Your Hidden Curriculum (part 2)

What do people learn from you about the Christian life? Sometimes it's what you never intended to teach.

Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part article. In Part 1, John Ortberg defines hidden curriculum and how it affects our ministry. Below, he explores what we can do to align our hidden curriculum with what we want to teach. The "Facing What Is Hidden" section was originally designed for pastors, but the principles involved speak well to both group directors and group leaders.

Facing What Is Hidden

How do I address our hidden curriculum? When I was a pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, Bill Hybels would say, "We will teach our way out of any problem." Not that teaching alone can solve everything, but with whatever problem we face, we can make a start by acknowledging it publicly and pursuing a solution.

Sometimes a simple, direct quote can help. I know of one pastor who was battling a hidden curriculum that in order to belong to this church, you can't have any real problems. He was talking with some folks who said, the first time they visited a church: "I didn't think I could ever fit in there. Everybody looked too together. Seeing the people gathered after the service looked like a bunch of people at a cocktail party." That was a great quote—from the mouth of an actual observer—to name the problem.

Another church is located in a suburb surrounded by a bunch of restaurants. Several members of the wait staff talked about how they hoped they didn't get church attenders at their tables, because they're such lousy tippers. One waiter said on Sundays at noon the cry goes up: "Here come the Christians." So the pastor of that church actually talked the congregation through the art of generous tipping.

Maybe the biggest single contributor to the hidden curriculum will be the people a church hires. This is particularly important when looking at spirituality. Increasingly, churches are speaking the language of spiritual formation, starting programs of spiritual direction, or creating spiritual formation departments. Often the question will arise: what kind of person should we hire to do spiritual formation?

The most important criterion is this: hire someone whose character and humility and attitude you would like to have reproduced in your church and in yourself. Not simply someone who has read a lot of Merton and Nouwen. Not someone who is a certified spiritual director. Not necessarily a contemplative reflective academic introverted monastic over-achiever. I'm not sure why this is the case, but folks can be drawn to spiritual formation (just like to any other subject matter) for all kinds of reasons.

Leading spiritual formation at a church is different than being a surgeon. I don't mind having an arrogant surgeon, as long as she's a good one. But if someone is going to champion the cause of spiritual life, they have to be at least on their way toward living the kind of life I'd like to live.

Spiritual formation is not mostly about expertise in techniques. It's not about being able to pronounce lectio divina correctly, or preferring Ignatius' forty days exercises over Rick Warren's, or knowing the difference between the dark night of the senses versus the dark night of the soul. It's having wisdom about how our spirits—our wills; our inner selves and characters—actually do get formed. It's being formed yourself in such a way that other people would like to grow in your direction.

A simple way to address hidden curriculum issues is to spend time talking with staff and key leaders about their spiritual lives. Eugene Peterson writes in Under the Unpredictable Plant how, when he started a church, the official charged with monitoring him had him fill out paperwork on church statistics and an assessment of his spiritual life, but he suspected they were only reading the numbers.

Just for the fun of it, he started making up stuff on his spiritual life report. He started by inventing a deep slide into depression. No response.

He wrote about having an affair that got discovered and led to an increase in attendance when it turned out there were a lot of swingers in his community. No one from the home office batted an eye. Each report grew more ludicrous until eventually he was leading a congregation of hallucinogenic mushroom-ingesting cultists.

Churches need to figure out how they will address the spiritual lives of their staffs and leadership teams. Some churches will make days of solitude or retreat times part of their staff schedules. I actually think that's a bad idea. I think we want to model the life we call our congregations to. And most people who work for the phone company or Yahoo don't get days off for prayer and fasting. I think it helps our integrity if we call the folks in our congregation to engage in practices in the same way that we ourselves pursue them.

But I do think it's good to ask certain questions of our leadership teams about their lives and relationships:

  • Are we able to laugh easily together?
  • Is there a general sense of strain and unease and preoccupation with numbers and techniques?
  • How many friendships get formed across departments or ministry areas?
  • How many people honestly have a good and close friend?
  • How easily do we give up in the face of difficulties?
  • How much energy do we have left over to bring joy to each other?
  • What is the level of cynicism?

The Hidden Curriculum in Me

There is an added dimension to the hidden curriculum when it comes to my own life. One of the ironies of existence is that I am (theoretically anyway) able to view the head-to-toe-to-front-to-back body of any human being on the planet, except one. There is one human being whose body I can never directly see in its entirety.


And that's not just true of my body. It's true of the formation of my own spirit. I sometimes think the biggest spot in the world is the blind spot.

Jesus, as the greatest teacher of all time, was among other things the master of the hidden curriculum. In our churches, the line between "teaching times" and "non-teaching times" seems clear. Worship services and classes are clearly marked off; people expect prepared talks, but then in the breezeways and parking lots we're "just ourselves."

For Jesus and his little community, the line between teaching moments and "just living" got wonderfully blurred. He was so aware of his Father that for him the curriculum was never hidden—and never finished.

"What were you arguing about along the way?" he asked them, and they did not want to answer, because they were arguing about who was the greatest. He washed their feet. He blessed a child. He spoke to a shady Samaritan lady. He got the whip in the Temple. He pointed out an impoverished widow giving her last two cents. He noticed how people jockey for seats of honor at a party. He was always teaching. Not because he's overly pedantic. But for the same reason that you and I are always teaching. Our actions and words proclaim our beliefs, and invite other people to reflect and respond. Always. Jesus was just more aware than the rest of us.

Paul told Timothy, "Watch your life and doctrine closely" (1 Timothy 4:16). If "doctrine" makes up the formal curriculum, "life" is the hidden side. But I need people to help me see the hidden curriculum I'm teaching.

Several months ago my wife called me into our bedroom, closed the door, said we needed to talk, and brought out The List. She told me how, when our marriage is at its best, we serve together as partners, and our kids see us sharing the load, and lately I hadn't been doing that. She noted that when our marriage is at its best, we each know the details of each others' lives, and I'd been letting that slip. She named preoccupation and a "weakness of presence" in me.

Nancy reminded me that when I am living right, there is a kind of freedom and joy in life. "I need that guy," she said. "I miss that guy."

And she was right, of course. I didn't tell her that right away, because my spiritual gift is pouting. But what I lived with over the next several days was the pain of living in the gap between the formal curriculum I teach and the hidden curriculum I live.

The light bulb came on for me when I realized that I want the reality of the hidden curriculum in my life more than I want to be successful at teaching the formal curriculum. Not just that I'm supposed to want the hidden reality. I actually do want it. Because my illusion, my temptation, is to believe that if I'm successful enough in teaching or writing the formal curriculum, that success will lead me to the inner aliveness and joy.

I have to choose the inner life, the hidden curriculum, first. Not because I think I'm supposed to. There simply isn't enough power in "supposed to."

In the life of every teacher, every church, there is a formal and a hidden curriculum. The formal one matters. It's worth getting right. But it cannot overcome a hidden curriculum that is misshapen and twisted.

The hidden curriculum shapes souls.

—John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International. For more articles like this, visit

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