Being something new together

Posted Oct 31, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Joanne Thompson

Joanne ThompsonLaunching a new peer learning group program for pastors in the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ has expanded our understanding of who we are as a conference and what it is possible for us to become.

When we began, I announced that if we were able to get two new groups up and running, I would declare victory. We now have 12 groups, located all over the state, facilitated by wise and wonderful people.

Our experience has provided some lessons that others might find useful as well.

Accept that the need is real and pastors want this. Pastors know that support, reflection, learning, and companionship are vitally important to their ministries. They did not need to be convinced.

There is a significant investment of organizational time upfront, and the rewards are worth it. Our conference decided that supporting pastors in this way was a priority. This commitment then allowed us to reorder our efforts and to invest the funding to get the groups off the ground.

We are actually doing something new. Sometimes the conversation about church, culture, and change seems to go on endlessly, without our ever taking the leap of actually doing something new. Through our Communities of Practice program, pastors provide support for one another in a different kind of way. We have moved beyond merely having parking lot conversations or going out for coffee together. We are actually taking on a new kind of responsibility for one another.

Similarly, I see our middle judicatory serving in a new way. We’ve made it possible for a diverse group of leaders to offer the kind of support that was formerly provided primarily by staff. Our facilitators and group members now have the space to grow into a deeper understanding of their ordination and of their role as leaders in our denomination.

We have a richer image of our conference. It isn’t an office building located outside Madison—it’s us, all of us, the body together, meeting and praying together in groups across the state, living into our mutual responsibility toward one another as leaders of the church.

Ask for help and also tailor the program to work for your context. It took us a while to figure out our particular way of moving forward. It has been very important to design a program that works for our conference, honoring our specific strengths, weaknesses, culture, and geography, and not simply to adopt a system that worked well somewhere else.

We did ask for help. The Pastoral Excellence Program of the Massachusetts Conference UCC was very helpful to us. It was tempting to try to do what they had done. But in Massachusetts there is at least one Congregational church on every corner. In Wisconsin, on the other hand, there is at least one pub on every corner!

We had to plan for a state with a very different density of UCC congregations and where many congregations are served by licensed lay pastors with day jobs. Our planning team benefited immensely from the invitation to talk through our challenges with people who were ahead of us on the road. In fact, wherever we turned, we discovered a spirit of collaboration and generosity from people who had been involved with clergy peer learning groups and the Pastoral Excellence Network.

One of the best things about being involved with this program, is experiencing this spirit of openness to being something new together.

Rev. Joanne Thompson is Associate Conference Minister for Church Development and Renewal, Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ.

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