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So Much Better: How Peer Support Can Revive Pastors' Passion

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In 2004, after nearly three decades as a pastor, the Rev. John Terpstra found himself straining to find joy and meaning in what he did for a living. He was in his early-50s and wondered what would come next.

“I felt like I’d run out of gas,” said Terpstra, pastor of Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I didn’t have much vision for the church. I was struggling internally [with] staying committed to [being] a pastor. I was in a low spot, kind of a valley or dark night of the soul.”

What transformed his career, he now says, was his decision during this period to join a peer-learning group with a handful of other pastors from across North America. At their three-day retreats, held three times a year, “we began to talk about highs and lows… and to my surprise my fellow pastors had life experiences that very closely paralleled mine.”

When the group meets, he says, “We listen. We don’t try to fix each other. We listen. We try to support each other. For me, that has been a life-changing experience.”

Peer-learning groups that help pastors recharge their batteries are a familiar part of clerical life in the United States. Nearly three-quarters of pastors participate in them. Their successes are outlined in a book published earlier this year, So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, a project associated with the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative of the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

The book draws from national surveys of pastoral leaders and a separate survey of thousands of ministers in peer group programs. Among the findings:

· Peer-learning groups help pastors emerge from mid-career blues and are helpful for those “who want to go to the next level in their ministries.”

· Leadership roles at churches of participating pastors tend to rotate among interested lay people rather than be concentrated in the hands of a few.

· Pastors who attend peer-learning groups with trained facilitators and curriculums, and who participate for several years, have more impressive records of growth at their churches.

“A history of participation in a peer group is significantly correlated with the growth of congregations,” said Penny Marler, a professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and one of the authors of So Much Better. “It’s actually quite amazing. I was really astonished that the history of being a pastor in a peer group was… a significant factor for predicting church growth.”

The study concluded that the most successful peer-leadership groups have a high-quality facilitator, a formal group covenant, collective spiritual practice, denominational diversity, mutual trust among members and good attendance at their meetings.

Male and female pastors reported different attractions to the groups.

For women, they can be an “antidote to isolation, especially if it is a group of women clergy,” according to So Much Better. Female pastors tended to view group meetings as respites from the “triple time bind” of work, chores and commuting, and as opportunities to improve their listening skills and to alter their perspectives, “especially if the group is interdenominational.”

The reported draws for male pastors included the chance to deepen relationships with peers, to link congregations in ministry and to indulge a hunger for Bible study.

The authors contend that the best peer-group experiences involve a balancing of polarities. Meetings, for example, should have both “discipline” and “freedom” — that is, structure and predictability on the one hand, but spontaneity and play on the other. They should also contain both the “familiar” and the “strange.” According to the book, “The balancing of these polarities is central to successful group formation.”

The authors also likened the dynamics of peer-learning groups to the relationship that existed between Jesus and his disciples.

“What Jesus begins with a small group of peers,” the authors write, “becomes a model for the church.” The relationships among Jesus and the disciples were replete with experiences, both positive and negative, that introduced challenges to the group. Judas betrayed the group; Peter was hardheaded, though ultimately steadfast; Jesus, “a model facilitator …challenges the disciples to think in new ways, and they learn and trust honest confrontations.”

The book examines seven different peer leadership groups, one of them interfaith and the others affiliated with Pentecostal, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic parent organizations. (Denominations often write checks to subsidize peer-leadership groups’ gatherings.)

In surveys, many individual participants reported feeling reenergized, and that they were able to revitalize their ministries.

Terpstra, for one, said the discussions within his peer group transformed him so greatly that he wanted members of his church to benefit from similar interactions.

The idea came to him, he said, that the men in his church “had to learn how to live in community. I saw too much solo leadership.” To change that, he organized Saturday breakfasts at the church, every other week, “where the only agenda is, ‘How are we doing today?’

“It’s fifteen men,” he said. “It’s a good support group.”

 

So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive is available from the publisher, Chalice Press.

The Lilly Endowment’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program funds efforts to improve worship and pastoral leadership skills through peer learning groups and other projects that lead to strong, stable and growing congregations. Learn more by visiting the website of the new Pastoral Excellence Network.

The Lilly Endowment, Inc., is an Indianapolis-based private philanthropic foundation that provides funding in several areas, including education, community development and religion. The goal of Lilly’s religion funding is to encourage new vocations and nurture existing pastors in order to build healthy, vibrant and strong church communities. 

 

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