By Laura Stephens-Reed
Peer learning group conveners, members and enthusiasts gathered in Dallas for the annual breakfast that recognizes the importance of collegial relationships for mutual learning and support. This year’s speakers were Garrett and Cameron Vickrey, who are Wake Forest Divinity School graduates and parents to three girls. Garrett has been senior pastor of Woodland Baptist Church in San Antonio for six years.
Garrett recalled his first introduction to peer learning groups. His father, Ray Vickrey, was longtime pastor of Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas. In the days before CBF formed, Ray gathered with five colleagues at a BGCT meeting. Their conversation was such a breath of fresh air at a contentious time in Baptist life that the six agreed they needed to meet more often.
One of the pastors whipped out his calendar and asked, “When?” Thus “The Neighborhood” was born, a collective of ministers that still meets, even as four of its members are now retired from full-time ministry and the long-distance landline bills that kept them connected are a thing of the past. Garrett knew from his earliest years that “The ‘Hood” was his father’s tribe, and he remembers meetings laced with the scent of cigar smoke.
Early in his ministry Garrett found his own circle of support, and these friends batted around the idea of creating a formal peer group. For three years they talked about it until their now-convener, Greg Dover, opened up his online calendar and asked, “When?” (As Garrett noted, every group needs that one person who holds everyone accountable and keeps them moving forward together.) Their PLG meets one week each year to plan sermons and play together, and they group text on a nearly daily basis.
Their involvement in one another’s lives is so ingrained that Cameron said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m married to the whole group!” She understands that the PLG is crucial to Garrett’s health and professional development, and she urges all spouses to understand the importance of peer support in ministry.
Garrett said that this “Dear Friends” group has been key to cultivating healthy ambition in its members – not advancement for its own sake, but for the purpose of claiming and living fully into gifts and call. He also shared that this tribe has helped each member remember who he or she is in the midst of difficult circumstances.
This deep care is even now modeled for him by The Neighborhood. Garrett’s father Ray is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, yet he continued meeting with The Neighborhood until recently. Garrett asked his father’s friends whether Ray’s presence was a burden, and they wouldn’t entertain the question. Instead, when The Neighborhood would gather for overnight retreats and Ray would wake up confused, his friends would help him re-orient. They would remind him of who he is. They would tell him that he was safe, among people who love him.
Whether we are in ministry or not, may we all find people who call forth the best in us, remind us that we are home, and accompany us on the long road.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.