By Paul Raybon
I was immersed (baptized, perhaps?) in peer groups before they were ”a thing,” and they have played a critical role in my ministry. As a Baptist campus ministry intern at Western Carolina University in the Fall of 1988, I tagged along with Winston Hardman to the Monday lunch bunch at the Parker House in Sylva. John Bunn, Charles Dean, Jack Hinson, and John Reid, among others, formed a sage and sassy bunch that taught me a lot about people and ministry in turbulent times. That same year I met with a group of campus ministers from four denominations for a weekly discussion of the week’s lectionary passages, as well as whatever else came to mind. I still use lessons we learned together.
A few years later, as the American Baptist campus minister at Marshall University, I found a group of ministers that typically met to plan programs and administer a building, but soon had a cluster of us meeting for mutual support, lunch, and laughter. Those dear friends carried me through difficult times and celebrated the birth of my children with great joy.
When I shifted to congregational ministry in Asheville in 1997, my heart ached for that kind of collegiality. Ron Kiser convened a group of Ministers of Education and Associate Pastors the next year, (there were enough in Asheville to form a group back then) and we met monthly at the Cornerstone Restaurant for several years to talk about resources, needs, and issues we shared in common. Denominational strife and shrinking church staffs cut into that group. Brian Fleming and I then began attending Eddie Hammett’s regional peer learning group for educators until Eddie’s health took a sudden downturn and the group meetings went on hold for a while.
It was at that point that I convened the Western North Carolina Peer Group, inviting “second chair” ministers from across the mountains to gather monthly to share life and ministry. “Second chair” ministers can be titled Associate Pastor, Minister of Education (nowadays Spiritual Formation), Minister of Youth, and various combinations with Music, but we typically share responsibilities for formation, outreach, worship, administration, and a whole lot of “other duties as assigned.”
Our gatherings are like our jobs: potluck. We all bring something to the table, whether it is a looming crisis or an exciting resource. After we share together we go away stronger from the nourishment of common experience and understanding. The good BBQ doesn’t hurt either.
Two members of the original group that met ten years ago remain, but whenever we lose someone, another person comes along. We have seen new ministers (even interns) come and go to other places of ministry, and welcomed peers with years of experience. Each one’s unique perspective has enriched us all.
As I think back across these almost three decades of peer groups, I think of new ideas quickly “borrowed,” wisdom humbly shared, laughter that remedied stress, and honesty that lifted burdens. But most of all I think of being immersed in relationships that made the journey possible; people (notice all the names) who took the time to welcome me into the depths of ministry, connect with me as a peer, and walk with me in both dark and joyous times. If you haven’t taken the plunge into a peer group, I can’t encourage you enough, come on in, the water’s fine.
Paul Raybon is Associate Pastor of Hominy Baptist Church in Candler, North Carolina.