Pastoral Thriving Through Clergy Small Groups
by Rev. Dan Hester, Pastor, St. Andrew’s UMC, Charlotte
The one constant throughout my twenty-plus years of ordained ministry has been clergy small groups. I have been a part of lectionary groups, centering prayer groups, lunch groups, formal clergy groups with a pastoral counselor, groups with covenants, peer learning groups, groups that met weekly, and groups that met monthly. I have been invited to groups as well as convened them myself. What they all have in common is that they have formed in me a certain pastoral aesthetic.
To understand what I mean by a pastoral aesthetic, consider the impact of praying the Lord's Prayer repeatedly. Once one prays the Lord's Prayer a thousand times or so, in public and in private, one's own prayer life gets formed without a lot of conscious effort. Once that practice of praying the Lord's Prayer has been established it becomes awkward if not difficult to pray for more than today's bread, for help in holding a grudge, or for special favors that would advance one's own life at the expense of others. Instead our prayer life gets directed by the Holy Spirit to hold God's name as holy, to acknowledge that it is a community that is in prayer, not just one person, to be grateful, to be mindful of danger, and ultimately to rest in God.
In like fashion, when I meet with other clergy in an environment of trust, mutual support, challenge, and hope, something in me gets formed. After conversations with confreres it becomes more difficult for me to neglect my spiritual life, to engage in self-destructive habits, or to hide my light under a basket. Even when explicit commitments were not required by a particular clergy group, I've still found myself more engaged in prayer, more imaginative in ministry, more practiced in self-care, and more grateful for important relationships.
Reflecting on clergy small groups brings to mind something that Dr. Harmon Smith liked to say in his ethics classes at Duke, "Decisions are what you do when all else fails." The "all else" he meant was the company we keep, the habits we practice, and the active and passive learning we take on. Pastoral thriving is about an environment more than this program or that one. Making this one practice of meeting with other clergy a priority has done more than I may ever know to keep me (and I don't use this phrase lightly) moving on to perfection.