Pastors Supporting Pastors

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When I was first ordained a little over seven years ago, I quickly came to realize that as a young pastor I knew very little about the practice of ministry. There were many situations that I was encountering that made me feel very uncomfortable and unsure. Our church is fairly isolated geographically in the CRC, which often left me feeling like I was alone when facing the realities of ministry. I think that having recently come from the peer-rich environment of seminary probably accentuated my feelings of loneliness in ministry.

During my third year of ministry I was invited to join, and participate in, a peer group that was forming in our Classis. Being a part of that group was great. It gave me an opportunity to listen and learn from the experiences of more seasoned pastors. One thing that struck me was that all of us were facing various challenges each in our own context. It made me feel for the first time like I was a part of a team in ministry.

Having had that initial experience, I decided to become a peer group coordinator myself. The focus of our groups has been learning how to more effectively communicate the gospel with a “Reformed Accent” to our diverse Floridian culture. Florida churches understand very well the need for our teaching and preaching to be both Biblically based and passionate. The communities in which our churches are located are growing at a rapid pace, and as a result, the majority of people living in our communities have lived here less than five years. There is no sense of heritage to tie people to our churches. Instead, we must strive to articulate the gospel in such a compelling way that people will choose to join our ministry.

As our groups have discussed this topic together, we realized that we need each other’s help. How do we articulate the gospel? How can we preach and teach in a way that reaches both head and heart? What does this look like in a place that is as culturally diverse as Florida? We have read several books together including Practicing Passion by Kenda Creasy Dean and The Shack by William Young. We have also attended conferences together such as The National Pastors’ Conference in San Diego, CA and The Irresistible Influence Conference in Little Rock, AR. Every time we have had a retreat or meeting or went away to a conference, I came back better prepared to do ministry.

Being a part of a peer group has been huge for me. We have had a lot of fun together, but always had long and heavy discussions on ministry and its challenges. I think our peer group has sustained me through some otherwise tough times in ministry, and I no longer feel as isolated or alone. So, having other people that I can relate to, share ideas and concerns with, and learn from has helped me tremendously in the first few years of my ministry. I very much recommend the right peer group for everyone (learn more here).

What experiences have you had with a pastors’ peer group? Where do you get support and encouragement for your work as a pastor?
 

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Thanks Scott, fine piece.  Loneliness and isolation are indeed killers.  And, geographical distance is only one small factor that may or may not contribute to it.  Those who live in an area where there are many CRCs may know the loneliness and isolation of being in an unspoken competitive relationship with peers and churches.

My own experience?  Coming out of seminary, I had no idea what I didn't know.  About myself, about being a pastor, about what really matters and what does not.  I reached out to colleagues because the suffering of loneliness was greater than the embarassment of actually admitting that I needed help, advice and sometimes consolation.  To anyone who wants out of the lonely pastoral life I would say 'it might not click with the first colleague or group you reach out to, but don't give up'.  Peer learning groups have been a real highlight of my time in ministry.

I also want to touch on your comment about the kind of preaching we need to be doing.  I've found myself wondering about the popularity of TED talks.  They are engaging, informative, creative, often compelling.  For our preaching to have those qualities, as well as deep faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ takes fellowship, encouragement and strength, from and with peers as well as our congregations.

How sad that the institution that is suppose to train leaders and pastors in "formation for ministry" graduates candidates that have not been mentored in the practice of ministry.  This is why I believe, at minimum, one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) should be required for every Calvin Seminary Graduate.   This experience-based action / reflection model is a place were students are challenged to form their pastoral identity, face their fears, weakness and short-comings and under the supervision of a spiritual director who sets a clear direction to engage their talents, gifts and abilities to work for clear personally -tailored learning goal & outcomes.  In the CPE context one also learns the value of peer groups and mutual accountability & encouragement.  Others can shed light on our blind spots.

I am part of a professional interfaith chaplain peer group and I count it among one of the most valuable supports in ministry.   These are our ground rules:

  1. Must be a professional board certified chaplain and have done at minimum 4 units of CPE.
  2. None of the members can be working in the same institution or related work environment (all come from different work contexts –no work relationship outside the group
  3. When new members are added each member has veto power and can say “no” for any reason, no questions asked or justification needed.   Members are added by 100% yes group vote.
  4. What is shared in the room stays in the room.

We meet quarterly, do check in and any member can bring any issue to the group as they please. –we never lack for volunteers.  Currently we have about 8 chaplains/spiritual care providers in our group.

Every pastor should be part of a peer support group.

Participant

Here in Skagit County in western Washington (state) a group of us have been meeting weekly for breakfast for a very long time (since before the denomination started calling them peer groups, or peer learning groups).

It has been such a help to me in my ministry that I would have a difficult time overestimating its value. I doubt very much that I would still be in ministry, if it weren't for the encouragement and prayers of fellow pastors through some rough spots. Really.

One of the conclusions I've come to is this: no one can pastor a pastor but a pastor. Only another pastor knows what it is to be one, what the calling is like, etc. There is no other profession that can really compare to it. One example: a pastor never 'clocks out' he is always a pastor, even at the restaurant. We are known for who we are and what we do everywhere we go, and we represent not only ourselves but the Church of Jesus Christ and Jesus Himself! When we 'mess up' the Church and Christianity itself gets a black eye. That burden is hard to bear, and neither the medical doctor nor the hospital chaplain bears it as we do (though they have their own, unique burdens too).

So, how do we handle the ornery sheep in a way that is both pastoral and effective? How do we lead without dominating? How do we keep our calling central when they conflict the demands and expectations of (some of?) the members? To whom do we go to talk about our secret sin, our marital difficulties, our crisis of faith? What does it mean to be a pastor anyway? What do you do when someone writes a "letter" (you know what I mean) to all the members?

We've dealt with all of those questions, as well as some intriguing theological themes, some fascinating and some irritating books, all with ministry to the people in our churches in mind. Great stuff.

But beyond all the learning stuff, we've come to be great friends. That's just as important in ministry and goes more toward dealing with the loneliness issue than just talking about books, problems and theology. It wasn't good that the man was alone in the garden before sin, and it certainly isn't any better for a pastor to be alone in the context of a less than sinless church and this plain old sinful world. In fact, I'd say making friends is probably more important than the other 'professional-looking' stuff.

It's been and continues to be the best hour and a half I spend each week, in terms of payback in ministry.

I'll go farther than my brother Dirk above and say it this way: If you're not in a peer group you're robbing yourself and your church of the benefit of peer support. Every pastor should be in one, and every church council should insist their pastor is in one. Pastors, if there's not one close by, start one. If you have to drive an hour to get to one, make the time for it. If you have to, put it in your job description, or list of weekly tasks. We can't give what we don't have, so make sure your spiritual tank is full, and keep it full.

Hello.  I'm retired now in Bothell, WA.  I appreciate the above comments of Scott, Dirk and Rich.  I just recently returned from a 50th Church Anniversary of their beginnings in a town in NW  Iowa.  We had a great time at the Anniversary.  My ministry there had been difficult about 45 years ago,  with a mix of "old guard" ultraconservative folk and more moderate ones and the pressures of trying to turn out 2 respectable sermons/Sunday.    By now the congregation has grown in grace and in numbers and the loyalty, like still attending both services faithfully, was good to see.  I endured the stresses of the time, in retrospect, partly from having had a quarter of CPE right after Seminary (as Dirk recommends), commaraderie of like-minded minister colleagues of RCA and CRC ministers, (as Rich experiences) and some more progressive members of the congregation.  So, as a common expression goes nowadays,  Take heart:  "It gets better."   Gratefully, Don Klompeen