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Peer Learning Makes Better Pastors
The US Congregational Life Leader Survey found that pastoral leaders who participate in peer learning are more engaged in their own self-care and development. Ministers who take a day off regularly are twice as likely to be involved in a peer group. Those who participate in continuing education are more than five times as likely to be involved in peer learning. Pastoral leaders in peer groups are also twice as likely to say that maintaining a private life separate from their work is “no problem.” What’s more, the relationship is two-way.
Peer learning makes better pastors and better pastors participate in peer learning!
Peer Learning Makes Better Congregations
A pastor’s involvement in a peer group makes a difference for their congregations.
The Faith Communities Today Survey found that pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are highly participatory. Three-quarters of ministers in a peer group report that leadership roles are shared among laity in their churches. And we see how this works in chapter 3, where we hear the story of a Church of God minister who learned to share leadership in his peer group. When he used a more facilitative style of leadership in his own church, he was amazed at the positive results. But the story is quite different for pastors who aren’t in peer groups. In close to half of their congregations, leadership isn’t shared very much—the same people tend to serve in the same roles.
A culture of involvement extends to youth and new members. Nearly twice as many pastors in peer groups report that youth serve on church committees and boards. Their congregations are also more likely to involve new members in worship and in service to the church and the community.
Pastors who participate in a peer group are more active in their communities. So are the congregations they lead. Their churches are more likely to see themselves as change agents and strongly emphasize community service.
Several of our peer group approaches are intentional about community involvement as a part of their experience, such as Lott Carey’s cross-cultural pastoral immersion model. Seattle’s School of Theology and Ministry showcases stories of peer groups whose members are different from one another in every conceivable way and who through deep listening and mutual discernment become true companions in leadership. Interpersonal change leads to congregational and community change. The Seattle project’s intent may not be to change communities, but in many cases that is indeed what happens.
Pastors in peer groups lead congregations that are committed to clergy continuing education. Their churches are more likely to require it and help to fund it. Many of the pastoral leaders profiled in this book serve congregations that contribute financially to their peer group experience.
So a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group leads to congregations that are highly participatory, supportive of the minister’s continuing education, and active in their communities. These are important signals of health in congregations. Another indicator of health is numerical growth.
Is there a relationship between a pastoral leader’s peer group involvement and the growth of their congregation? Yes. However, simply being in a peer group is not enough. Two specific characteristics of a pastoral leader’s participation are strongly related to numerical growth in congregations: the length of time clergy have participated in a peer group and the peer group’s leadership and structure.
Pastors with a history of participation in a peer group lead congregations that grow. The relationship is quite strong. The length of time a pastor has been involved in a peer group is one of the top predictors of numerical growth. Only the involvement of the congregation in recruitment, a congregation with a younger average age and an active youth ministry, and little to no congregational conflict are better predictors. It also helps if a pastor is involved in a peer group that is led by a trained facilitator and includes a curriculum or other intentional learning plan.
This article is an excerpt from the Introduction to So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013) by The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) Peer Learning Project: Penny Long Marler, D. Bruce Roberts, Janet Maykus, James Bowers, Larry Dill, Brenda K. Harewood, Richard Hester, Sheila Kirton-Robbins, Marianne LaBarre, Lis Van Harten, and Kelli Walker-Jones. It is available at TCPBooks.com.
 These are the results of logistic regressions that calculate the odds of being in a peer group as well as taking a day off, participating in continuing education, and maintaining a private life separate from their work.
Only 27 percent of pastoral leaders in peer groups said that the same people tend to serve in the same leadership roles in their congregations, whereas 44 percent of pastoral leaders who were not in peer groups responded that the same people tended to serve in the same roles.
Thirty–seven percent of pastoral leaders in a peer group said that their youth serve on congregational committees and boards as compared to 21 percent of pastoral leaders who are not in peer groups.
Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that new persons were assimilated into their congregations through participation in worship (53 percent versus 38 percent); participation in service to the church (42 percent versus 28 percent); and participation in community service (39 percent versus 23 percent).
Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that they spend a lot of time representing the congregation in the community (55 percent versus 43 percent); that their congregation strongly emphasizes community service (51 percent versus 42 percent); and that their congregation is a change agent in the community (73 percent versus 60 percent).
Pastoral leaders in a peer group were more likely than pastoral leaders who were not in a peer group to say that their congregation provides financial support for the minister’s continuing education (76 percent versus 55 percent) and requires the minister to participate in continuing education annually (50 percent versus 28 percent).
 We know that “correlation is not causation.” So we created and tested models (logistic regression) for predicting participation in congregations, community involvement, and support for clergy continuing education. We found that a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicted congregations where laity rotate in leadership roles; small groups are emphasized; new members are assimilated through service to the church and the community; the congregation supports and requires continuing education; and the pastoral leader spends more time in administration, supervision, and representing the church in the community.
Since its first administration in 2000, the FACT Survey included a question about average worship attendance in the last six years, in this case, from 2003 to 2008. Respondents are asked to record these numeric averages by year. A “growth” variable is created by calculating a percentage change in attendance over the five–year period of measurement and then collapsing the measure into categories. The data in the chart reflect three categories: “congregation declined” is a five–year percentage decline in attendance of 5 percent or more; “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year decline or increase of less than 5 percent; and “congregation experienced growth” is a five–year percentage increase in attendance of 5 percent or more. When the growth variable is correlated with the survey item about the length of time the pastoral leader participated in a peer group, the results are definitive. Again, in order to determine whether a pastoral leader’s participation in a peer group predicts congregational growth, we created and tested a logistic regression model that included factors known to be related to church growth.