.

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