Papers, Colleagues and Christian Fellowship

By Kathryn Johnston

“I’m just here for the papers.”

papersI said that to my cohort group at one of our early gatherings. We began in 2008 based on an existing  model. A group of pastors from around the country gather together once a year bringing with them two papers each. These papers are based on the Sunday lectionary readings for the upcoming year. A finely tuned schedule through the week guides the group as the papers are presented and discussed in 20 minute segments with the benefit of everyone going home with a huge stash of resources for the upcoming preaching year.

But that’s not all…

Our group began with the instigators inviting one person each and then having that person invite someone else. I was on the outer layer of invitees and so when I arrived at our first gathering I knew only one person. That was hard. Our first evening together was spent at someone’s home and folks naturally split into those who knew one another from one seminary in the south in one room and folks who knew one another from another seminary in the south in another room. I was the only one from the seminary in the northeast.

It was awkward.

I didn’t blame them. We all know how much we miss those seminary connections once we get out into the cold, cruel world of ministry. The cohort group is a great way to have your continuing education budget legitimately pay for a reunion. And this group was incredibly welcoming. I remember how surprised I was when I had slept through dinner and everyone had made sure there was food left for me.

But still… the main reason we were together was to work on the lectionary texts for the upcoming year. And so as we were having one of our logistics meetings about where we would meet the following year and whether we should create more free time and who else should be invited to join us I found the opportunity to say, “I’m just here for the papers.”

And it’s true. The papers – the work – are both the ticket in every year and the glue that holds us together. But we are so much more. We sustain each other through the year in both the sacred and the profane. We create safe space for frustrations with the greater church, our individual churches, our communities and we create safe space for celebrations, too. We challenge one another, we question one another, we pray for one another, we support one another.

As for me, this group has been there through numerous family transitions including a divorce and remarriage. They have heard stories about my Dad and respected my tears when he died. They embraced me when I came out as gay and prayed and supported me when I came out to the congregation I serve. They rallied around this Session and congregation as we all moved forward together in ministry.

So yes, it is still about the papers. But it is also about camaraderie and collegiality; it is about the deep, rich relationship that comes in the walking through valleys and over mountaintops together; it is about the yoke of trust when we put our relationships above the Calls we are trying to discern often to the same churches.

It is about Christian fellowship and friendship in its purest and most Holy of forms – and I am blessed and a better person for it.

But I still want the papers.


head shotKathryn Johnston is the Senior Pastor at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania. She is a member of The Well cohort group and would write more, but she has to go write her papers.

photo credit: notashamed via photopin cc


Design Your Own Preacher Camp


By MaryAnn McKibben Dana

For the past several years I’ve been in a group of clergy called “The Well.” We patterned ourselves after the Moveable Feast, a group that’s been meeting together for more than 25 years. People have said to me, “Aww, I wish I had a group like that.” I always tell them, “Just do it!” It’s not that complicated to put a group together. We in The Well would love to see these groups propagate, and in fact, we first got started thanks to the support and guidance of Feast member Tom Are, who invited us to meet at Village Church our first year.

Our basic format: We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, chosen randomly by one of our members; I believe there is a sorting hat involved. For each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing an exegetical paper of about 3,500 words that will be read at our gathering. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon “trajectories.” With 18 people in our group, we leave our gathering with a head start on 36 weeks of preaching.

1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider, but ensures that each member is personally connected to someone in the group. This helps with accountability.

Decide what kind of denominational/ regional/ theological/ seminary diversity you want, or don’t want. We went for cohesion more than intentionally seeking diversity, which is probably why we’ve succeeded, but it means we need to seek out other venues for engaging with people who differ dramatically from us. We started with 15 members and when we’ve added folks, we’ve always added at least 2 at a time so those people can integrate as a group rather than be the odd person out. Eighteen feels like a good size for our purposes.

2. Have a basic covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don’t have your papers done, you don’t come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations—in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.

3. Have a “dues guy/gal.” We charge dues for basic operations of The Well—this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on the size of people’s continuing education budgets, but it’s somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.

4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person, as I mentioned, draws names out of a hat to figure out who gets which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations several months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on beforehand).

We also take turns “hosting” the event. That doesn’t necessarily mean it takes place in that person’s city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet during the day (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We’ve taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are the decider for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group—if I ever write a book about our group it will be called “Too Many Alphas”—so it’s good to have someone in charge.

5. Use Dropbox. We’ve tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. Now we upload our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptops, or print them if they’re a scribbling type. We have them due by the Friday morning before we leave so printing people can print. If you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies.

6. Schedule for the week: We schedule 35 minutes per paper. The person reads the scripture, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we’ve had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and lately we’ve been able to schedule a free afternoon. Heaven.

7. Leave evenings free. By the time we finish for the afternoon, we’re fried. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there’s an actual trophy. So we schedule a night for sharing these stories.

I hope these tips help groups form and thrive. But I also know there is an X factor in group dynamics. Here are some additional thoughts on what helps us succeed. But sometimes, all the ingredients are there and it just doesn’t work. Don’t beat yourself up; it happens. But give a group a try. It might be one of the most important things you do.


wallsquareMaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church in Falls Church, VA, and co-chair of NEXT Church. She was also the proud winner of this year’s trophy at the Well. Connect with her at The Blue Room.