An Ounce of Prevention: Healthy Pastors, Healthy Churches

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“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This wise saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin is heard so frequently these days it sometimes seems like a cliché. Yet the appeal of this adage is easily understood. In all areas of life—from home repair to healthcare—prevention simply makes good sense. Why not put a little effort today into prevention if it means we can avoid big problems—and expensive cures—in the future?

When Christian Reformed Church (CRC) pastors gathered recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to share how their involvement in peer learning has contributed to their personal and professional effectiveness, the concept of prevention versus cure came up repeatedly. The pastors’ experiences pointed to the truth of Franklin’s proverb. Investing in the health of a pastor today may require some upfront time and effort—and some financial resources—but it’s less costly than the cure.

Thanks to funding from the CRC’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) project through Lilly Endowment Inc., CRC pastors can now access funds to start a peer learning group, nurturing their pastoral health through mutual support, networking, mentoring, and continuing education. In 2005, 22 groups received peer learning grants through the program, and—as their leaders attested at this recent gathering—these funds were an investment in prevention, one that will no doubt yield many positive returns in the future.

Rev. Harold Winters leads a peer learning group in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The group, which meets monthly, aims to deepen relationships between pastors in the region while exploring the concept of pastoral character through workshops, book discussions, a retreat, sharing and prayer. At one meeting, a psychologist met with Winter’s group to share skills in maintaining appropriate boundaries, something that protects pastors, their families and the entire congregation. Peer learning activities like these really do contribute to their effectiveness as pastors, explains Winters, but they also play a preventative role. “We are better able to serve, less likely to experience burnout and less likely to succumb to moral failure,” says Winters. “One of my colleagues referred to our peer group meetings as a workout for his spirit. If we are spiritually fit, we’re less liable to suffer spiritual injury.”

Rev. Stan Workman—pastor of Oasis Community Church in Oakland, Florida—also understands the critical nature of prevention for pastors. His group was formed to provide mutual support, preventing the pastoral isolation that can lead to stress and burnout—and contribute to personal and family breakdown. “Our group provided a safe environment where participants can truly share. The continuing reward has been strong mutual support and a genuine caring about each other and our ministries. The surprise has been to see how God has arranged each gathering time to be the exact time a member of the group has needed extra care, a listening ear, and genuine feedback.”

When great distances separate pastors from their peers, as they do in the interior of British Columbia on Canada’s west coast, the need to prevent isolation is even more crucial, says Rev. Andrew Vander Leek. Vander Leek is pastor of Vernon CRC in Vernon, B.C., where he leads a peer group called the Interior B.C. Pastor’s Leadership Network. He says that while it may be difficult to measure the long-term impacts of a pastor’s involvement in a peer learning group, it’s hard to deny the correlation between healthy pastors and healthy churches. “Because of the group, we don’t feel alone in ministry,” says Vander Leek. “We are growing in our knowledge and are better equipped for leadership. We are healthier leaders with a support network of other pastors who encourage us.”

When asked if their groups will continue to meet once their funding from SPE has expired, most participants at the conference answered with a resounding “Yes!” Yet many admitted that lack of financial resources may require them to meet infrequently or to substantially downsize their activities. An alternative would be for churches to set aside some funds to ensure pastors involved in a peer group can continue to participate even after grant monies are phased out. “How can I convince my congregation that funding my involvement in a peer learning group is important?” one pastor asked. Perhaps the answer can be found in that famous Franklin quote. Churches can pay now and reap the many rewards of pastoral health and effectiveness; or, perhaps, pay later when a crisis erupts. When it comes down to a choice between an ounce of prevention or a pound of cure, the answer might become a little more obvious.

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