“Twenty years ago, I started working for the CRCNA and we started peer learning groups,” said Lis Van Harten, former director of Pastor Church Resources (now part of Congregational Ministries). She had been hired to coordinate the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program—the reason peer groups were launched in 2003 with help from a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.
“As of now,” Van Harten said, “990 individual CRC pastors (ministers of the Word and commissioned pastors) have been in one of our peer groups. I was really hoping to get to 1,000 before I retired (last April), but that goal won’t be reached until the next groups begin to meet in the summer of 2023.”
So what have these nearly 1,000 pastors done in their groups? That answer is as varied as the group members themselves.
“Pastors are free to plan all aspects of their time together: who the group members will be, what topic they’ll pursue, when to meet, what books they’ll read, and if they’d like to attend a conference, have a retreat, or neither,” Van Harten said. “Since the groups create their own plan, no two groups are alike.”
Over the years, some groups have met to discuss a certain book or topic. Others gathered for meals together because they already shared a specific affinity and they wished to offer each other support and encouragement. There have been peer groups who bonded over rowing or climbed a mountain together. Some were able to meet theologian and author Eugene Peterson. Some have traveled to specific locations to deepen their learning. They’ve wrestled together over how to foster greater diversity in their churches, and they’ve rested together as they spent time in spiritual retreat.
“Groups funded to date have focused on spiritual growth, Sabbath, developing leadership within churches, contemporary culture, pastoral health, family systems theory, building strong relationships, ministry fit, and the list goes on,” Van Harten said. “Recently most groups are focusing on their personal well-being as they’ve had to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and a variety of other very challenging circumstances. Burnout is very real. Having colleagues who get it is a lifeline.”
Applications for peer groups are submitted by May 1 or Nov. 1 of each year. Groups commit to meeting with each other for a set period of time and accomplishing specific goals. Each group also provides pastors with opportunities to gather for learning, support, prayer, encouragement, and fellowship.
“We have grown a deep friendship filled with great conversation, side-splitting laughter, tears, and prayer,” one group member wrote in his analysis of his pastor peer group experience. “The greatest reward has been sharing life and ministry with other people who understand exactly what it’s like (to be a pastor).”
Chris Cassis, pastor at The Source Church in Miramar, Fla., agrees. He was a member of a pastor peer learning group and said, “Without our peer learning group, I’m convinced some of us wouldn’t still be in ministry. Instead, we’re thriving today!”
The next round of funding for pastor peer groups will be announced June 1.
About the Author
Kristen deRoo VanderBerg was part of the World Renew Communications team from 1999-2016. She now serves as director of Communications & Marketing for the Christian Reformed Church.