Sustaining Pastoral Excellence
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SPE Program Spotlight:

Texas Methodist Foundation Finds Facilitation Vital to Peer Support

Throughout Texas, from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Panhandle, from Dallas to far West Texas, a select group of United Methodist pastors and district superintendents are discovering the power of peer learning. Like their Sustaining Pastoral Excellence counterparts nationwide, they are finding in pastoral peer groups a “safe” place to share and to learn, a haven of friendship and support.

But they’ve also found that one of the most important persons in a pastoral peer group isn’t a group member at all. Instead, it’s a trained facilitator—a neutral observer, part-mentor/part-leader, who helps create the conditions where peer support can flourish.

The Rev. Jim Turley, director of the Texas Methodist Foundation’s Clergy Leadership Initiative, says facilitation is vital to pastoral peer support.

“For our program, it’s been essential,” he says. “I think it would be very hard for these groups to sustain themselves and to be successful without a facilitator.”

The Clergy Leadership Initiative currently sponsors ten Clergy Development Groups – eight peer groups of pastors and two groups of district superintendents. The pastor groups generally meet every other month in day-and-a-half-long retreats. Drawn from across the state’s five annual conferences, the pastors are divided into three groups of clergy who are four to seven years into ministry, and five groups of more experienced, larger-church pastors.

The group meetings typically have two components, which seek to get at the “head and heart” of ministry. In the first part of the meetings, the groups typically hear and discuss a presentation by an outside speaker on a particular aspect of ministry in which they’ve expressed interest. Topics have run the gamut, from how to integrate new members into the life of a growing congregation to the future of the United Methodist Church in the U.S. In the second half, members give the “heart” a workout, processing and working through specific issues and problems that individual members have brought to the group.

“It can be concerns about their ministry, or problems in their marriage, personnel problems in the church, anything at all,” says Turley.

Group members then work together to clarify the issues and brainstorm possible solutions. At the end of the meeting, each pastor develops a “personal action summary,” outlining specific steps they will take as a result of their peer group meeting.

The facilitator’s role is to help create an atmosphere of support and accountability.

“Group members covenant together, and the facilitator is basically the overseer of the covenant,” says Turley. “He or she is responsible for creating an environment of confidentiality. They are responsible for creating and maintaining an atmosphere of trust, a sense that this is a place where pastors can come and feel confident that the things they talk about won’t leave the group.”

The facilitator’s role is not to teach, says Turley, but to facilitate.

Turley is one of eight people who serve as facilitators. All have had experience serving local congregations, and go through a structured training process.

“We learn that our role is not to tell the pastors what to do, but to help them discover through the group what they need to do,” says Turley. “It’s a very different role.”

Many clergy, in fact, often have a difficult time serving as facilitators because, by the nature of pastoral ministry, they are used to preaching and teaching and telling people what to do. But as facilitators, they need to listen and to ask the right questions.

“When we’re looking for good facilitators, we’re looking for pastors who are learners and listeners, people who are still learning about ministry and willing to listen,” he says. “The most important thing is that the facilitator be somebody who loves pastors, who has a deep sense of wanting to encourage and affirm pastors.”

The Rev. Tom Graves, who served as facilitator for a group of large church pastors, fits that description to a “T.” Even after 50 years in ordained ministry, both as a pastor and district superintendent, Graves is still learning and has an abiding love and appreciation for pastors. He calls pastors “some of the last generalists” in our society and says they are called upon to perform gigantic tasks the nature of which few others can really understand.

“There is an inherent loneliness in pastoral ministry, a ‘nobody really understands what I’m up against’ feeling that sounds a little strange to other people,” he says. “But it’s probably pretty accurate. The Clergy Development Group gives pastors a safe place to be whatever they want and to say whatever they want with no repercussions except offers of help.”

As facilitator, Graves says his role in the group meetings was to keep the process on track, to keep it focused and fair, to be not the “hub of the wheel, but the grease that keeps it turning.”

“If you don’t have somebody playing that role, then I think we tend to chase our own rabbits or ride our favorite horses unless somebody guides us back to the topic,” he says. “And when it’s time to process issues and talk about really serious problems, then groups have a tendency to avoid the subject and talk about peripheral stuff and not the real issues.”

The Rev. Ben Disney, one of 10 pastors in Graves’ peer group, said having a facilitator was vital to his group’s success. Graves, he said, gave the group focus and direction. Without him and his facilitation, the group would have simply been 10 pastors with 10 separate agendas who would not likely have accomplished as much as they did.

“Tom gave us a lot of wisdom and guidance and pulled all the threads together and connected all of us,” Disney said.

Disney said pastors often have a hard time finding a safe place where they can talk about issues and challenges of pastoral ministry but that Graves had created an environment of trust and confidentiality. He was particularly adept at helping pastors clarify the issues they brought before the group.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what you are asking help for,” he says. “But Tom has a real gift for listening carefully and reading between the lines of what you’re saying.”

Between the bi-monthly group meetings, the facilitators also visit each group member, one-on-one at the member’s church. In those interim meetings, the facilitator reviews the pastor’s personal action plan with the pastor, and offers support and encouragement.

Graves said the interim meetings were particularly helpful to him in his work as a facilitator. Visiting the pastors’ churches, meeting their spouses and other family members, helped him to better understand each pastor’s ministry and life, which in turn helped him to be a better listener and shepherd.

In many ways, the facilitator, particularly in the one-on-one meetings, takes on a mentoring, or coaching role, says Turley.

“It’s an important role, but we have to be careful,” he says. “We’re not trying to tell pastors what to do. We’re trying to help them, especially the young pastors, understand that resources are available for them and that they are bright enough to make good decisions.”

The biggest challenge for facilitators is to maintain the integrity of the group process, to ensure that all members participate and that none dominate over the rest.

“Pastors like to get together and talk about their problems, but they don’t like to work on solutions,” says Turley. “They like to fuss and complain. The facilitator’s job is to say ‘Okay, what are you going to do about it? You have a problem, now what are you going to do?’”

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.