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Finding renewal through fellowship

Stress and loneliness can take a toll on pastoral leaders. For many, peer groups combat the isolation and provide important revitalization, new research shows.

For years, peer-group sponsors in the Lilly Endowment’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative had heard anecdotally what a difference the groups make for those involved.

Now there’s statistical evidence to go along with the personal stories – and it’s not just the pastoral leaders who are benefiting, researchers found.

Penny Marler, a religion professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and the Rev. Janet Maykus of Austin, Texas, are wrapping up a three-year analysis of SPE peer groups. They are excited and impressed by what they’ve found.

The nearly 1,400 peer groups created since Lilly launched its SPE program in 2003 have helped alleviate the stress and isolation that can accompany ministerial life.

But a 15-page survey of participants in SPE peer groups found the benefits went even beyond that. Of the more than 2,000 respondents, 94 percent say they are better pastors because of the program. They believe they are better listeners, more energized and able to see the world in new ways. 

Before the study, “we all had very powerful stories of impact on individual ministers,” says Marler, who works with peer groups in her role as grant and research coordinator for Samford’s Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. The survey findings helped put those individual stories into a larger context.

Feedback from congregants indicates they also see the program’s benefits, says Maykus.

“Even if they don’t really understand what’s going on in the groups,” Maykus says, “they know that when their pastor comes back they have better sermon ideas, they seem happier, she likes her job a lot more. They say these sorts of things.”

 It’s more than simply being happier, though. The research shows that peer-group participants are significantly more likely than other pastoral leaders to engage in such key practices as assimilating newcomers and fully involving members in church leadership, says Marler.

Especially exciting, she adds, is the link she and Maykus found between peer groups and church growth. Pastoral leaders’ long-term involvement in a peer group “turned out to be highly predictive of actual congregational growth. … It’s a happy finding.”

Under the SPE program, peer groups come in all sorts of permutations. Some are homogeneous – all rural Southern Baptists, for example, or all women clergy. Others are intentionally and widely diverse, whether that’s racially, denominationally or otherwise.

Their activities vary, as well. Some include travel, while others stay close to home. Some focus on prayer or Bible study and fellowship, while others explore the arts or take on projects, such as community gardens. Seven years after the program began, many are continuing to meet, even if unofficially.

Maykus calls the groups’ variety one of the initiative’s greatest strengths. “I don’t think one size fits all. The Lilly Endowment has been brilliant in the design of this program. … It’s a very grace-filled approach to learning.”

Though each group is unique, all have experienced conflict at some point. But even that can be good: Many say they worked through their differences.

“And they said that that experience of conflict with a fruitful outcome helped them return to their congregations and be less fearful of conflict, be more willing to entertain subjects that, before, they avoided because they knew that they would raise some sort of conflict,” says Maykus.

That’s particularly important, considering what previous clergy studies have found. “Some of the things that were reported over and over by the clergy were the issues of conflict in the congregation and loneliness and isolation,” she says. “Those were the issues that kept recurring as reasons for people to leave the ministry.

“These people love their congregations. … If people leave, they leave not with glee. They leave with great sadness because they love the people, with all their warts. They love their work.”




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