By Emily Holladay
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I watched as my dad struggled through the difficult days of ministry and celebrated the triumphs — and there were many of both. Sitting around the dinner table, my family shared the stories of our time apart from one another. Though there was much my dad could not share with us, I noticed certain days when the tone behind the stories was different. These were days when he seemed to be experiencing more calm and living into a deeper sense of hope.
Paying attention, I realized that a common thread held these days together — they were the days my dad gathered with other pastors in the area for fellowship and a journey through spiritual disciplines. Getting together with these friends and colleagues gave my dad much joy. Ask him and he’d tell you that this time spent with peers was the most meaningful part of his self-care as a minister. Twenty years after the group’s first meeting, they continue to gather every Monday.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is committed to facilitating this same kind of life-giving camaraderie among ministers. In 2003, CBF launched the Peer Learning Groups (PLGs) initiative to provide an environment that leads to healthier ministers who embody excellence in their field.
PLGs are small communities of ministers that meet monthly for discussion of ministry-related issues, fellowship, Bible study and other formational activities. These groups are typically small, which allows for more familiarity and comfort within the community, and are led by a trained convener. Currently, CBF sponsors more than 100 peer groups and the initiative continues to expand.
PLGs are each different in make-up and function and include all types of ministers. Some are comprised of pastors, while others include music ministers or education ministers and the list goes on. Janice Haywood, childhood ministry specialist and adjunct professor at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C., convenes a PLG for women ministers in North Carolina and Virginia.
“I have a group of ministers that understand ministry, especially the challenges of women in ministry, and I have learned from all of them, although our situations are different,” Haywood noted. “We also are different ages and that has stimulated mutual learning.”
Haywood’s group meets six times a year, with a weekend retreat every October led by a guest from outside the group. Because the members are spread across two states, the group alternates between the mountains and the beach, so everyone has the opportunity to “get away.” These meetings create a sense of safety and openness between the women and, says Haywood, a bond for life.
In Missouri, Doyle Sager, pastor of First Baptist Church Jefferson City, and his PLG are celebrating their 10th year of learning and growing together as pastors and associate pastors.
“Over the past 15 years, Missouri has been a very difficult setting insofar as denominational identity,” Sager said. “Fierce battles have been fought over the soul of our Baptist life and suspicion has been cast on many of us moderate pastors who do not toe the line with those who took over the state convention. Our peer learning group has given pastors a safe place to ‘be,’ and has provided encouragement and assurance that we are not alone.”
Sager’s group participates in enrichment events, where they use CBF’s yearly $500 grant to invite a professor from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., to lead the group in a study of important topics in church life.
“Recently, we studied with a professor about the unique claims of Christ in a pluralistic culture. The group felt free to ask tough questions and explore ‘what ifs.’ Some of us had not had that kind of opportunity to ruminate, probe and test boundaries since our seminary days,” Sager explained.
Though all PLGs are different, the common tie that binds each together is that they allow ministers to take time for themselves to grow together and to become better stewards of the ministry shared with the people they serve.
Brian Hill is pastor of First Baptist Church, Littlefield, Texas. His peer group has enabled him to become more intentional about the ways he engages spiritual practices in his congregation.
“I have gained some great, creative ideas about how to make particular practices more meaningful for our people,” Hill shared. “For instance, I have a personal mandate for myself that I never want communion to become routine. I want it to be fresh and moving each time we observe it. I have received some helpful ideas from the other folks in the group.”
Hill emphasized that PLGs aid in breaking down barriers that prevent ministers from caring for one another.
“The most meaningful aspect of being part of our PLG is the brotherhood that has formed. So often there is competition between pastors — almost a one-upmanship that occurs. I am not saying there is never a healthy sense of competition, but I feel there is a real bond,” Hill said. “I trust them and feel I could share just about anything with the group.”
CBF is committed to expanding the PLG initiative because of the overwhelming impact it continues to have on ministers across the Fellowship. If you are not in a PLG, CBF is eager to help you find or start one. If you are a church member, encourage your ministers to connect with a local PLG.
My dad’s story is far from unique. He is just one of many ministers whose life has been transformed through a peer learning group!
Want to find out if there is a PLG in your area? Looking to start a PLG? Visit www.thefellowship.info/peerlearninggroups or connect with CBF Missional Congregations Director Harry Rowland at firstname.lastname@example.org.