Pastors' Spiritual Vitality Toolkit
As you continue your journey toward greater spiritual vitality, this prayer for pastors by Dallas Willard is our prayer for you:
My hope and prayer for each of you is that you would have a rich life of joy and power, abundant in supernatural results, with a constant, clear vision of never-ending life in God’s world before you, and of everlasting significance of your work day by day.
Pastoral ministry is rewarding—at times even exhilarating—and fulfilling and uplifting. But it’s also humbling, frustrating, relentless, and draining. As a pastor, you care for God’s people, nurturing their spiritual health and well-being. But do you also care for your own soul?
The Pastors' Spiritual Vitality toolkit is a new way to help nurture your life with God. It’s designed for and by pastors to strengthen you on this journey, but many of the resources are easily adapted to support your ministry leaders and congregations as well.
Since nurture and growth happen best in community, this toolkit is relationally based. Here you’ll discover resources for developing one-on-one relationships as well as small- to medium-sized groups to nurture your spiritual life.
In this toolkit you’ll find
- four Assessment Tools for increasing your self-awareness.
- a Spiritual Companions Chart for helping you discern what kind of one-on-one relationship might best support you.
- guidance for developing basic Rhythms and Practices.
- Pastor Stories of formative relationships and habits.
- additional Resources for shaping personal rhythms and practices.
We're here to help! For a personalized introduction to the resources in this toolkit contact us.
One grows in spiritual vitality as roots in God are nourished, relationships with God's people pursued and rhythms of grace practiced.
Roots. Spiritual vitality looks like the God-blessed tree of Psalm 1, flourishing on a fertile riverbank. Through the baptismal waters, God transplants us there. Through a relationship with Jesus, we’re invited into a fully alive life. Through cooperation with the Spirit of life, God grants us health and vitality, nourishing our roots, strengthening our branches, and causing fruit to grow in season.
This toolkit identifies important resources that help nurture and sustain this God-blessed life.
Relationship. Spiritual vitality is the process of becoming who we were created to be: God-lovers, people-lovers, kingdom-lovers. We need to nurture all three of these relationships. Sometimes as pastors, we prioritize feeding the sheep over our own relationship with the Shepherd. Yet feeding his sheep flows from this intimate relationship. Feeding his sheep becomes an expression of our love for God.
This toolkit is organized around relationships, divine and human. We can’t have spiritual vitality without them. Through them God loves us, grows us, and makes himself known.
Rhythm. Spiritual vitality involves waking up to the wisdom of the rhythms of life God created. Over the centuries, wise Christian leaders have learned to pay attention to those rhythms: working and resting, dying and rising, planting and harvesting. God built into his world the means to grow and flourish. Engaging these rhythms and ways of growth opens the door to a spiritually healthy lifestyle.
For a picture of what a spiritually healthy person looks like, read Neal Plantinga’s description in Spiritual Hygiene, an excerpt from Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin. Reprinted by permission of Eerdmans Publishing.
Mirror images are both helpful and deceptive. Mirrors reflect but also reverse real life, and they don’t reflect what’s in our hearts. The best assessments go beyond a mirror image to help fill out our self-understanding. If we're open, the Holy Spirit can work through assessments to illuminate dimensions of our personalities that might otherwise go unnoticed. These may be hints of our shadow side and/or honorable fruits of the spirit.
Assessments can also help us know God better. Our tradition teaches that God-knowledge and self-knowledge are related. Knowing ourselves can help us experience our Creator more fully. Knowing our Creator more fully can help us live more wholly.
Assessments have relational and vocational benefits as well. Seeing ourselves as we are, we can become more compassionate with others and fit more comfortably and joyfully into God’s kingdom service.
There are many assessment tools available for gaining self-awareness. We’ve identified four of the best to get you started.
Four Self-Awareness Assessments
The Birkman Method Personality Assessment
The Birkman is an in-depth personality and vocational assessment. It leads to a deeper understanding of your motivations, behaviors, and perceptions, and it reveals the kind of support you need to maximize your gifts. The Birkman is a great tool for recognizing your ideal fit in ministry—the place, says Sam DeJong McCarron, “where your heart sings and where God is glorified.”
How do I take the Birkman?
- To take the Birkman, contact the CRCNA Ministry Assessment Consultant available through Pastor Church Resources. The consultant will guide you through the assessment process and help you integrate the results with your life and ministry.
- For more information, explore the Birkman website.
“It turns out that ministry transitions end up being some of the more challenging stuff of life! Who knew?! I certainly didn’t, but I’m so thankful to have worked with the CRC’s Vocational Ministry Assessment Initiative, which provided an objective perspective to help me properly gauge my ministry sweet-spot. I’ve done other career assessments, but the results often end up feeling random, since they don’t take into account my local and denominational contexts. This was not the case with the help I received from the Ministry Assessment Office, which took the time to understand my particular circumstances and provide wise counsel that was spot-on. I’m so glad I reached out for help.”
—Phillip S. Leo, pastor of Calvin CRC, Oak Lawn, Illinois
The StrengthsFinder Profile
The StrengthsFinder Profile helps identify what you naturally do best. It recognizes your uniqueness through a cluster of five “signature themes.” Once you identify your strengths using the assessment, the program shows you how to develop, build, and nurture these strengths.
How do I take the StrengthsFinder Profile?
The StrengthsFinder Profile is available online. In order to take the test, you’ll need to purchase the book StrengthsFinder 2.0. Each book contains a unique identification number that enables you to access the profile. The number, however, may only be used once. Results are best discussed with a certified StrengthsFinder coach.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
The MBTI identifies your personality type and expresses it through a four-letter code. Your MBTI type has implications for how you learn and how you teach. It shows how your personality affects relationships, personal growth, and vocational preferences. It also helps you understand why you’re drawn to certain spiritual practices.
How do I take the Myers-Briggs?
- Take the test online for a fee at mbtionline.com.
- There are also many free Myers-Briggs tests online. However, without an experienced administrator or coach to help you interpret the results, many of the benefits are lost.
See Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland for discovering spiritual practices that resonate with your MBTI personality type.
The Enneagram is an ancient personality typing system used for spiritual formation. Authors Cron and Stable say it reveals our human wiring with “uncanny accuracy.” It helps you figure out who you are and what spiritual ruts you may be stuck in. But it also helps you discover a path toward wholeness. Enneagram wisdom can lead to deeper compassion for others and deeper intimacy with God.
How do I take the Enneagram?
- Visit wepss.com to take the Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales assessment.
- The Enneagram results are best interpreted in a conversation with a spiritual director.
- Books such as Self To Lose - Self To Find: A Biblical Approach to the 9 Enneagram Types by Marilyn Vancil and Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling can enhance your understanding of this tool.
- Attending a Christian Enneagram workshop is a good way to explore the Enneagram and its wisdom for today.
Making Room for God
Making room for God involves saying yes to Jesus’ invitation to come to him:
“Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
—Matthew 11:28-30, The Message
Making room for God is indispensable to spiritual vitality. That’s what we learn from Jesus. That’s what the saints of old attest to as well. Through these regular practices, we come to experience Jesus' loving presence and supernatural power and open ourselves to the Spirit's transforming work.
But making room for God is challenging in a world characterized by hurry and hyperstimulation. Yet those who seek after God with intention and perseverance find him. In finding him, we also discover soul-rest and abundant living.
Practices That Make Room for God
Historically, there are two types of Christian practices that make room for God. These are practices of abstinence and practices of engagement. They function together like breathing: inhaling and exhaling, emptying and filling. We need both for our spiritual life.
According to Dallas Willard, in practices of abstinence we’re saying “no” to certain things in order to say “yes” to others. Practices of abstinence include solitude, silence, sabbath, simplicity, secrecy, sacrifice, fasting, and chastity. Our culture has a collective “fear of missing out” (FOMO). But in practices of abstinence we intentionally withdraw or do without. We make room for something far greater: Jesus’ presence and provision.
In practices of engagement we commit to certain practices and habits individually and in community. These include practices of meditation, prayer, worship, fellowship, hospitality, celebration, service, confession, and submission. We develop these habits in order that Christ may be more fully formed in us for the sake of others.
In this section you’ll find four of these practices—two of abstinence and two of engagement. There are many other rich practices that can help you make room for God. We encourage you to ask God’s guidance in discerning what your soul needs. A Spiritual Director may also be helpful in the discernment process.
Practice of Abstinence: Silence and Solitude
Ordinarily the practices of silence and solitude are paired together. Through them we disengage from external noise and the responsibilities of human relationships. Through them we quiet the internal noise of our minds and hearts. Decluttering internally and externally helps us to be more fully present to God. Being more fully present, we can hear better and respond to the Holy Spirit's still, small voice.
Unplugging is a related practice, “calling us to leave the world of technology in order to become more present to God and others” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Calhoun). It pairs well with silence and solitude. Since we’re connected 24/7, it takes intentionality to go “off grid”—to forgo texting, checking email and Facebook, playing games, and watching TV. But the benefits of occasional unplugging are substantial.
“I love to unplug. There, I’ve said it. At our SPE retreat two summers ago, I forgot my phone charger and, over the weekend, forgot all about my phone. This unintentional blessing created a realization in me that I am too dependent on my personal devices. That time without my phone was distraction-free, focused, engaging, and worshipful. I entered more easily into prayer, conversation, and even helpfulness in our shared kitchen. What a gift ‘unplugging’ is for me!”
—Adrian de Lange, pastor of New Life CRC, Grand Junction, Colorado
- In solitude “you become you in a deeper way. And you begin to hear the whisper of the Divine,” says Cliff Bajema in the Banner article “Come to the Quiet.”
- “After the rampant busyness of my life as a 24/7 on-duty pastor, at the Hermitage I found a major missing component of my health—a focus on being, not doing,” says retired Baptist pastor Mel Williams. Read more about the life-giving impact his monastery visits had on him in the “The Gifts of Being.”
- Two recommended books: Invitation to Solitude and Silence by Ruth Haley Barton and The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen.
- Guided personal retreat: If this is a new practice for you, you may benefit from having an experienced person guide you. Many retreat facilities provide such a person. Check with colleagues or your regional pastor, or call some facilities in your area directly to see whether they furnish this kind of support.
- Self-guided retreat. Find ideas for planning a personal retreat day in the book A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God. The design of the retreat corresponds to the movements of Lectio Divina. In A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants you’ll find twelve monthly retreat models, each with a pastoral theme, such as “Principles That Give Life,” “The Call to Serve,” and “The Demands of Ministry.”
Practice of Abstinence: Sabbath
Primary to our calling is promoting and maintaining the church’s gospel ministry. We engage in that calling wholeheartedly (sometimes feverishly) because we know Christ is the world’s hope. Yet the rhythm of sabbath is actually an invitation to stop ministry activity. We stop in order to enjoy God’s gifts and restorative activities. We stop to remember our identity and find our rest in Christ alone. And by stopping, we’re proclaiming to our ego-driven world that our world belongs to God.
As Pastor Andrew Kuyvenhoven wrote, “When a person works from May to August constructing a swimming pool in his backyard, ‘Sabbath’ arrives on the day he and his friends swim in the pool. The work is finished, and behold, it is very good” (Comfort and Joy).
Like many of us, Pastor Mary Hulst is both drawn to and resistant to sabbath observance. “But stronger than the resistance is the draw,” she says. “The draw to a morning where I have nowhere to go, nothing to do. The draw to a morning of one more cup of tea, a longer time of prayer. A morning when my heart can listen to Jesus.” See the Banner article “Day Off . . . or Sabbath?”
- Article. In “Rhythms of Work and Rest for Ministry Leaders”, Kurt Fredrickson of Fuller Theological Seminary identifies some practical ways to live a Sabbath lifestyle.
- “Playing and praying”—that’s how Eugene Peterson summarizes what sabbath became for him and his wife, Jan. He tells his story in chapter 3 of Working the Angles and Chapter 26 of his memoir The Pastor.
- In Keeping the Sabbath Wholly Marva Dawn invites us to return to the God-given purpose and rhythm of sabbath, which includes ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.
- In Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives Wayne Muller reminds readers about God’s sabbath provision for the rush and pressures of our lives.
- In his book 24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life, Matthew Sleeth explores “remembering the Sabbath” as a concept that we have regrettably forgotten and offers guidance for restoring sabbath rhythms to our lives.
- Reflection questions. To help you explore sabbath-keeping with a mentor or small group, see questions for reflection, discussion, and journaling in the handbook Toward Effective Pastoral Mentoring as well as after each chapter in Lynne Baab’s book Sabbath Keeping.
After being part of the SVP [Spiritual Vitality Project] and having the gift of a sabbatical (with excellent conferences I was able to attend), I have realized the importance of silence and solitude and sabbath keeping. After 23 years of youth ministry and knowing it’s not easy for me to relax and rest, I decided it was time to implement a plan. I have put a recliner in my office and will use that for reading and meditating on God’s goodness toward me. I will also be taking a more concrete day off during the week. And I will continue checking in with my spiritual director to ensure I stay on track with those things I have promised to do to enhance my walk with God and my ministry effectiveness.”
—Ron Hosmar, pastor of youth and congregational life, Calvin CRC, Ottawa, Ontario
Practice of Engagement: Meditating on God’s Word and World
We know God through his two amazing and beautiful books: his Word and world. Meditation is the practice of paying careful attention to both. Enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we come to discover every aspect of creation as a means to know God. We begin to listen to the words of Scripture differently, not as information, but as formation and relationship. We ponder the life and teachings of Jesus, the Word Incarnate, so we may live more fully alive as he promised.
- “An excerpt from Scripture steeps in the vessel of the heart,” says Angela Josephine as she reflects on the practice of Lectio Divina. “The Holy Spirit then draws forth the flavor of one particular word or phrase to speak directly into the life of an individual. The practice’s intent is to cultivate the ability to drink deeply of the cup of Christ and to ‘hear with the ear of our hearts.’” Read more...
- Sermons. “An Ode to General Revelation” by John Witvliet invites us through nature to recognize God’s beauty and goodness. In “Set Your Minds,” John Rottman acknowledges the challenges of setting our minds on Jesus and the kingdom. The heart of meditation, says Bob Arbogast, is not the perfect environment, but desire. “Lord Jesus, speak to me. I’m listening…I want to hear you.”
- Lectio Divina or Praying with Scripture. This ancient practice helps us listen deeply to the “living and active” Word, applying it personally to our own lives. Bonhoeffer says this is a must for pastors. Lectio can be done individually or in a small group. See the RCA website for an explanation of this practice, along with step-by-step guidance of how to do it.
- Lection Divina. This ancient Christian practice helps us listen deeply to the “living and active Word,” applying it personally to our lives. Bonhoeffer says this is a must for pastors. Lectio can be done individually or in a small group. See the RCA website for a description, along with step-by-step guidance how to do this practice. Audio Lectio: Find a guided Lectio based on the week’s lectionary gospel reading at Lectio/Active/UpperRoom.
- Novel. In her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard is an exemplar of someone who explores and contemplates nature, life, and faith.
- Book and study guide. Eugene Peterson likens Scripture meditation to a dog gnawing on a bone. For a richer understanding of Scripture meditation, Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, along with its Study Guide, is designed for small groups, with questions, activities, and prayers.
Practice of Engagement: Prayer
Prayer is both communication and communion with God. There are many different prayer forms. Ordinarily they fall into two categories: “doing prayers” and “being prayers.” Doing prayers are active. We share with God our praises, thanks, confessions, and needs. Being prayers are ones in which we’re simply present to God, enjoying his companionship. Both are important.
In our tradition, prayer has always been a significant prelude to our ministry activity. But prayer is so much more. It’s an invitation to participate in the life of the Trinity. And prayer is the means to that end.
- “The psalms confirm that we know God’s presence at all times only if we set aside certain times of prayer,” says Arthur Paul Boers. Read more in the article “Uncovering the Blessings of Fixed-Hour Prayer.”
- The Psalms.
- Praying the Hours or Fixed-Hour Prayer. This biblical practice helps us develop a healthy rhythm of work and prayer, praying at set times during the day. Mennonite pastor Arthur Paul Boers discovered this blessing following the devastating death of his sister. Check out his story and various resources to get you started. Prayer books can also assist in this. Seeking God’s Face provides a year’s worth of daily prayers and readings. A similar series of prayer books are available through Upper Room: A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants and A Guide to Prayer for All Who Walk with God.
- Prayer of Examen. The Examen is a series of questions we ask ourselves, helping us notice God in our everyday lives. It also helps us recognize things that bring life or death to our souls. Walk through this early Christian practice with Mark Thibodeaux SJ. on this website or by using his app.
- Centering Prayer. This kind of prayer helps one learn trust, receptivity, and rest in God’s presence. After a frightening experience with stress, RCA pastor David Muyskens began to incorporate some contemplative practices in his life. He shares his story in the book Forty Days to a Closer Walk with God and mentors us in Centering Prayer. You may also enjoy this beautiful Centering Prayer Mobile App from the Catholic tradition with direction, prayers, peaceful sounds and timer.
“I used to begin workdays with sermon prep or e-mails. Some time ago that changed, and I started beginning each workday with a half-hour walk instead. During that time, I seek to listen to God and pray, both for specific leaders and members in the congregation, but also just in general for the church. I try not to overstructure this time, also creating space in which I’m open to hearing God’s voice (which can be easy for anyone, including pastors, to avoid—even if the day is filled with “church activities”). I think this practice has helped the day as a whole be less hectic, and I trust it also helps me to be following God better than simply blazing ahead with work he may not be leading me to do. It doesn’t matter how busy we are unless the Lord builds the house . . . or church.”
—Jonathan Fischer, pastor of New Hope CRC, Bangor, Maine
Meeting with a Spiritual Companion
God eagerly desires our friendship, wholeness, and maturity. He delights in our formation and growth into the loving person he destines us to be. For this reason, he gifts us with his Holy Spirit to companion, guide and transform us.
God promises human accompaniment and support on our journeys as well. These companions in Christ help us in a variety of ways. They provide safe space for sharing our deepest longings, hurts, doubts, and dreams. They assist us with exploring, reflecting, discerning, and applying. They point us toward practices of grace which lead to freedom, wholeness, and joy.
Different kinds of support are needed for the particular circumstances and changing seasons of our lives. We encourage you to ask God's guidance in this pursuit. Also, refer to the spiritual companion's chart to help discern what kind of relationship might best support you at this time. Finding a good fit is important to a soul nourishing relationship.
Spiritual Companion Comparison Chart
- Each of these relationships requires confidentiality
- Each overlaps somewhat with the others
- To some extent, each encourages co-creation of the meeting’s agenda
Overall health and well-being
Pastoral health and well-being
Spiritual health and well-being
Mental health and well-being
To improve a specific area of one’s life or leadership
To discover and make progress toward a desired goal
To receive accountability
To draw from the wisdom, experience, and character of a seasoned pastor as well as from classic pastoral wisdom
To reflect on one’s pastoral vocation and cultural context, intentionally and comprehensively
To grow in loving relationship with God
To increase sensitivity to the Spirit’s presence, guidance, and power
To mature so that Christ is more fully formed in one’s soul
To address past or present trauma, losses, or transitions that affect one’s present life (i.e., anxiety, grief, addiction, conflict, depression)
To discover God’s agenda for the pastor’s life and ministry while seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance to see that the agenda becomes a reality
To enable the pastor to live out his or her pastoral calling with integrity and faithfulness
To pay attention to and respond to the Spirit's personal communication to the pastor, to grow in intimacy with God, and to live out the consequences of that relationship
To cope with life’s transitions, traumatic experiences, and losses in a way that contributes to emotional growth and helps to sustain relationships and carry out responsibilities at home and at work
Exploring reality and clarifying a vision
Developing steps/strategies to get from “A” to “B”
Theological reflection and topical discussions
Prayer, networking, and resource support
Address personal, spiritual, and/or congregational challenges
Explore ways of experiencing and responding to God as well as ways to wholeness
Individual or small group counsel that addresses problems and/or conflict
Introduction or evaluation of medication, if needed
Assessments, questioning, intuition
Coaching 101: Discover the Power of Coaching by Bob Logan
Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore
CRC regional pastors. To locate the Regional Pastor(s) in a particular classis, choose your classis on this page.
Ministry tool from Faith Alive: Toward Effective Pastoral Mentoring
Family systems theory influencing personal and congregational health. See Generation to Generation.
Scripture; Christian spiritual writings; spiritual practices; liturgical, sacramental, confessional traditions; Christian images and symbols; spiritual giants; Enneagram
Psychodynamic or behavioral therapies
One's Christian Faith
See The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero
Spiritual Companion Stories
- Coach. See this Banner article on how “Coaching Inspires Indiana Pastor” on the verge of resigning. Read how two “Michigan Churches Get Coaching for Better Ministry” by turning problems into solutions and taking current ministries to another level.
- Counselor/Therapist. In the Banner article “When Pastors Hurt,” Rick Nanninga shares his experience of a full-blown panic attack while preaching. Nanninga found help through a psychiatrist and counselor, enabling him to return to his pastoral life and duties.
- Pastoral Mentor
Pastoral Mentor. “I have always had strong, caring mentors in my life—something that cannot be said for many people. These have been people who saw some gift or potential in me. In ministry, however, I have taken the difficult but imperative step of seeking out mentors for myself. After failing in some small ways, as we all do, God humbled me enough to enable me to recognize that I was not the spiritual leader who others saw, nor was I yet the spiritual leader who God was making me to be: I needed a mentor.
“My mentor has invited me into his life: to view his ministry, his marriage, and his other discipling relationships up close. I am a better pastor today because he has not simply given me information about ministry, but rather he has shown me a life that is worth imitating. This, for me, has been the most powerful part of his influence in my life—and that imitable example both enables and challenges me to mentor others.”
—Adrian de Lange, pastor of New Life CRC, Grand Junction, Colorado
- Regional Pastor
Regional Pastor. “As a regional pastor, I have been privileged to support pastors and share ministry together. In my widespread geographical region, we have been blessed with Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grants, which have allowed us to gather together, nourish friendships, foster understanding, wonder theologically, and sustain healthy ministry. While I initiate some things as the designated “regional pastor,” intentionally connecting as a group (often via video conference) encourages mutual support. And grassroots ministering of one another goes far beyond anything I could ever hope to accomplish on my own. I'm not suggesting it is always easy, but, like other areas of ministry, regional pastoring has often been filled with unforeseen blessings: encouragement, support, vulnerability, laughter, and cherished collegiality, to name a few.”
—Joel Ringma, pastor of Terrace (B.C.) CRC
- Spiritual Director Syd Hielema procrastinated when a friend insisted he seek out a spiritual director. But once he gave in, he found a rich gift of grace. Now he calls him his Psalm 139 companion. See why in his blog.
Spiritual Director. “I met several times with a spiritual director during my Spiritual Vitality Project time and subsequent sabbatical. She was perceptive, gracious, and never judgmental. I learned to be gracious to myself in the rigors of ministry, and her insights into my life proved invaluable. I will continue with periodic check-in visits. They are God-ordained, and I should have done this 20 years ago as an aid to my ministry.”
—Ron Hosmar, pastor of youth and congregational life, Calvin CRC, Ottawa, Ontario
Gathering with a Peer Group
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?
- The Order of Meeting for RENOVARÉ groups provides a good example of a small 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
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.
- Visit the PCR website to learn how you can form such a group and apply for a grant. If you have any further questions, please contact PCR at (877) 279-9994, x2805.
- See the Banner article “What Happens When Pastors Get Together” by Lis Van Harten. It’s based on two groups of pastors: one that focused on reconciliation themes, and another that focused on pastoral identity and soul care.
- One peer learning group committed to finding “green spaces” in their busy lives. For them it meant spending time outdoors in prayer and reflection. Read their story in “Christian leadership requires ‘cultivating green spaces’”—an excerpt from the book So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive.
Peer Group Resources
- Companions in Christ: A Small-Group Experience in Spiritual Formation by Bryant, Grana, and Thompson.
- Spiritual formation study guides by Richard Peace: Contemplative Bible Reading, Meditative Prayer, Spiritual Autobiography, Spiritual Journaling
- See the CRC’s Faith Storytelling Toolkit for a natural way to grow your peer group closer together.
“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
Retreating with Other Pastors
Isolation is the common cold of parish ministry, says Pastor Norm Thomasma. A characteristic symptom is feeling relational congestion with an overall sense of loneliness. Most pastors experience it now and then. Some, however, may be more susceptible than others. A draining workload, geographical separation from other like-minded churches, or personal struggles can increase a pastor’s isolation.
Retreating with other pastors is a positive way to prevent isolation. Sharing ministry experiences and wise practices develops camaraderie. Listening together and telling stories grows koinonia. Spending time with others who “get it” gives pastors hope. And when we worship together and break bread, the Spirit of God comes gently among us.
Retreating and recreating with other pastors has other benefits too. Tensions are relieved by playing and laughing together. Perspective is regained and priorities realigned through personal and communal reflection. Bodies are restored as we rest from our labors. Our souls grow in virtue as we practice rhythms of grace.
This section connects you to three CRC ministries. One provides retreats, and the other two may be able to assist in planning retreats for your region.
Deeper Journey is a CRC ministry providing retreats designed to restore one’s soul. It encourages participants to deepen their intimacy with Father, Son and Holy Spirit by exploring ancient Christian practices. The ministry is intentionally shaped by 5 values: sacred space, contemplative worship, silence and solitude, practical teaching and safe community.
Those who participate in Deeper Journey attend eight retreats over a two-year period. At each retreat, they engage in large and small group sessions as well as spend time alone with God. For many pastors, a highlight of the retreats is the communal worship experience.
Deeper Journey is open to pastors, church leaders and all others who long for a more intimate relationship with God. It’s currently located in Michigan and Illinois. For more information, see the website deeperjourney.org. You can also contact the Central USA (815) 690-2408 or Great Lakes (616) 224-0753 regional office. Grants may be available for Deeper Journey through Pastor Church Resources.
Stories from Deeper Journey
- “Recognizing I was burning the candle at both ends and close to burning out,” reminisces Doug Kamstra, “I asked a friend for counsel. He said, ‘Read Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton.’ So I did.” But reading the book didn’t really do anything for Doug. It wasn’t until he committed to doing the exercises that changes began to happen. Find the rest of the story here.
- Despite their best intentions, pastors don’t always practice what they preach when it comes to spending meaningful time in Scripture reading, prayer, and solitude. “Like the rest of humanity, we get caught up in busy schedules and pressing commitments,” says Paul DeVries. To remedy this DeVries joined 24 others for the Deeper Journey retreats. Read more here.
- In Learning to Be Still, one pastor gave testimony to transformation in his life. So much so that an elder recently told him, “Something is different about you.” Through the understanding and spiritual disciplines he developed through Deeper Journey he now has a deeper relationship and dependency on God. See Banner article here.
Two more CRC Resources
Finding an Ongoing Rhythm
Our lives can be thought of as a sacred dance—a dance with the Holy Spirit, a dance made up of purposefully chosen patterns of movement, a dance choreographed to fit the everyday circumstances and relationships of our lives, a dance designed for the enjoyment and glory of God.
Dance and rhythm are connected. Many of us pastors know what it feels like to be out of rhythm. It doesn’t feel good. It often happens in times of transition, personal crisis, or heavy workloads. It happens when others’ expectations don’t fit who we are. It happens when we live distractedly. We long to create a meaningful flow or to return to a pattern that fits our temperament and our particular calling.
That’s what this toolkit is about—finding an ongoing rhythm. Finding your rhythm requires a vision of what God wants for you, along with an understanding of your heart's desire. It calls you to a commitment to take the necessary steps and engage with God’s means of grace. Finding your rhythm can be thought of as a personal expression of worship. But it’s always a dance with community and for the sake of others as well.
How to Find Your Rhythm
- Renew the mind. Think of Jesus' words, "come . . . learn the unforced rhythms of grace" not as obligation, but invitation. Come. Walk. Watch. Learn. Keep company with me.
- Consider. “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s what Jesus asked Bartimaeus (Mark 10:51). That’s what he asks you. What’s your deepest longing, your deepest desire? Sometimes you recognize it instantly. If not, ask the Spirit to reveal it to you.
- Begin. Once you know what you want, embark on a spiritual quest to find it. Which rhythms or practices or habits address this desire? Are there others who want what you want? Find them.
- Be practical. How can you make this a priority? What fits your temperament? What are the circumstances of life that will affect this plan?
- Commit. Share your plan with your peer group or spiritual companion who will support and encourage you in this, as well as hold you accountable.
- Remember. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort (Willard). Explore. Enjoy.
- Be patient. If God seems slow in responding, it may not be because you’re doing something wrong. It may not be because God is denying your request. He may be fanning the flames of your heart, intensifying your desire. Remember that he cherishes you.
Three Resources for Finding a Life Rhythm
- Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way is a practical workbook by Stephen A. Macchia. The related website offers multiple resources including a blog, stories, and many varied examples of a rule of life.
- The C.S. Lewis Institute provides instruction for developing “A Personal Rule of Life.”
- Marjorie Thompson concludes her Soul Feast book with a chapter on developing a rule of life. “A rule of life,” she explains, “gives us a way to enter the lifelong process of spiritual formation. Its disciplines help us to shed the familiar but constricting ‘old self’ and allow our ‘new self’ in Christ to be formed—the true self that is naturally attracted to the light of God.”
Additional Resources for Spiritual Vitality
Books with Practices to Transform Your Soul
- Companions in Christ: Small Group Experience in Spiritual Formation by multiple authors, including Marjorie J. Thompson
- Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton
- Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson
- Space for God: The Study and Practice of Prayer and Spirituality by Don Postema
- Spiritual Disciplines Companion: Bible Studies and Practices to Transform Your Soul by Jan Johnson
- Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
Books to Guide the Transformational Journey with God
- Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, along with Study Guide by Richard Foster
- Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.
- The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People and Participant’s Guide by John Ortberg
- The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives by Dallas Willard
- Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard
Audio Sermons on Soul Formation and Restoration
Reference the Center for Excellence in Preaching for many more
- Ezekiel 37: “That We May Live” by Jack Roeda
- “Psalm 1” by Mary Hulst
- Psalm 23: “Restoring the Soul” by Angela Taylor Perry
- Colossians 3: “Character Development” by Joanna Adams
Websites with Spiritual Formation Resources
Podcasts, articles, blog posts, books, training institutes, and more
- Dallas Willard Center for Christian Spiritual Formation: Westmont College aims to “create a new generation of individuals who will become thought leaders in articulating and experiencing an interactive relationship with Jesus.”
- Emotionally Healthy Discipleship: Through his website, Pastor Peter Scazzero encourages church leaders on a personal journey that leads to “deep, beneath-the-surface transformation.” This comes after his own experience with decades of unhealthy leadership. His transformation came about as the Spirit helped him link emotional health and spiritual maturity. Here you’ll find his books, podcasts, sermons, and training courses.
- Groundwork is a production of ReFrame Ministries and Words of Hope that provides tools for cultivating a life of spiritual growth and health. See Banner article.
- Renovaré, founded by Richard Foster, is a Christian ecumenical international nonprofit seeking to “resource, fuel, model, and advocate more intentional living and spiritual formation among Christians.”
- Transforming Center has as its goal to “strengthen the souls of pastors and leaders, equipping them to guide their churches and organizations to become spiritually transforming communities that discern and do the will of God in their settings.” Ruth Haley Barton is one of its cofounders.
- The Academy for Spiritual Formation, a part of Upper Room Ministries, offers “an environment for spiritually hungry pilgrims, whether lay or clergy, that combines academic learning with experience in spiritual disciplines and community.” Upper Room is “a global ministry dedicated to supporting the spiritual formation of Christians seeking to know and experience God more fully.” It began with a congregant asking her pastor to provide daily comfort and guidance through Scripture during the Great Depression.
Resources on the Role of Rhythms and Practices
- Philip Yancey, in his article “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul,” shows how modern culture presents formidable obstacles to nurturing spirituality and creativity. The solution, he suggests, is in constructing “a fortress of habits.”
- The Banner article “Redeeming Ritual” and the book You Are What You Love by James K. A. Smith show how imitation and Christian practices shape who and what we love so that we can be the lovers God created us to be.
One Indispensable Book: The Bible
- The Message by Eugene H. Peterson is a reading Bible, written to help Christians hear the living Word of God in a current, fresh, and understandable way. The Message is available in a wide variety of printed and electronic forms.
- The Renovaré Life with God Bible, with multiple contributors including Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, and Walter Brueggemann, “helps capture the reality of living with the trinitarian community in the ever-present kingdom of God.” Available in print and ebook formats.