peer learning groups

Keeping things clear with covenants

By Laura Stephens-Reed

Recently a peer learning group convener contacted me with a dilemma. He facilitates a long-standing, close-knit group, but over time some of the members have moved away to take new ministerial positions. His PLG members have been eager to add to their diminishing ranks, and they invited a local clergyperson to join them. It was not a good fit. The group is now working through its changed dynamics, but the whole situation led this convener to ask how to discern in the future whether a potential PLG member would be a good fit.

In the ten years that I have been working with peer learning groups, I have received several versions of this same request. PLGs want to replace members that have moved on, but it’s not easy adding new people to groups where relationships have formed over time and there are lots of unstated norms.

In this situation I refer to one of my favorite quotes from sociologist Dr. Brene Brown: “Clear is kind.” In peer learning groups – as in many kinds of small groups and teams – one of the best pathways to clarity is a covenant that outlines attitudes and practices that will enable your group to meet its objectives. Here are some questions to help you create this kind of agreement:

  • What are our shared values?
  • What are our responsibilities to one another?
  • How will we encourage openness and full participation in each other?
  • What types of behaviors do we want to utilize? What types of behaviors do we want to avoid?
  • About what do we need to hold one another accountable, and how will we do that?
  • What does confidentiality look like for us? What kinds of information fall under this agreement? If a group member breaks trust, how will we handle this breach as a team?

Even if your group has a long history, it is worth your while to consider questions like these to surface individual and collective expectations that have not yet been voiced. Such a conversation can only increase connection and trust among your members.

Your covenant can then give a potential new PLG member a good sense of the practices and ethos of your group. That helps those who are not good fits to name that fact before jumping in. Or, if they do join your PLG, you then have norms that everyone – including the new person – has agreed upon to help you mutually address issues that arise.

Group dynamics are tricky, and not every PLG is the right one for every minister. That is why it’s essential to be clear what your group is about.

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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