The Learner

The Learner

Confronting God, Golf and Beyond

A novel by Tom Warren

The ministry is difficult. So much is asked of you, and expectations are high. It’s hard to please everyone, and hurt can fester and grow, especially when maters stay unresolved. In The Learner, young pastor Christopher Ek confronts the challenges of leading his church, while trying to become a better golfer.

Golf — when taken seriously — is hard. Some say it’s a metaphor for life: just when players thing they have discovered its secrets, the game turns on them. Nothing works. But a gorgeous shot on the last hole of a disappointing day will bring them back for more, and suggest that there is home. And there is, for a while, but the Sisyphean cycle continues, no matter the skill of the player. Like life and church, golf is a game full of hope and frustration.

Grappling with these matters, Pastor Ek confronts the forcefulness of the youth of his church, who are learning about homelessness in their midst. Before long, they develop big ideas and seem to be taking over the congregation. Out in the pews members are asking: “What are our children up to? Are we a place of G-o-d or g-o-l-f? and “who is this foxy new liturgist?”

The Learner by Thomas Franklin Warren

Full interview with the author, The Learner

Thomas Franklin Warren

Reader Comments About The Learner

Arland Hultgren

Seriousness and humor, discord and kindness, vocational discernment — they are all here in full view. Tom Warren is a layperson who appreciates and understands the many challenges confronting clergy and churches, along with the games that people play.”

Steve Howland

Interesting and penetrating. As a retired pastor it raises questions I delt with constantly during my active ministry such as… when is there too much “honesty”, and when does “honesty” become a weapon of brutality? The Learner would be a useful tool for a church or clergy study group to explore these issues.

Jerry Gustafson

The Learner is a cautionary tale for prospective ministers… Warren expertly limns the subtleties of this story that ranges alternately from philosophical depth to warm humor. Some parts are so good they startle the reader.

Stephen L. Hawkins

The Learner vividly demonstrates the struggles of a pastor to moderate the multitude of voices within a church at odds with itself. Warren adroitly portrays the inside politics of congregational life, illustrating how stagnation often wins out over an entrepreneurial mission of service.

Bill Stark

Superbly written, The Learner is a thought-provoking treatise on homelessness, the ministry, and the metaphor for many issues of the day: golf.


This is a story of a young man fresh out of seminary who becomes the pastor of a church seeking a new leader. Somebody, they advertised, “. . . who can relate to young people. Somebody who can offer us creativity. Somebody who can take criticism. We want somebody who likes challenges and is a great preacher. We are still learning about lots of things, and we hope that our new minister is too, but it wouldn’t hurt if s/he is also a miracle worker.”

The man who got the job was still learning, and he knew something about miracles. He had been part of one on a golf course. It hooked him on the game forever. So, when the church called him, they confronted something new with the golf, but challenges as old as the scriptures emerged as well: homelessness and love.

The visitor said, “. . . and they’ll make you sign statements where you pledge to behave.”

Everyone chuckled. One of the seminarians replied, “Tell me more.”

“Well, congregations vary, but my first church was very clear up front that their clergy better not get into–they called it–a complicated relationship with a member. It might diminish one’s objectivity as a spiritual leader.”

The other visitor chimed in, “Yeah, that’s chapter and verse for many churches. Even if they are two consenting adults, a pastor’s primary relationship is to the parishioner, and it must be maintained. As a trusted mentor, not a friend or business partner or lover, or part of a member’s regular golfing foursome.”

Chris interrupted, “Even in congregations led by our Chicago graduates? Won’t they be tolerant? Won’t they treat us as individuals? The churches that hire us?”
“Some are very strict. They say that if the pastor-member relationship is no longer primary, then it needs to be severed in order for the parishioner to find a new spiritual leader. She or he may even have to stop attending that church.”

Twelve first-year students and two ordained alums had gathered in what was known as the Lower Room, a relaxing place for libation and conversation in the basement of a big, old, white frame house in the cluster of seminary buildings adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. Its bulletin boards were plastered with notices of upcoming events and things for sale. Photos under the heading of “Trouble Makers” plastered the walls: Mother Teresa, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Martin Luther, John Dewey, Jane Adams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Mahatma Gandhi all stared right back at you. In a space labeled “Image of the Month” was a glossy black and white print of a homeless guy dozing in a sleeping bag curled up at the bottom of a south side street sign. “This could be Jesus,” was scribbled on the wall next to the picture. Following it in a different hand: “Duh, no kidding.”

These aspiring ministers of God were tapping into the experiences of two ordained graduates of the seminary who were back in Hyde Park for a conference about the future of Christian youth in mainstream America, but the topic of the moment was dual roles.

The first alum went on, “The simplest way to understand dual roles is that it’s a conflict of interest.   Parishioners’ needs must be protected and come first. There was a minister’s covenant or code–or whatever they call it–that I signed at the time of my ordination. It says that I will not use my ministerial status, position, or authority knowingly to misguide, negatively influence, manipulate, or take advantage of anyone in any way.”

Chris gasped, “Wow, not anyone?” and everyone laughed, but he didn’t think it was funny. Recently, he had dreamed of holding forth from his pulpit while a member who would become his future wife stared up at him from her pew.

The second alum said, “Without communicating clear boundaries up front, dual roles can become hard to manage, and harm a lot of people . . .” Students interrupted.

“Can’t congregations and clergy create their own special agreements? Ones that are mutually sensitive and respected?”

“What if they’re not a member of the church–the other party? Does that make a difference?

“What about relationships with young people, like teenagers in confirmation?”

“It better be platonic.”

“Or intellectual.”

“Hey, even intellectual ones can cause trouble if they go in certain directions or too far. Be careful.”

“What about sports? What if you like one team and they like another?”

The first alum spoke up. “Well, that’s usually all in fun, but it, too, can go too far. Emphasizing sports. Ad nauseum. Pardon the image, but talking about sports is a lob shot or gimme putt for many ministers: Easy and irresistible. But be careful. Don’t be known primarily as an athlete who came to The Lord, even if it’s true.”

The second alum added, “All of this is especially dicey if you are an unmarried pastor in a small town, since many people that you meet are either current members or potential ones, assuming you covet new acquaintances like most of us shepherds do.”

A student went, “Baaa, baa.” Only a couple of the others smiled.

“Hey, sports are important to lots of people. Too important, I think in many cases, but this never gets written into pledges about behavior, and please don’t get me going on and on about Sunday morning soccer games and how they suck kids out of churches.”

These topics were not new to Chris and his classmates, but talking about them in a group that included ordained clergy was sobering affirmation of what they had learned here and there: Being a minister of God is complicated and challenging.

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