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Pastor Peer Groups: A Lifeline

November 16, 2022
Photo: Unsplash - Hannah Busing

They call themselves the Heidelberg Cats, revealing something of the humorous side of their long friendship. In the 10 years since they became friends at seminary, though, this group says their close ties have been like a lifeline for them as pastors.

Adrian de Lange is the pastor of preaching, care, and spiritual formation at River Park Christian Reformed Church in Calgary, Alta. He helped coordinate the group to apply for a grant from Pastor Church Resources to facilitate a summer gathering of the group of five pastors, along with their spouses. The other pastors include Michael Nanninga, Brandon Haan, Justin Carruthers, and Jonathan Fischer.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group had gathered for a summer retreat each year since graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary. Michael Nanninga, a pastor at Maranatha CRC in Belleville, Ont., noted, “A Pastor Church Resources Grant made the first retreat possible in 2013. Once it was recognized by all of us how life-giving these in-person gatherings are – not only for us as pastors but also for our spouses – it was decided we would meet at each of our ministry locations to ground our friendships further. . . . Without these annual retreats, I doubt our group would have continued.”

This year’s gathering, near Calgary, Alta., included time at a food festival, a hike in the mountains of Banff National Park, sharing a rented house and meal responsibilities, and discussing a book together: Mark Sayers’s A Non-Anxious Presence.

“Sensing the need to simply be together, we purposefully deprogrammed our retreat and spent a little more time just being together this year,” said Nanninga.

The couples took turns preparing meals for the gathering too, Nanninga noted, adding that some friendly competition came out in the cooking. “The food was next-level,” he laughed. “Frankly, Loretta and I left the retreat with a common understanding that we need to step up our game.”

“The time together was what we all needed most,” agreed Brandon Haan, senior pastor at Ivanrest CRC in Grandville, Mich. “We also make sure to spend time in which each couple updates everyone on how they're doing, and the rest of us pray for them. That was very healing this year.”

The annual in-person gatherings bolster a friendship also maintained through biweekly online visits, in which they begin with a lighthearted social time and then move into more serious discussion and prayer.

“We take turns ‘bringing something’ to the group. It's normally some question or situation one of us is facing. We outline it, and then the rest of us take turns offering encouragement, feedback, constructive criticism, or prayer, depending on what the situation seems to require,” explained Haan. He added that their spouses also regularly group-chat together and support each other.

Several members of the group noted that it can be difficult for pastors and their spouses to find long-term friends. Whether because of frequent moves to new communities, the distance that can be created by having a position of authority and visibility, or other reasons, many pastors and their families can feel isolated.

In addition, in recent years, differing opinions on public health measures, politics, human sexuality, environmental care, the economy, and other issues have divided churches and families, they noted. It can be difficult for pastors to lead and strive for peace and cooperation.

De Lange, in the group’s mid-year report to Pastor Church Resources about the grant, reflected, “We need people we can trust and rely on for prayer support and resources. Ministry is profoundly hard right now – and we’ve felt that even in our group. Now, more than ever, I find the group is a matter of survival.”

Justin Carruthers, a pastor at Gateway Community CRC in Abbotsford, B.C., agreed: “This group has been an immense blessing in my life. It's beyond words. While pastoring is a joy and a privilege, it also has its seasons of difficulty. Having a group like this to confide in and pray with is simply a gift from God to me.”

Lis Van Harten of Pastor Church Resources is encouraged by groups like the Heidelberg Cats. “Clergy health and peer groups are definitely connected,” she said.

Pastor Church Resources (PCR) provides a number of resources for pastors and their families, including grants, financial planning programs, vocational assessment, consultation, and, more recently, access to counseling. Van Harten noted that a lot of interest was expressed in just the first week this service was made available, reflecting a need for resources related to self-care and healing.

Over 250 groups and nearly 1,000 pastors have benefited from PCR’s Peer Learning Group Grants, designed to foster the kind of friendship and support for pastors and their spouses that the Heidelberg Cats have found. The grants webpage explains that pastors in each group decide how to build and manage their group: who is in it, what their topic or focus will be, when and how often they’ll meet, what resources they might study, and whether to attend a conference or plan a retreat or gather in other ways. All CRC congregational pastors are eligible to form a group and apply for a grant.

Asked what he would say to a pastor considering joining a peer group, Haan suggested, “Do it. It's that simple.” Considering the pressures of ministry and the support that this group has been for himself and his spouse, Haan noted, “This sort of thing is crucial. I mean it when I say it's a lifeline.”