Peer Groups: "Ministry as Community Property"
Robin Swift, Ed Moore, and the wellness advocates have just returned to Durham from Oak Island, N.C., the site of the last of our spring series of Spirited Life workshops. Though putting on a road-show for the last three months has proven intense for our staff, we’re thrilled that the pastors have found these events to be the powerful introduction to Spirited Life that we hoped they’d be.
Robin encouraged the research staff to sit in on a workshop, so I attended the one held four weeks ago at Caraway Conference Center near Asheboro. During the workshop’s breakout sessions, pastors worked in small groups on practicing skills such as determining when and how to say no, how to listen without doing the mental work of trying to “help”, and demonstrating empathy, notably empathy toward oneself. Even though I'm not a pastor, I found the small group time to be deeply meaningful and truly refreshing.
Our hope is that Spirited Life small-group members will continue to hold one another in prayer and that these groups may cohere and live on as virtual peer groups of one form or another. And in support of that hope, I thought I’d share a couple of items about the benefits of clergy peer groups that came across my screen last week.
Faith & Leadership has a piece by Maria Mallory White about the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, which has been fostering "Clergy Communities of Practice."
The groups allow clergy to help each other with personal and professional issues on an ongoing basis. Like a medical wellness clinic, the Communities of Practice offer a place where problems can be dealt with before they reach emergency-room dimensions.
Pastors themselves report a high level of satisfaction with these groups. Moreover, research has shown benefits to the congregation, in marks of growth and vitality, when the pastor is involved in a peer group. And the Massachusetts Conference has experienced a salutary change in the clergy culture: more resources for conflict resolution; much less stress on the conference minister (akin to a District Superintendent); more collaboration across regional lines in fitting pastors with congregations; more time and space to strategize and do visioning work.
At the Alban Institute website, Barbara J. Blodgett writes about the sense of loneliness and isolation that pastors often report. She observes that it's usually a case of feeling alone in a crowd.
...Ministers do not simply experience a lack of company. The Lone Ranger metaphor is not really apt, for ministers do not really spend all that much time alone. (Indeed they often complain about just the opposite: the clamoring of other people after their attention; the endless rounds of meetings, appointments, and events crowding their calendar; and the constant ring of the phone and ping of the e-mail server.) If anything, ministers tend instead to report that they long for more solitary, quiet moments in their days. They do not necessarily desire the presence of more people. Therefore I don’t think peer groups are simply meeting a need for companionship. They meet a need for the companionship of peers who do the same thing they do.
Ministry work is simultaneously inner-directed and outer-directed. The call to ministry entails a certain single-mindedness in following the path of discipleship. But at the same time many pastors feel pulled in a dozen directions at once, trying to meet the numerous and diverse expectations of their people. The challenge is in discerning the essential practices among the many mundane tasks that confront pastors. And a peer group can be an ideal forum for that discernment.
I sense that our Spirited Life pastors have varying levels of enthusiasm about peer groups. Some may already be in a covenant group, or may just feel they have enough meetings in their lives already. I have heard the observation that being assigned to a peer group is like a third party appointing a bunch of strangers to be your new best friends.
But I urge you to consider the growing evidence of the benefit of these groups. You might think of it like a vitamin supplement you take even if you don't feel ill. You might even think of the semi-random assignment as part of the charm. I find it inspiring that God's spirit can work even in a group of fellow pilgrims thrown into one's life somewhat by chance or convenience. Life-giving resources are not as hard to find as you might think.
John James, M.A.
Research Analyst, Clergy Health Initiative