By Laura Stephens-Reed
Over two years ago Tony Lankford accepted the call to become Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in St. Simons Island, Georgia. Having convened a peer learning group during his previous pastorate, he soon began looking around for colleagues with whom he could gather regularly for learning and encouragement. Since his is the only CBF-affiliated congregation within an easily-driveable radius, he cast his net wider and found four other clergy to join him in an ecumenical and interfaith cohort.
Tony’s PLG meets monthly, and the members have also co-lectured on religion at the local community college, enjoyed a Festival of Booths meal at Rabbi Rachael’s home, and taught in each other’s churches. Tony notes that the formation of an actual PLG gives the group members just enough structure to feel a sense of commitment to and responsibility for one another, and these additional gatherings have further deepened their relationships with one another.
Their trust in one another, along with theological commitments, led Tony’s PLG members to communicate with each other by email and text in the immediate aftermath of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. They initially didn’t know what to do, but they acknowledged a weight to respond in some way within their community as well as in their congregations. They discerned it would send a stronger message if they spoke with one voice, so the group framed a pastoral response to present to the community.
The PLG submitted its letter as an op-ed to the local newspaper. (See the full text below.) The paper declined to run it, stating that the letter was against its guidelines. So Tony and his colleagues pooled their money and purchased a half-page ad, convinced that the newspaper had the broadest reach of any medium at their disposal.
As the PLG negotiated the ad with the newspaper, the members began circulating the letter among other ministerial colleagues. Considering their Deep South context, some pastors were hesitant to make such a public statement. Others, however, asked if they could add their names to the response. In the end, 30+ ministers across the county endorsed the letter composed by Tony’s PLG. Noting this enthusiasm, the newspaper interviewed the PLG for a feature article to run in the same edition as the half-page ad.
Tony says that “the article and ad have been met with a great percentage of positive reaction. But, as with anything, many of us, me included, have had people voice against our response. The biggest impact has been the ministers coming together with one voice in a way that has not occurred in many years in this county. We hope to build and help foster more of that in the future.”
Peer learning groups – they’re not just for building up the people that comprise them.
How might your PLG have an impact on the wider community? And if you’re a minister without a PLG, who might join you in professional development, mutual support, and speaking into the issues that affect the church and the world? May our relationships give us courage and amplify the good news of God’s love that we have the privilege – and the responsibility – to share.
Rev. Dr. Tony Lankford is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Laura Stephens-Reed is PLG Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
From The Brunswick News, 8/18/17:
“As we reflect on the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA, this weekend we acknowledge that people of faith must speak up for what is good and right. We also acknowledge that there is a time to name evil when it is in our midst. Hatred, racism and bigotry in the words and actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, VA, and anywhere else it manifests itself, is evil. It is contrary to the teachings of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and contrary to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ.
“We celebrate the great freedoms of our country, like the freedom to assemble and the freedom of speech, and yet just because something is legal, it is not necessarily moral or appropriate. Racial slurs, demeaning chants, outright threats, and violence are fundamentally at odds with the spirit and teaching of our faith communities and the foundations of our great country. We are called to do better, to be better, and to strive for understanding and unity.
“As leaders of faith communities in Glynn County, we assert that the language and behavior of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and any other hateful ideology has no place here. We also want to be sure that all our brothers and sisters in our communities, no matter what race, orientation, or religion, know that we stand together in opposition to the forces of evil. We respect the dignity of every human being and will stand by one another, especially the most vulnerable and those susceptible to persecution.
“We call upon our community to rally together and seek unity in divisive times, working for the common good despite differences of opinion, politics, religion, or heritage. We call upon our neighbors to speak out against injustice and hate. We call upon our community leaders to continue to stand firm in serving and protecting all the persons of our community. As we call upon our community, we also acknowledge our own shortcomings and failures, for the times our words and actions have not been sufficient and when unity has not been our priority. We ask our neighbors to forgive us for these failures. We also ask God to take away the arrogance and hatred that can infect human hearts, and to unite us in bonds of love.
“We lift ourselves, our communities, and our nation to God, that justice and peace may one day not be the hallmark of our faith alone, but our very humanity. God will surely bless us all as we seek such blessings for ourselves and all of God’s children.”