Pastors from the Christian Reformed Church in North America spend three days in a mountain cabin and find they can speak honestly about the issues they face. A Church of God pastor about to resign from his church changes his mind after his pastoral covenant group rallies and helps him navigate his situation. A Catholic retreat center opens its doors to Protestant women pastors, allowing each to share the best from her own tradition’s practices of prayer and leadership.
Though very different from each other, each of these experiences involves a pastor peer group -- a small group of clergy that meets regularly for support and continuing education.
Anecdotal reports have long suggested that pastors who take part in peer groups benefit from the support, friendship and spiritual renewal that such groups offer. But new research suggests that the benefit may extend to congregations as well.
Pastoral leaders who participate in peer groups are associated with congregations whose members are highly involved in their churches, financially supportive of the ministers’ continuing education and committed to the community, according to “A Study of the Effects of Participation in SPE Pastoral Leader Peer Groups.” Peer group participation is also a predictor of congregational growth.
“There is a strong correlation. It’s fascinating. It’s surprising,” said Penny Long Marler, professor of religion and the grant and research coordinator for the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., which partnered with Austin Presbyterian Seminary on the study.
The study included surveys of about 2,100 participants in the Lilly Endowment Inc.–funded Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) pastoral leader peer groups. Data from those surveys were compared with the national Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey of 2,525 congregations. Both surveys were conducted in 2008.
Peer groups are diverse. Some have trained facilitators; others don’t. Some include only pastors and lay people from a particular denomination; others have an ecumenical interfaith membership. Some have a defined curriculum set by the program sponsor; others set their own agendas.
Despite the differences in groups’ makeup and approach, Marler said that in general, “the peer group is a safe place. It’s a place of mutual accountability between clergy.”
“It’s a place you can bring questions about your congregation that are troubling you or [with which] you need help, and these peer groups bring new ideas, problem solving and all types of intellectual and spiritual support that most clergy wouldn’t get otherwise,” she said.
Researchers found that congregations with a pastor who is involved in a peer group are more likely to be active, youthful, and to have increasing attendance -- particularly if the group includes a trained facilitator and/or a curriculum, Marler said.
And the longer a pastor has been in a peer group, the more likely the congregation is to be growing. Fully 55 percent of the congregations with pastors who had participated in peer groups for four to 10 years reported an increase in attendance of 5 percent or more over the most recent five years. For example, 40 percent of congregations with pastors involved in a peer group for one year or less reported an increase in worship attendance, but fully 55 percent of congregations with pastors active in a group for four to 10 years reported comparable growth.
After they’ve been renewed and reenergized, clergy benefiting from peer group involvement outside their churches spark renewal and vigor inside, among their memberships.
“Pastors who are in peer groups as opposed to pastors who are not in peer groups tend to lead congregations that are characterized by a ‘culture of involvement,’” Marler said.
She defined this culture as congregations where new members are engaged, where lay leaders rotate in volunteer roles and where members are involved in the community.
“There is a two-way relationship between being in a peer group and having a congregation that is really participatory and active,” Marler said.
That includes the youth, too, an often elusive population for churches to attract, engage and retain. Congregations led by pastors active in peer groups are “more likely to have a youth program, including a youth minister or director, youth conferences, and camps,” the study reports. “They are much more likely to include youth in planning and leadership, … almost twice as likely to include youth on the committees and boards of congregations,” according to the research.
Once the culture of involvement takes hold, the community also reaps benefits, the data show. Churches led by dedicated peer group participants are committed to devoting time to community service and positive change, according to survey results. This commitment then becomes a part of the congregation’s collective identity and purpose.
“If a pastoral leader is in a peer group, then his or her congregation is significantly more likely to see itself as a change agent in the community and to emphasize community service,” Marler said.
Such churches, in turn, become home to a broader spectrum of lay leadership opportunities. “Congregations with a pastoral leader in a peer group are 3 times more likely to report some rotation of people and roles and 6 times more likely to report a lot,” according to the survey results.
Among pastors who are in a peer group, “86 percent of [their] congregations said the leaders are constantly getting experience,” Marler said. “They don’t stay in the same committees and stay on the same board. There’s a lot of rotation of people on committees in the congregation.”
The upshot: an increased sense of personal ownership and knowledge of the ministries and activities of the church, she said.
“Those of us who work with peer groups [have] known anecdotally that our peer groups are strengthening our pastors in many ways. But we didn’t know until we did this large study of lots of people in [SPE] peer groups and these two national surveys … that being in a peer group is really strongly related to some positive things in congregations,” Marler said.