Peer Groups Offer Support, Education

Vicki Brown
April 16, 2013

Members of a clergy peer group of large church pastors during a meeting at the Disney Institute in Anaheim, Calif. Shown, from left: The Revs. Jeff Mickle, Larry Buxton, Denise Bates, Ralph Rowley, Alan Felumlee, Denise Honeycutt. Not pictured: Tim Craig.

Interaction with other clergy from diverse backgrounds, support for taking risks, and a better understanding of current trends in worship and church attendance were among the benefits of clergy continuing education peer groups.

Three groups in three annual conferences – Virginia, New York, and West Michigan – formed as part of the Nurturing Innovative  Clergy Leadership program, a pilot continuing education program sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The peer group model is now being used for a Clergywomen’s Health Initiative. About 90 clergywomen have expressed interest in forming peer groups through this program.

“The peer learning method is a biblical way of forming Christian leaders; Jesus formed and developed 12 disciples and nurtured collegiality and creativity among them based on trust.  The uniqueness of GBHEM’s clergy peer group program is the collaborative funding of it.  I trust that annual conferences will see the value of financial investment for these groups, which will enable more clergy to receive the benefits of their professional development and the renewal of their mind and spirit with their colleagues, ” said the Rev. HiRho Park, GBHEM’s director of Clergy Lifelong Learning.

The Rev. Alan Felumlee, pastor of Centreville United Methodist Church in Virginia, said his group’s work included a meeting at the Disney Institute in Anaheim, Calif., about creativity and collaboration. His group, made up of seven pastors of large churches, is still meeting regularly and plans to continue getting together after the two-year pilot group is finished.

Felumlee said one event – a two-day meeting with Wesley President David McAllister-Wilson and three professors –  helped him come to a better understanding of the current trends in worship and church attendance, including the decline of the mainline denominations.

“It was helpful to understand that this is cyclical and that the church has been through this before. We discussed the changing face of the church and how we can make adjustments to reach new generations,” Felumlee said. He said the pastors talked about the multi-ethnic makeup of communities, and how to reach younger generations in ways that do not rely on institutions.

“If we are resurrection people, then we shouldn't fear the death of the church as we know it, trusting in God to resurrect a new form of church that will relate to new people. Having that assurance and knowledge gives me a satisfaction that all is still in God's hands and not mine,” he said.

The Rev. Judy Stevens, facilitator of the New York Annual Conference group and pastor of East Meadow UMC and Bellmore UNC, said the intentional diversity of the peer group she was involved in was one of the most important factors. The group of seven elders and one local pastor included an African American pastor and a pastor from the Afro Caribbean tradition; two Asian pastors, one of Korean and one Indian ethnicity; two Hispanic pastors; and two pastors of “the western European milieu.” 

“We found that the things we did together were enriched by the different perspectives,” Stevens said.

Stevens said one issue that proved challenging was when five of the eight clergy received new appointments. “The pilot program required someone to keep it going, and I had a new and challenging appointment. Once the model is established it may be easier,” she said.

The peer learning group set four goals:

  • Creating and modeling a beloved community that practices joyful collegiality and challenges the group to recapture the joy of our ministry.
  • Investigating holistic approaches to maximize our self-awareness and confidence as authentic leaders who practice creative and innovative leadership.
  • Exploring alternative ways of managing expectations and time; setting appropriate boundaries; articulating personal and professional goals related to health, finances, personal relationships, public ministry; and the identification of tools, resources, strategies, and next steps toward meeting these goals. 
  • Identifying effective processes for discerning, applying, and sustaining spiritual gifts for our peer learning group and for our congregations.

Activities included a midnight run handing out food and sandwiches to homeless people in New York City. The peer group read three books and had day-long gatherings to reflect on those readings. Books included Kevin Cashman’s: From the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, followed by a day with a life coach assessing core values as related to life balance and goals.

They attended an event with Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr that focused on innovative clergy leadership, spiritual renewal, action, and contemplation. 

“We got together every two months for a couple of years. People were really valued being able to pursue learning goals together and to be able to bouncing ideas off each other,” Stevens said.

The pastors in the Virginia group were pretty close together geographically, and they meet twice a month for breakfast just to touch base and chart the future, Felumlee said.

He said the meeting at the Disney Institute focused on defining creativity as the collective expression, analysis, and implementation of new ideas within an organization.

“One concept we all carried with us from the institute is collaboration – working together with clergy, laity, and lay staff to come up with new ideas. This begins by building genuine relationship with the aforementioned groups of people. It involves creating an atmosphere where ideas can be expressed honestly and without fear, and producing the most and best ideas using available resources,” Felumlee said.

“They shared ways to develop a collaborative culture within our organizations and shared their key components of collaborative culture,” he said.

Felumlee said the fact that the pastors were all serving large churches with similar demographics was helpful.

“Two or three members of our group are serving their first large membership church and they are able to bounce ideas and situations off the rest of us, who have been serving similar sized congregations for many years. We share an identity and can help each other through difficult situations,” he said.

When one of the pastors brought an idea to the group that might be on the risk-taking side, the group could help work through and plan for potential risks.

“One instance pertained to a member's interaction with a group within the church that was performing in ways that were contrary to the pastor's beliefs. We explored several approaches to the situation and provided support to the pastor confronted with the situation,” he said.

Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

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