When clergy peer groups don’t work (and why)

Posted Apr 22, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Penny Long Marler


One in a series of blog posts by the authors of So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive.

Penny Long MarlerI was talking with a United Methodist bishop when he asked me what I was working on these days. I said I was particularly excited about some positive research on clergy peer groups. He shook his head and said, “Well that’s a surprise—that’s not my experience.” He went on to describe how he and some fellow bishops were required to meet as a peer group. “All people did was complain,” he observed, “There was really no point to it.”

I think lots of people operate out of the assumption that getting people together who ought to have something in common is a good thing. And that assumption drives a tendency toward peer group antidotes to all kinds of ministerial challenges. But peer groups that help ministers thrive are intentional and require mutual commitment and discipline. They are not an easy or natural solution, which is also part of the “quick fix” trap. Peer groups cost in terms of time, energy, and even resources. They don’t come cheap—which belies another lay assumption about such strategies. Peer groups, especially those composed of pastors, also require a tricky shift in focus. They-who-are-in-charge are not, and negotiating what James Bowers calls “facilitative leadership” can be treacherous. That’s why trained facilitators or peer mentors can be helpful when negotiating egos and agendas.

In So Much Better, we highlight what makes peer groups successful. The other side of our analysis is what makes for a group that is not so successful. First, as I have already hinted, an unsuccessful peer group doesn’t have clear leadership—either in the form of a facilitative leader who helps the group “be all that they can be” (like radical agency groups at the Institute for Clergy Excellence) or a guiding and mutually negotiated learning contract that includes agreement about tasks when leadership is shared (like holy friendships at Austin Presbyterian Seminary).

Second, an unsuccessful peer group doesn’t have a formal group covenant or group guidelines. There is no agreed-upon behavioral contract (as there is for pastoral covenant groups at the Church of God, Cleveland).

Third, unsuccessful peer groups don’t engage in spiritual practice together. They don’t pray, meditate, share the Eucharist, or practice Lectio Divina (as they do among companions for leadership at Seattle University’s School for Theology and Ministry or in cross cultural peer immersion groups at Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention).

Fourth, unsuccessful peer groups aren’t very diverse. In fact, when we analyzed the responses of more than 2,500 pastors, only denominational diversity was significantly related to an experience that was rated as “so much better” (as is the case for narrative peer groups at Triangle Pastoral Counseling in Raleigh). There are instructive exceptions, however. Green Spaces at the Christian Reformed Church of North America are composed of one denomination. But offsetting advantages include the requirement of individual and group goals, coaching from program staff about shared leadership, and a shorter trust curve among self-selected members.

Fifth, unsuccessful peer groups don’t experience mutual trust and accountability. And sixth, there is not a high level of attendance at group meetings. In pastoral peer groups that don’t work very well, a few people tend to dominate; members don’t feel that they can share honestly; and people tend to arrive late and/or leave meetings early.

Finally, although not all clergy peer groups are successful, the research does show that pastoral leaders who have participated in peer groups are more likely than pastoral leaders who are not in a peer group to have (or encourage) participatory leadership among their congregants; to have (or encourage) outreach to the community around their congregations; and to have (or encourage) funding for continuing theological education. Being in a peer group—even a poor one—is strongly related to a tendency to value participation and continuing ministerial education. Or, maybe, just the notion that people ought to get together who have something in common. If the tendency is there (and the funds, too) then the step toward more intentional peer group strategies may be easier and more natural than we have any right to expect.

Penny Long Marler, one of the authors of So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive is professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. She was formerly the project director of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence at Samford and co-principal investigator of a study of the effects of clergy peer groups funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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