Editor’s note: This article previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website.

While many paths lead to pastoral excellence, one of the best and most popular is the pastor peer group. Since 2002, when Lilly Endowment Inc. established the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence initiative, SPE programs nationwide have launched thousands of such groups, all aimed at giving pastors a safe place for support, professional development and accountability.

As an ordained pastor who has spent the past 35 years training, facilitating and consulting in the private and non-profit sectors (including the Texas Methodist Foundation’s SPE program), I offer the following suggestions for facilitating a pastor peer group.

Facilitation of climate and community

Facilitating any group is about much more than helping members acquire new knowledge. If the group is to be a community of learning, mutual support and encouragement, then the facilitator needs to keep in mind not only the intellectual needs of members but also their physical, relational, vocational, spiritual and emotional needs. Everything from the layout of the meeting room to the refreshments can affect the group’s ability to learn. Thus, at the outset, facilitators should guide the group in answering the following questions:

  • Is the meeting space comfortable and conducive to forming intimate relationship? For example, is the room more like a study or parlor than a classroom?
  • How frequently will we meet? Ideally, meetings should be often enough to allow group members to develop deep relationships and address each member’s particular strategic leadership issues.
  • What refreshments can we have that are healthy and nourishing?
  • What ground rules help create mutual trust and an atmosphere of learning? Such ground rules might include confidentiality; genuine listening; diversity of perspectives; attendance and, even better, presence at all gatherings (except in emergencies); no cell phone interruptions; and honest feedback. Display them in the meeting room as a covenant among group members.
  • How will group members get to know each other? For example, will the group use psychological or personality assessment instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Birkman Method, or The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation-Behavior (FIRO-B); personal and faith journey storytelling; or some other means to facilitate self-disclosure and feedback?
  • What is the group’s goal, and what are the goals of each member? From the beginning, groups should be able to articulate what they want to accomplish in their first year, including each member’s physical, relational and spiritual life goals.
  • How can the group understand each member’s ministry? During each meeting, one or two group members might take 30 to 45 minutes to describe his or her congregation, its strengths, challenges and goals.
  • Is the group “open” or “closed?” That is, once the group has started meeting, will it be open to receiving new members or not?
  • How will the group help members who miss a meeting catch up? One option is for two members to have a 30- to 60-minute conference call with any absentees to update them.


Facilitation of learning

Facilitators who are responsible for helping a group of pastors acquire new knowledge or skills should be familiar with current theories about how people learn.

For example, at its core, learning is about exposing the learner to something different from what they already know. As a result, people who believe strongly in the accuracy and truth of their current knowledge often have a more difficult time learning. To help, a facilitator may encourage group members to suspend judgment or critical analysis at the beginning of the process, opening them to the possibility of acquiring new knowledge. That way, people might discover something they did not already know -- perhaps even something that contradicts what they know.

The facilitator should also keep in mind the following points about learning:

  • The learner must be able to “appreciatively understand” what is being taught. Appreciating without understanding is superficial; understanding without appreciating (finding usefulness or value) is judgmental.
  • The learner must have a way to apply the new knowledge to behavior. Change doesn’t happen until the learner has integrated the new knowledge into behavior.
  • The learner must be equipped to practice the new behavior and learn from that experience. Every time a learner seeks to implement new knowledge, new learning can happen.


But where is the new learning to come from? Fortunately, numerous resources are available to help groups explore new ideas, concepts, practices and strategies. Outside speakers, books, magazine articles, movies and videos, and blogs can all be used as material. To help the group get started, the facilitator may want to ask the following:

  • What are your goals? What do you want to learn?
  • Who or what do you already know -- speakers, books, films, etc. -- that could help us achieve those goals?
  • What are your favorite ways to learn? For example, do you prefer lectures, group discussion, experiential practice, group study, individual presentations on specific issues or topics?


Facilitation of issues

Discussing an issue and processing an issue are two very different things. In a discussion, participants generally take part in a freewheeling review of a given topic such as stewardship, conflict, staff relationships or mission trips. If the discussion goes well, participants gain a deeper understanding of the issue. Perhaps one or more pastors go away with an idea of some action to take.

In processing an issue, however, a group member -- in our case, a pastor -- presents the group with a significant issue that is currently causing him or her concern. After some explanation and analysis, the group helps the pastor explore the issue and address it. Hopefully, as a result, the pastor is able to create a plan of action. Processing involves a commitment to take action by the person who brought the issue to the group.

For issue processing to be productive, a facilitator must be prepared to do the following:

  • Steer the group away from theoretical or random discussion and into appropriate analysis of the issue and specific ways to deal with it.
  • Remember that the pastor who presented the issue is in a vulnerable position. Encourage honest feedback and suggestions, but help keep the presenter safe by directing group members away from inappropriate prying or overly critical feedback.
  • Manage the process -- do not get caught up in the content. When facilitators get involved in content, the productivity of the group declines, researchers have found.
  • Model listening and show appreciation when members participate.
  • Help the group clarify whether the issue is a problem to be solved (e.g., the presenter wants to resolve a particular situation, such as how to strengthen a stewardship program) or a decision to be made (e.g., the presenter has to decide between two or more alternatives, such as whether to take a new call or not). Problems call for creativity, which means the facilitator’s job is to help the group “think outside the box.” Decisions need wisdom, in which case the facilitator draws on the group’s experience and knowledge to help assess the pros and cons of the options being considered.


Facilitation of worship and other “means of grace”

An active spiritual life is one of the hallmarks of excellent pastors, researchers have found. Pastors who thrive in ministry are more likely to participate regularly in worship, Bible study, prayer, meditation, reflection and the sacrament of communion. But many pastors get so caught up in delivering these “means of grace” that they rarely participate in or receive it. A pastor peer group is an excellent place to increase such participation.

Because pastors can tend to be perfunctory when they worship or practice other spiritual disciplines with other pastors, the facilitator has a critically important role to play and should attend to the following:

  • Organize each meeting so that one pastor is prepared to lead these grace-full activities. Be sure to allot sufficient time.
  • Encourage pastors to prepare well for leading worship and other spiritual activities and to experiment with those activities in new ways.
  • Allow time for prayer. After a pastor has presented an issue, members might gather around him or her, each offering prayers.
  • Help the group give affirmative and corrective feedback to the member who led an activity.
  • Encourage the group members to support one another in their disciplined and regular participation in the “means of grace.”


Facilitation of accountability

Different denominations have different ways to assess pastors and help them develop and grow professionally and personally. When effectively communicated and willingly heard, these assessments can be helpful. For most people, however, accountability -- both being held accountable and holding others accountable -- is quite difficult.

SPE peer groups provide a setting to practice accountability, to give and to receive helpful assessments about both their spiritual life and their practice of ministry. Because of the inherent challenges, however, most groups need the support of a facilitator to take on this task. The facilitator’s responsibilities can include the following:

  • Help the group explore the spiritual dimensions of their life together and encourage them to agree to hold each other accountable.


Establish a formal method for accountability. For example, the facilitator might visit each member at church (or on the phone, if necessary) to discuss questions such as: What did you learn from our last meeting? How are you applying it? What’s working and what’s not? What will you do differently? What progress are you making on your professional and personal development goals? What are you doing to take care of yourself? Another option is to establish a round robin structure in which group member A visits with B and B with C and so on.

  • Show how to receive feedback without defensiveness by asking members to evaluate each meeting at its conclusion. In particular, display a caring heart, a listening ear and a courageous spirit.


What is required of facilitators?

More than anything else, these three qualities -- a caring heart, a listening ear, and a courageous spirit -- are what an effective facilitator offers to a group.

Finally, to lead a group of learners, facilitators must also be learners. The group’s feedback is an important and helpful source of learning. Anything facilitators can do to develop their ability to encourage and support pastors in the exercise of their calling is vital to the well-being of the pastor, his or her family, and the mission of the church.