So Much Better -- A Review
SO MUCH BETTER: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive (TCP The Columbia Partnership Leadership Series). Penny Long Marler, D. Bruce Roberts, Janet Maykus, James Bowers, Larry Dill, Brenda K. Harewood, Richard Hester, Sheila Kirton-Robbins, Marianne LaBarre, Lis Van Harten, Keilli Walker-Jones, Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Peer Learning Project. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013. Xix + 210 pages.
Ministry can be, and often is, a lonely profession. It is a rather unique profession, especially if one is engaged in parish ministry – especially for those who pastor small congregations with few or even no staff members. Not only do many clergy live busy lives, but they often find themselves rather isolated. Yes, there are parishioners with whom to engage, and perhaps a few clergy outside the congregation with which one is friendly, but finding the opportunity to truly engage with others going through the same kinds of things isn’t always easy. Clergy can also find themselves stuck in spiritual and intellectual ruts, the kind that continuing education can help rectify, but which many clergy fail to take advantage of – often because their congregations don’t realize the value of such events.
Is there a solution to this problem facing so many clergy, many of whom are leaving the profession by the droves? Could a peer learning experience revitalize clergy so that they are better positioned to help revitalize congregations? There are a number of answers to the question, but the answer offered by So Much Better focuses on peer learning experiences. The contributors to this book published by Chalice Press are affiliated in some manner with the Peer Learning Project of the Lilly-funded Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program.
Much of the book is comprised of case studies from a variety of projects, some denominationally sponsored, some sponsored by seminaries, and others by clergy support networks. What we learn is that we're all different, and not every model works for everyone. For some a highly structured program is beneficial, and for others something less structured is helpful. Some use paid facilitators, others don’t. Some travel, others don’t. Some have fairly structured educational aspects, others don’t. Money is always helpful, but it’s not the only determinant of success. All of the projects discussed in the book have strong relational components. This is learning among peers gathered in small groups who share life together over a period of time. The educational foundation of the projects can be described in terms of andragogy rather than pedagogy. The former is adult learning, in contrast to the teaching of children. For children the focus is on the “what” of learning, but with adults it is the “why” that is just as important. For adults, motivation is higher and the payoff greater, when they have a say in what they’re learning and the way they learn. This is especially true for clergy.
Whatever the nature of the project, the outcomes are highly positive. Even as clergy experience renewal and support, their congregations tend to blossom as well. Studies show that clergy who participate in peer learning become better pastors. These studies also show that this involvement in such groups makes for better congregations. So, what is the best way to do this? The answer is that no one way works for everyone or for every faith community. Success depends on commitment, trust, an agreed upon purpose. The studies of peer groups show that women and men are attracted to different styles of learning experiences. Early career clergy may need something different from those who have been serving for many years. Some prefer denominationally focused groups and others ecumenical ones. Men seem to prefer scripture study and women spiritual practices.
So what is the best way to do this? The authors of the book write:
The best pastoral peer learning models combine elements that at first blush seem opposed to each other. They are discipline and freedom the familiar and the strange, and the inside and the outside of group life. Each of these elements requires careful attention in the design and development of a peer group. The built-intension created in their negotiation is necessary for learning that is dynamic, shared, and simulating but also safe. (p. 13).
In the course of seven chapters we’re introduced to a variety of approaches, all of which have some connection to the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program. Many of them received funding from Lilly, so you might call this a report out of how Lilly’s money benefited clergy and their churches. In each chapter the reader is presented with a case study of a peer learning group. This is followed by a history of the group and a description of its purpose, along with details concerning recruitment and structure, along with impact on participants, families, and congregations.
To take but one of the chapters, chapter 2 describes the creation of a Holy Friendship group through the College of Pastoral Leaders. The participants were all women and joined a group to qualify for a grant from the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This particular group was composed of Presbyterian clergy, who sought to focus on rest, travel, and art. This particular model had accountability to the program, but it wasn’t facilitated from outside the group. On the other hand, chapter 3 describes an effort sponsored by the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), with the goal of creating pastoral covenant groups. In forming these groups denominational leaders had in mind the need for reform within their church and address the discovery that Church of God pastors were experiencing alienation from the denomination and from their families. The expectation was these groups would help revitalize the denomination. Healthy pastors were needed if the church was to be healthy. In forming these groups, it was decided to make use of facilitators to “cultivate open, respectful, and highly participative dialogue among its members” (p. 70).
Although these learning experiences can take a variety of forms, all of these models assume a great deal of relational commitment to each other. Success requires that the group is committed to each other’s growth and welfare. They require a willingness to make participation in these groups a priority, and invite congregations to take up the priority as well.
If you’re clergy you would be well served to read the book and consider if a peer learning experience is in your future. Congregational leaders, do you want healthy clergy to help lead you in difficult times? Making provision for participation will be to your benefit. The point isn’t getting information to bring back to the church – it’s spiritual, emotional, physical health that emerges from these experiences. Yes, learning takes place, but it’s multi-dimensional.
As I read the book I found some projects that are attractive to me and some that aren’t. I like a study component and good conversation. I’m less interested in being told what to do and how to do it by denominational officials – as a Disciple I don’t get too many of those directives. At the same time, I’ve never experienced the level of personal engagement as described in most of these models. I’m part of clergy groups that have some of the components described here, but not enough of them to qualify as peer-learning experiences.
Because I’m affiliated with an organization that has as part of its purpose the provision of and encouragement of peer learning experiences, I was disappointed that the Academy of Parish Clergy isn’t among the organizations mentioned. Such groups are part of the founding identity, but most of us aren’t engaged in groups of this depth. So, to fellow members of the Academy, we would be wise to study this book carefully. We could be, should be, another vehicle for clergy to pursue this calling (and I should note that the APC got its start with seed money from Lilly.
I believe this is a most useful book for clergy. If nothing else, it will push us to consider carefully the need for continuing education and the value that is found in doing it in small peer groups. George Bullard of the Columbia Partnership and Chalice Press are to be commended for bringing this book to print. As for fellow APC members, let’s figure out how we too can be involved. There are far too many clergy needing a safe and structured environment to pursue pastoral excellence. But there are thousands who have discovered a better way -- let us attend to their stories!