Seminaries and other organizations offer a plethora of continuing education programs for ministers, but many of these same organizations are conducting research to discover new continuing education models that can provide even more benefit and impact. What is being discovered may have the potential to transform the face of ministerial continuing education.

Peer group learning experiments, in particular, appear to hold great promise. Bruce Roberts, professor of congregational education and leadership at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, is director of one such experiment, the Indiana Peer Group Study Program (PGSP), a program funded by the Lilly Endowment and based upon evaluation research Roberts conducted with Robert E. Reber of a peer group program initiated by The Dixon Foundation in Alabama in the early 1980s.

Of the 14 peer groups in the PGSP, six have completed their three-year programs of study. Without exception, Roberts says, participants “are all reporting being highly energized by what has happened, describing it as the best continuing education they’ve ever had. One participant said he thought the denominations should shut down all the individual events and just fund peer learning.”

There is evidence that the congregations have experienced the impact of their pastors’ participation in the peer group study experience, as well, though it’s difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, Roberts says, “The congregations are telling us that they have noticed a difference in their pastors—that the pastors have been more energetic, have started more programs, and have interacted better with the congregations than they had before.”

In the PGSP, the question of what is to be learned is turned over to participants. “We say to the clergy, ‘As a group, come up with a plan for your learning that all of you can get excited about and that you are willing to hold each other accountable for over the next three years.’ And what we’ve found is that that creates a lot of energy for continuing education.” In Roberts’ opinion, the accountability system the group provides is one of the keys to the program’s success. “When you send somebody away as an isolated individual, they may come back on fire, but they still end up in the old system, where there are no accountability structures in place, so there’s no ongoing reflection about what went on there, and pretty soon the learning just gets lost.”

Also at the core of the success of peer group learning, he believes, is the freedom each group has to decide on its learning agenda. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for someone outside of a given context to be giving advice to ministers about what they ought to be learning,” he says. “What ministers should be working on learning will depend on what’s going on in the context in which they work, what they are experiencing, and what they believe they need to work on.”

Michael Ross, executive director of the Pastors Institute in Anderson, Indiana, agrees. Ross recently completed a research project examining the combined findings of six studies on pastoral attrition (a project funded by the Louisville Institute), discovering that many departed ministers felt that their education—both seminary and postseminary—had left them ill-prepared, and needed to be more relevant to the congregations they pastored. “This whole notion of contextual education is on the front burner, but it has not made its way into lifelong learning plans,” Ross says.

Among the other seven primary factors that led to decisions to leave the ministry were a lack of connectedness and support, insufficient self-care, and poor “people skills”—some of the same areas in which the PGSP groups have chosen to focus their efforts. Most of the six PGSP groups who have completed their work focused on leadership skills, and most also paid attention to spiritual and self-nurturing practices. “They are all feeling the burnout, so they do have a spirituality component and a self-care component in their learning plans,” Roberts says.

The Institute for Clergy Excellence in Huntsville, Alabama, has developed its own peer group learning project, also funded by the Lilly Endowment, and is experiencing results similar to those of the PGSP groups. The project grew out of an earlier program that Institute Executive Director Larry Dill was instrumental in forming. In that program, groups of ministers from the North Alabama United Methodist Conference came together to work on their preaching. The current project expands on the earlier program in a number of ways: It is ecumenical, includes participants from a wide region, and includes not only preaching but also worship and leadership components. It has a lay component as well.

The project includes 11 groups, some of which are ending their first year of work together. Others are still working on designing their learning agendas. “It takes six months to a year for them to design their projects,” explains Dill. Like Roberts, Dill believes the key principles underlying the peer group learning model’s success are that the groups are self-selecting, they design their own learning agenda, they study together over time, and the members hold each other accountable for the learnings. “It’s not like going to a seminar,” he says. “Each time they meet we expect them to give evidence to one another about what they are learning.”

Dill finds particular power in the opportunity for the groups to design their own learning agendas. “That’s one of the most exciting and energizing aspects of this program. It’s based on the idea that the world is your classroom.” He cites the example of one group that worked with the Dzieci Theater Group of New York City to improve their preaching. “People from the school worked with the group on things like presence, breathing, and voice. The members of the group said it was really transformational for them. The freedom to experiment, to be creative, often winds up being transformational,” Dill says. In addition, the Institute encourages groups to change their plans as they go along. “It’s a plan that grows with them as they grow,” Dill says.

Involving the Laity
Involving the laity in the work of the groups has also proven a successful strategy. “There’s a lot of energy among the laity,” Dill says. Although originally included based on the premise that they would be helpful in implementing any changes the minister wished to make in worship, the laity’s participation has proven to be more influential in the group members’ efforts to improve their preaching, Dill says. “From the laity we heard comments like ‘I thought I could help my minister be a better preacher, but I couldn’t find a safe place to do that.’ So this program provided that safe space.”

As with their learning agendas, the groups are free to determine exactly how they will involve the laity. Some laity teams have been invited to participate in the ministers’ training sessions with outside speakers. Others have been offered the opportunity to travel with the groups. One group has developed an instrument it will use to have its laity teams evaluate its members’ preaching. Another group even invited its laity teams to participate in the design of its project. Recent research seems to indicate that lay participation in a pastor’s learning agenda may be more important than has previously been thought. In Ross’s research on pastoral attrition, a significant finding is that pastors who have left the ministry believe they would have had a better experience if their congregations had been more involved in the development of their learning programs.

“What we’re finding is that there seems to be a detachment of the pastor’s continuing education from the congregation’s involvement—and even their awareness. Former pastors seem to be saying they made a mistake in not involving the congregation earlier in their continuing education process.” The way in which pastors believe congregations could have helped the most, Ross says, is by providing input into the minister’s lifelong learning plan. Much of the learning pastors receive in continuing education programs “is misunderstood or mischanneled because the congregation is often unaware of what the pastor is doing,” he says.

Dean McDonald, director of the Cathedral College of Preachers, says the College has found it very effective to involve the laity in its core curriculum program. “Participants in that program form a listening group of members of their congregation to provide feedback on their sermons. This has tremendous benefit to the preacher, who now has a lay group that has an increased sensitivity to what goes into planning worship and preaching.”

“Clergy are very reticent to ask for things they think others might view as being just for themselves,” adds Dean Wolfe, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. “That’s why it’s very important to involve lay members.” When the laity become involved in a minister’s continuing education, he says, they can more readily recognize its benefits not only to the minister but also to the congregation.

Along that same vein, other organizations have begun encouraging clergy to involve their lay members in their continuing education efforts, and they are receiving positive feedback about these initiatives. Andrew Warner, pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Milwaukee, says one of the most beneficial continuing education events in which he participated was a stewardship partners program held last year by the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ. “In order to participate I had to bring laypeople from my church to participate with me. The idea was to recruit a team that could learn with me.” Warner recruited two members of his congregation to be part of his team, an architect and a development director for a nonprofit organization. The participation of these members provided continuity and ongoing inspiration for Warner when he returned to his pastorate. “We could have a conversation about what we’d learned and each of us had different insights, so instead of having only what I had gleaned from the program I also had the insights of my team members. It made the experience more well-rounded. And instead of just having a great experience away from the church I could continue to process that experience with others when I returned.”

Group Learning Benefits
Peer group learning project directors and researchers believe this ability to continue to reflect on and build on the learnings from a continuing education event is one of the primary benefits of group learning, whether one’s group consists of other clergy or members of one’s congregation.

“There’s an unusual dynamic that develops when learning with a peer group,” says Dill, recalling one group that decided to attend a conference on homiletics together. “Initially I looked upon that as not a very creative idea, but soon I realized that to go to that event together was quite different from going to it as individuals. Within the group there were three women and five men, and after the event they realized they had heard the speakers very differently. The men had related more positively to the male speakers than to the female speakers, and for the women it was just the opposite. So they have begun exploring why that is. That’s something they wouldn’t have discovered if they had attended that conference by themselves.”

Dill also believes there is a cumulative knowledge available to ministers in the group learning experience, whether that takes the shape of shared insights, information, advice, tips, or reminders of wisdom shared by guest speakers or trainers. “Sometimes we aren’t able to hear something at the time that it is said. Later, when we are ready to hear it, a group member can remind us.”

Wolfe sees other benefits of peer group learning. “Traditionally,” he says, “it has been very difficult for clergy to build community with each other. There is often a competitiveness among clergy, a reticence to share. Groups like these break those negative patterns and help clergy establish more positive connections with one another.”

Jennifer Thomas, pastor of Lake Park Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, says her most helpful continuing education experiences have involved colleague groups, one of which is Christ Clarion Fellowship, a group of young clergy that meets once a year for a four-day retreat. Each retreat has a topical focus, such as public witness or devotional practices, which is explored in depth. Fellowship is an integral part of the event, as is mentoring, Thomas says. She considers the ecumenical and interracial composition of the group another benefit. “We wrestle with the same issues, but because our contexts are different we learn about other denominations. We help each other hone our gifts and skills, and as we develop relationships with one another we can challenge and affirm each other as well.”

Warner, a co-founder of Christ Clarion Fellowship, wouldn’t miss the annual retreat. “I consider that a real anchor group. The clergy in that group are the ones I stay in touch with throughout the year.” Warner recognizes the increasing returns from relationships that have developed over time in the group. “We can press each other in ways that we wouldn’t if we were coming together for the first time. For instance, at our last meeting we had a very honest conversation about clergy salaries. That’s not something that gets talked about a lot in deep and personal ways.”

Learning with laity offers added benefits to the group learning experience, Wolfe believes. “Most doctor of ministry degrees require participation of lay people on the journey,” he says. “It involves the laity in some creative learning. It also counters some of the resistance clergy sometimes experience from the parish to their continuing education proposals (‘Well, gee, you already get vacation’). If the congregation participates in the continuing education experience, it dissipates some of that resistance.”

Permission to Risk
All of these initiatives began as experiments, and in Roberts’ opinion, the freedom to experiment is essential if clergy are to continue to be supported in their lifelong learning efforts. This freedom, he says, needs to be extended to both those who design continuing education programs for clergy and to clergy themselves. Both, he says, need the opportunity to try some new things and to sometimes fail when they do so, with the understanding that even failed experiments provide valuable information that can help to shape future efforts.

“I think we ought to ask of clergy, ‘What energizes you when you think about learning? What really grabs you and is something you really want to do?’ And then we ought to encourage them to go and do it. In terms of adult learning, one thing leads to another. So even if it’s not quite on the mark of what the congregation thinks the pastor needs to learn, getting the pastor involved in something that excites and motivates him or her will be well worth it to the congregation as well. To congregations, I would say ‘Pastors need time away to focus their thoughts, to pursue study, and to continue their learning, so fund their continuing education. It will pay off,’” says Roberts.

In Roberts’ opinion, experimentation in continuing education may not only be a shot in the arm to individual ministers, but a possible remedy for other difficulties facing mainline denominations. “Let’s face it, for the most part the oldline churches are in serious decline. We need something to shake up what’s going on in those systems, and it’s not going to happen unless clergy find the support they need to take some risks, to try some new things, and to understand that even if those things don’t work out, they learned something. Congregations are like oil fields; youhave to keep drilling until you find the energy. The assumption is that it is there someplace.”

Continuing Education Advice from the Experts 

Make continuing education a priority. “Value continuing education,”says Dean Wolfe, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.“If you make it a priority,it tends to happen.”

Pursue excellence. Recognize that there is a qualitative difference among the continuing education programs available.“Talk with others about their experiences to determine which programs are best,”Wolfe suggests,“and don’t be afraid to take a program that will challenge you.Those programs are very often where the juice is.”

Involve others. Form a peer learning group or take another minister or a member of your congregation with you to continuing education events,advises Bruce Roberts,director of the Indiana Peer Group Study Program and professor of congregational education and leadership at Christian Theological Seminary.These “others”can provide a structure of support and accountability for the minister.

Take charge of your own learning. Design your own learning plan,and don’t limit your continuing education plan to the offerings made available through institutions and organizations, suggests Larry Dill,executive director of the Institute for Clergy Excellence.

Keep stimulating yourself intellectually. “Most of the satisfied ministers I know are people who always find something new to work on,something new to learn. I think that’s what keeps them fresh,”says Wolfe.

Follow your passions. Don’t be afraid of asking for what you want,Roberts advises.Taking care of one’s own needs and following one’s own passions,he believes,will foster enthusiasm for learning and energy for one’s ministry,so the congregation is the ultimate winner.

Cultivate advocates. “Pastors need to cultivate advocates in their pastorate and in the judicatory who will communicate to others that the overall health of the pastor is important,and that if it’s not attended to the congregation will suffer,”says Dean McDonald,director of the Cathedral College of Preachers.

Be open about your continuing education endeavors. Share your continuing education plan with your board or your vestry and encourage them to hold you accountable,suggests Darren Elin,rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Saginaw,Michigan. Sharing also has other benefits,notes Wolfe:“When you reveal yourself as a learner it engages other people to be learners as well.”