General CBF

Sidebars and peer learning groups

By Laura Stephens-Reed 

I first attended General Assembly in 2004, the last time (prior to this year) it was held in Birmingham, Alabama. I was solo pastoring a teeny CBF church. I had grown up Southern Baptist, so I was still learning about what it meant to be a Cooperative Baptist.

My United Methodist pastor husband and I couldn’t afford to stay at the conference hotel, so we commuted in from the Microtel. We were at loose ends, not knowing anyone, not understanding the schedule, getting caught in the riptides of people leaving the “Big Room” (worship area).

My experience this year in Birmingham was much different. I stayed onsite. The schedule was downloaded to my brain for easy reference. I knew when I really needed to be somewhere and when I could take my time. I had responsibilities. I saw people I knew from different areas of my work: peer learning groups, coaching, interim ministry, search & call consulting. And all of these foils to my first General Assembly experience made possible what is most valuable to me about these annual gatherings: one-on-one conversations.

I owe Steve Graham, Coordinator of CBF of Oklahoma and my fellow Peer Learning Group Regional Director, for this realization. As we sat at one of the hospitality stations, he shared that he had learned the importance of sidebar conversations at a Lilly Endowment gathering. That event was anchored by time-bounded but unstructured opportunities for attendees to get to know each other. Those casual conversations initiated bonds that made the formal presentation and discussion of content much richer.

Yes, I thought. Getting to know people at General Assembly not only makes me want to attend worship and workshops but also to stay connected with individuals, my state organization, and CBF as whole throughout the year.

This is the intent behind peer learning groups. In the internet age, it’s easy to get information or to listen to a sermon from the comfort of our homes or offices. But the “peer” part impacts the learning. It expands and humanizes it. It makes it take deeper root. Likewise, learning together connects people. It gives us relationships with colleagues who don’t require so much of our backstory before we share an anecdote or ask for advice. We already have common ground.

Not everyone can travel to General Assembly due to the limitations of time and money. But every minister can join or create a peer learning group. If you’d like to find out how to jumpstart your professional development and form rich relationships with people who get you, just ask. We’re happy to help.

Learn more about CBF Peer Learning Groups or inquire about creating or joining a group at

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.

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