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Gathering with a Peer Group

Embrace of Friends, Carol Aust ©

Pastoral ministry is a privilege rich with blessings. As pastors, we see firsthand lives healed and transformed. We accompany parishioners in seasons of deep joy and sorrow. We preach at the intersection of God’s Word and the life of our communities.

But this privilege comes with a cost. Almost all of us in ministry experience times of loneliness, disequilibrium, and weakness. Pastor peer groups can address these challenges by providing a safe place to share and pray over these struggles, receive insights and encouragement, and enable mutual accountability.

Guidelines for Launching a Peer Group

Pastor peer groups function best with

  • two to six participants who commit to regular attendance
  • a clear and transparent purpose and boundaries
  • shared leadership
  • a covenant that enhances the safety and flourishing of all
  • scheduled group checkups every six months, in which each member reflects on how things are going
  • a wise small group facilitator who is invited to listen to reflections on how the group is doing and to make suggestions for strengthening the group’s time together

Questions for the First Gathering

Peer groups should discuss the following with clarity and transparency:

  • How often will we meet? At what time will we begin and end? Some may consider an end time unnecessary. But most pastors are more relaxed when the time commitment is known. This serves to focus the group as well.
  • What is our purpose for being together? What activities will best serve this purpose? Most groups want time to share, give mutual support, and pray. Some groups wish to incorporate study within their time together: going through a book, sharing sermon ideas, reflecting on theological issues, etc. Studying together can give rich benefits, but it does not directly minister to a pastor’s soul. Moreover, it may function as a wall for the pastor’s soul to hide behind.
  • How will we handle challenges? It’s important to recognize that there are no perfect groups. Someone might consistently dominate, miss meetings, or take the conversation off track. When challenges surface, the temptation is simply to drop out. However, if regular checkups are scheduled at the first meeting, then adjustments can be made (see more about those checkups below).
  • What should we include in our group covenant?
    • See Red Cord Community Touchstones for some guidelines on making and maintaining relationships in small groups.
    • Gareth Icenogle creates a small group covenant based on the Ten Commandments. For a theological understanding of covenant making, see his book Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry, chapters 3 and 4.
    • Richard Peace includes covenant making in each of his study guides. He suggests nine commitments as a place to start: attendance, preparation, participation, prayer, confidentiality, honesty, openness, respect, and care.

    A Peer Group Checkup

    A peer group checkup is a proactive way to address potential challenges. Here are some questions to help determine how your group is doing. You may want to come up with your own set of questions. The important thing, however, is that these checkups happen regularly and that each member’s voice is heard.

    • Is God’s presence and perspective the centering reality of our group? How are we welcoming the Spirit into our midst?
    • Are the purpose, direction, and expectations for the group clear and realistic?
    • Are we a safe group, speaking to one another truthfully, in love, and confidentially?
    • Are we making room for each member to share and participate? Does this need attention?
    • What contributes to the development of our life together, and what blocks it?
    • How has God been discovered or more fully made known through our group?

    Examples of Pastor Peer Groups

    • One group of seminary graduates, dispersed throughout North America, committed to gathering regularly. Every month they connect by video to pray together. Once a year they meet together at one of the member’s homes.
    • One group of six meets monthly for 90 minutes. Each person is allotted 15 minutes of time. Each shares, and then three of the members pray for that person. This group has found it important to steward the time carefully.
    • Another group of two meets monthly for lunch and sharing. After lunch they take time to pray for each other.

    “Everyone needs a kind friend, and I feel grateful for my friend. He and I have met for lunch or coffee almost monthly for about seven years now. We share matters taking place in our work and our homes and beyond. We recommend sources of wisdom, offer encouragement to one another, and end each appointment with a time of intercession for one another. I find that when I articulate what’s on my mind, I can actually learn from myself as well as from him because putting my feelings into words helps to clarify and reveal. Jesus said that when even two people meet in his name, he dwells in their midst and brings the power of heaven into embodiment on earth. That has been my experience, and I believe our friendship has been a blessing not only to me but also to the people in my life. I commend the practice of participating in peer groups.”
    —Joel Kok, pastor of Willowdale CRC, Toronto, Ontario

    Ending Well

    Every group has a life cycle. A very small number of them flourish for decades, surviving pastor moves to new congregations. Others are enriching for a time and then come to an end.

    Ending a peer group can be awkward, but the six-month checkup described above can serve as a life-cycle checkup as well. During that reflection time, four different scenarios may result:

    • The group may recognize that it’s called to continue its current direction.
    • The group may recognize that it’s called to continue after adjusting the current direction.
    • One or more group members may recognize that their calling to participate in the group has come to an end.
    • The entire group may recognize that its life cycle has come to an end.

    If all or part of the group decides to stop meeting together, then meet one last time to look back on the growth each of you experienced, and pray for each other as you go your separate ways.

    Another significant way of being together with peers is Small Group Spiritual Direction. Pastor Jeff Sajdak wrote a practical “How to” guide for starting such a group titled "Group Spiritual Direction for Pastors". He also shares his own experience as well as benefits of and resources for this practice.

    PCR Peer Learning Groups

    Pastor Church Resources (PCR) is eager to support pastors through peer learning groups. Many pastors say these groups are essential for learning, refreshment, support, and encouragement. Congregations, families, and church councils are also blessed as pastors are revitalized.

    Peer Group Resources

    “I have found that one of the great temptations in ministry is for my identity to get tangled up in the successes and failures of my pastoral work. The longer I have served in ministry roles, the more I have come to treasure places and groups where I am known as a friend, a brother, or neighbor, rather than as “Pastor.” It’s in these spaces that I can remember that I am a child of God and that my pastoral performance is not the basis for my identity in Christ. Gathering monthly with several other men for prayer and personal discernment has provided a consistent community in which I am wrapped into the wonder, mystery, and beautiful fragility of remembering and believing that we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
    —Chris Schoon, pastor of First Hamilton CRC, Hamilton, Ontario