Penny Long Marler: Getting ahead of the curve

Want a more vital ministry? Join a peer support network. Or a group of any kind.

This is my first venture into the blogosphere. I begin blogging just when blogging is becoming passé. This is not surprising for someone of my generation who is attached to an institution.

In a recent discussion of the Pew Foundation’s landmark study of the millennial generation, a researcher observed that blogging is now considered “old school.” It is well-known that religious institutions -- especially congregations and denominations -- tend to lag behind the larger culture in their attention to social and technological advances. Whether identified with the right or left wing of American denominationalism, institutions qua institutions tend to be naturally conservative.

There are good, sociological reasons for this resistance. Congregational and denominational cultures form slowly and therefore respond to change slowly. A sense of history, a value on consensus, and an infrastructure that both reflects and shapes these traits are all a part of congregational and denominational identity. Without this resistance to change, such institutions would be less effective in the important tasks of socializing their children and recruiting and assimilating new converts. Further, one of the inevitable effects of change in institutions is conflict -- and pastors and lay leaders are sometimes temperamentally reluctant or unprepared to handle conflict in healthy ways.

Keeping up with the social change curve is a challenging task, never mind getting ahead of it. Change for its own sake can be detrimental to ministry. And there are, of course, times when the church’s task is in bucking the tide rather than craftily navigating it. As a church consultant and someone whose research interest is in congregational studies, the effects of social change on American religion have been of both theoretical and practical concern to me.

A recent research project focused on the evaluation of several hundred pastoral leader peer groups has shed light on the issue of change and its relationship to congregational growth and clergy renewal. This study, initiated by the Lilly Endowment, Inc.’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) initiative, shows that a pastor’s regular involvement with a small group of clergy for continuing education and support is an important predictor of congregational vitality. I am the principal researcher for this project, and the final report is currently in process. So this news is actually “new,” whether blogging is old school or not.

A personal history of participation in a group is a strong predictor of numerical growth in a pastor’s congregation. This conclusion is based on two separate surveys, one of over 2,000 pastoral leaders involved in a range of small groups for up to five years, and the other of over 3,000 pastoral leaders in a nationally-representative sample of American congregations. A peer group that is intentionally-structured to maximize peer learning is an especially strong predictor. Longer tenure in a peer group also is related to lower levels of congregational conflict. Further, a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group (of any kind) is significantly related to a culture of involvement among laity both in their current congregation and to positive impact on the local community. Participation in a peer group that is racially or denominationally diverse is especially powerful for a pastoral leader’s own spiritual growth.

It makes intuitive sense that the ongoing social, spiritual, and practical support provided by a peer group is a key to dynamic and innovative ministry. Now there is documentation that the time investment has real payoff. Stay tuned.

Penny Marler teaches sociology of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.