By Fairfax Fair
Ministry is an interesting paradox. We are called to serve the people of God. We are engaged in service with a group of people with whom we share our ministries. We Presbyterians even celebrate our connectionalism! Yet ministry is often lonely and even isolating. I have been part of a colleague group for about ten years. It is a life-giving group that furthers and renews my life and ministry. We gather twice each year (fall and spring), taking turns to host one another in our place of ministry, and it is some of the best time of my year. We are a group of about 24 pastors, both men and women, and we serve in diverse settings all across the country. We all head multi-staff congregations and share freely with one another from our experiences. We are not a support group but we support one another through good and through barren times.
Our meetings begin on Sunday evenings and run through noon on Wednesday, with an optional round of golf that afternoon. Each of our meetings includes a mix of theological study/reflection, the experience of something particular to our meeting place (a visit to the Cleveland Clinic, the Pentagon, an inner city ministry), and time spent doing something — often outdoors — we ordinarily don’t do (riding segways, paddling kayaks, hiking through a natural forest, throwing a football around in Michigan Stadium). We share meals, laughter, and sometimes tears. The host pastor plans a great agenda for our time together and we always learn a lot and have a great time. The best part, however, is getting together with colleagues who have grown to be friends, sharing about our lives and our ministries with people we trust and can depend on.
As a group we have decided on set “dues,” payable to the host pastor whether or not we can attend a particular meeting. These cover the cost of all activities — including meals — during our three days together. We are giving the option of staying with host families from the congregation or in a local motel (at our own expense).
Between meetings we keep in touch by e-mail. When a question comes up for one of us, it is usual to send an e-mail around to the group, soliciting ideas, advice, and resources on which to draw. Our ministry settings are all different, but people are the same everywhere. My colleague group is great for bouncing ideas around, testing the water, and gaining insights into what has worked or not worked. We throw around tactics to try and plans that have failed. We share ideas for a sermon series, classes, book studies, and officer training. We debrief General Assembly and big events and issues in the country and the world. We share news from our presbyteries and always keep our eyes open for good colleagues to join our staffs and recommend to other churches seeking strong leaders.
One of the keys to this group’s “success” is the expectation that — barring a major crisis — attending our twice yearly meetings is a priority. I use continuing education time to gather with my group. We all are busy people with many responsibilities, but the only way to form community is to be together on a regular basis, building relationships through time and experiences shared. If a person is consistently absent, we talk with them about giving up their spot to someone else. I give being in a colleague group my highest recommendation. It is renewing, refreshing, challenging, and the church at its best!
Fairfax F. Fair is Pastor/Head of Staff at First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor Michigan, a thriving congregation that serves the University of Michigan, has a Resident Minister program, and extensive local and international ministry partnerships.