Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of a new series called “Illuminations,” which aims to highlight stories of cooperation, unity and diversity from across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Illuminations is a communications initiative of the Illumination Project, a project of discernment and accompaniment involving CBF congregational leaders to illuminate the qualities that have built unity in CBF, and through discernment, identify intentional processes to maintain and grow unity through cooperation. Learn more about the Illumination Project at www.cbf.net/illuminationproject.
By Ruth Perkins Lee
“One of the poor in the story of Zacchaeus.”
That was our assigned group in Sunday school last week. As we heard the story, my friend Shane and I imagined we were one of the unnamed poor living in this story. Seven different listening groups, some taking their responsibilities more seriously than others, listened intently. One story, 7 “assigned” ways of listening, about 20 ways actually articulated.
I forget there are other ways to hear a story.
I know my way so well. I pull on my familiar listening ears like my favorite sweatshirt. My listening comes with decades of experiences filled with a multitude of stories that have been interpreted into the larger narrative of my life.
In switching seats in the Sunday school room last week, I changed perspectives. And found an entirely new story.
Each month, ministers participating in Peer Learning Groups across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gather intentionally to do this. Formal learning guides the time spent together. Informal learning throws open the doors for stories to blow in.
Stories of good, of laughter, of joy, of moments to be relived again and again. Stories of pain, of hurt, of tears, of moments they don’t ever want to live again. They tell stories and build community. And they build community to tell stories.
The community building is crucial because switching seats and changing perspectives is expected. Listening with all of your might is necessary. Honesty and vulnerability deepen and broaden as trust permeates throughout the complex layers of a group.
Month in and month out, meals are shared, books are read, speakers are brought in, retreats are taken and plans are made. Every minister walks in carrying their work and every minister walks out with an added perspective, an unthought of question, an unexpected insight, possibly a few answers and the capacity to take the next step.
Peer Learning Groups hold space for these conversations. Sharing a common location or ministry setting, all are invited to do learning and storytelling. None has to imagine all of the other perspectives, nor ask all of the questions, nor make all of the plans nor have all of the insights. For they have covenanted to walk alongside one another, to be intentional in learning and to have honest dialogue. They have formed intentionally as a group—promising to meet together regularly. They are becoming trusted storytellers and story hearers.
The hard labor of becoming trusted tellers and hearers bears the new life of larger narratives. Expanded experiences, understandings, challenges. Moments that are vulnerable and tender. Words that hold the power to stop and the power to go. Meetings that are thin places. Prayers that become sighs too deep for words.
Building groups that become respite from the storms. Groups that challenge and question. Groups that encourage. Groups that dream and create. Groups that do some measure of all of this.
Ministers move back into their ministry settings wrapped in a mantle of blessing by their group. With a commitment and a plan to return. Having become even more themselves in the between time.
Peer Learning Groups challenge ministers to show up and be fully present for a specified time with colleagues outside of their local church ministry. Ministers form their groups around common agendas, goals and boundaries. Drawing on the collective experience and expertise, ministers in Peer Learning Groups share in continuing education opportunities, worship experiences, best practices, and practical resources.
On Sunday, I changed perspective and found a whole new story. Not just the story of someone else but a whole new story for me. For now my new story included their story. I could not unhear what I heard when I listened.
Peer Learning Groups offer all of us lessons in listening. Know your way of listening. See it for the unique gift that it is. And then switch seats. Sit in and with the story. Listen with all of your might. And celebrate your companions who listen with you.
Ruth Perkins Lee is a former church staff minister who bears witness to the power of a Peer Learning Group. She currently serves as the director of ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Learn more about Peer Learning Groups here.