Sometimes pastoring a congregation can feel isolating. While pastors share many leadership decisions with their church councils, there are a lot of concerns that rest on their shoulders alone. This can lead to stress, frustration, mental health issues, and ministry stagnation. Many pastors are learning, however, that peer learning groups can help them escape isolation and find new paths to ministry in the future.
“I can’t be a fully effective pastor on my own,” one pastor from Northern British Columbia recently said.
It was a feeling shared by four other area ministers. The five leaders pastor churches along a 600 km (375 mile) stretch of road in a remote part of the province. Each of their congregations is quite distant from the others, which has led to a history of the pastors feeling isolated in their ministry.
Each had a strong desire to come together with others on a regular basis for mutual learning and collegial support. To meet this need, the group submitted an application to Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE), a program of Pastor Church Resources ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
Through ministry shares funding, SPE provides learning events and resources to help support and sustain pastors and their spouses so that they, in turn, can build vital congregations. Another aspect of this ministry is providing grants to groups of pastors to help them form peer learning groups.
The B.C. pastors, calling themselves “Reconciliation Nation,” completed their application together. They said that they would focus on “reconciling ourselves as pastors with our calling, our congregation, and to make peace with all things and persons on earth through attention to justice and reconciliation.”
Their plan included reading multiple books and articles, watching a video on 19th century Kuyperianism focusing on justice and order, studying some curriculum, and attending a conference together. They would accomplish all of this via video conference calls, gathering together at classis meetings, retreating, and engaging in a couple of face-to-face meetings.
It all looked great on the application form for a SPE grant, and it sounded right to the group members, but the reality turned out to be something quite different.
Peer group coordinator, Rev. Joel Ringma from Terrace CRC said, “I believe we learned much more from our intent than we did from our content. Our content was supposed to be focused on justice issues, but because of one member of our group moving away and another working through some challenges, a lot of our focus [on justice and reconciliation] was lost for a good chunk of time.”
The work the group had agreed to do together “became a weight. We had this 'extra' thing to do—which is not the intent of SPE or of ourselves,” Ringma said.
So the group changed gears. They began to focus on themselves and their wellbeing. A typical gathering would start with the members sharing their pastoral questions and challenges. Input from the members followed, and the meeting was concluded with a time of prayer.
“On a recent video call, one group member described a challenging issue and the resulting dynamics at a committee meeting,” Ringma explained as an example of how the group functions. “The member wasn’t looking for a solution to the problem, and nobody offered one. Others chimed in with their own challenges, and together we simply discussed our own perspectives and what helped us out of the ‘fog’ of deadlock, the frustration of conflict, and the shroud of tension. This turned out to be a helpful theological reflection for all involved.”
During their time together, the pastors discovered a feeling of partnership. They enjoy each other’s company and have learned the importance of peer fellowship. In fact, they have learned that taking a small amount of time away a couple times a year can lead to very large gains in terms of refreshment and pursuing pastoral work with excellence.
“I had colleagues with whom I could share my hurts, concerns, tears, and struggles, and do so without fear of judgment,” one pastor said. “It is this kind of collegial support that provides another piece in my sense of place in God's kingdom as a pastor and also helps remind me of the power of encouragement.”
The congregations that these leaders pastored also benefited.
“The emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing of pastors is crucial to the health of congregations. I believe that our peer group has contributed significantly to the wellbeing of our pastors. Congregations sense this when they witness the pastors' collegiality, partnership, friendship and even (especially?) good-natured ribbing. All this leads, I believe, to a human face for the pastor and a greater sense of shared ministry,” said Ringma.
Female pastors in Grand Rapids, Mich., would agree with Ringma’s assessment.
“A pastor who grasps the call [to ministry] also knows that she needs a community of support, accountability, and learning in order to engage fully in both the challenges and joys of ministry,” wrote a group of 12 women clergy in their application for an SPE peer group grant.
Since SPE began awarding peer learning grants 14 years ago, this group of 12 was only the third all-female group to request and receive a grant. This is significant considering that 205 groups, involving 76 percent of all CRC pastors, have been funded to date.
All pastors, regardless of gender, need and desire support and encouragement from colleagues in order to flourish in ministry. Female pastors, however, also have specific, unique needs.
“Women who serve in ordained ministry fill positions traditionally held by men,” explained group coordinator Rev. Heather Stroobosscher. “People’s reactions to women pastors are many and varied. It’s easy to become distracted by hidden rules and underlying behavior expectations, and ultimately we can be unsteady on our feet and in our calling. But women are called into ministry, just as men, and it’s lovely to have women shoring one another up.”
The group members call themselves Junia’s Daughters. They include chaplains, co-pastors, senior pastors, and pastors of congregational life who represent eight churches, five classes, and the denominational office in Grand Rapids. They’re all passionate about ministry, uniquely gifted, and agree that peer groups are important in significant ways.
With their SPE grant, Junia’s Daughters began to gather in members’ homes or at local restaurants to learn from ministry experiences, pray with and for each other, and work toward their individual and group goals. Among these goals were exploring their pastoral identity and providing soul care for each other.
“What a gift this group has been in my first year of being a fulltime pastor. I hadn’t realized before how isolating ministry can be, particularly as a woman. This group has provided friendship and camaraderie, and a safe place to ask questions and grow,” said one participant.
“Building friendships with other women in ministry has been both an encouragement and a joy,” another pastor added. “It's helped me identify and address gender-related challenges and grow in confidence in my call. Thanks be to God for all of you!”
Stroobosscher shared that the peer group has “empowered each of us in our pastoral identities. In some cases, there were victories realized as our group members navigated challenging conversations with the support of the group, or found their voices in situations where they otherwise would have remained silent, or moved forward with confidence knowing they were not alone in situations where they previously felt isolated. The capital-C Church was indeed strengthened through our group.”
A highlight of the group’s year was an overnight retreat focusing on Sabbath. One group member said, “To be led spiritually by facilitators and invited to just be, to not be responsible for anything at all, other than myself, was refreshing.”
Stroobosscher agreed it was a wonderful experience. “Our retreat was life-changing, powerful, and transformative. For the first time as a group, we let our guard down completely and fully accepted one another; no condemnation, no judgment, just grace and acceptance and wonder. It was beautiful. Our retreat leaders helped create that space of trust and vulnerability, and God moved mountains within it.”
As the group’s year together came to an end, they decided to request a second year of funding. Reflecting on the experiences of the time they’d spent together, their second proposal stated, “We’ve established that we need fewer but longer meetings together to share more deeply and spend more time in prayer for one another, encouraging one another by being together and giving space for soul care.”
Having secured their second year of funding, Junia’s Daughters plan to discuss a book and spend some time focusing on spiritual disciplines. The group has created a Facebook page where they’re able to connect more often than the four day-long planned gatherings. Once again they’ll retreat together, focusing on Sabbath as well as allowing time for spiritual reflection.
No matter the original reasons that pastors identify for gathering in peer groups, most pastors would agree that the experience is a positive one that allows them to share the journey of life and ministry. “It’s a lot like having life and having it more abundantly,” said Ringma.
Stroobosscher agrees. “We’re better together than we are on our own flying solo.”
Did you know the CRC offers these resources for pastors and congregations?
- Information on candidates approved by synod.
- Various resources for search committees, classis leaders, and potential pastors as they make their way through the Church Order processes for ordination. crcna.org/candidacy
- Grants for Clinical Pastoral Education for those intending to enter into chaplaincy ministry. crcna.org/chaplaincy/become-chaplain
Pastor Church Resources
- Grants for Continuing Education for pastors and church staff. crcna.org/pastor-church-resources/pastors
- Resources for Pastor Search Committees. crcna.org/pastor-church-resources/churches
Sustaining Congregational Excellence
- Grants for new ministry in smaller churches. crcna.org/SCE/grants/health-renewal-grants
Sustaining Pastoral Excellence
- Grants for pastors to form peer groups. crcna.org/SPE/pastor-peer-learning-grants
- Conferences for pastors’ spouses. crcna.org/SPE/pastors-spouses