This is the fourth article in a series on clergy health factors. The Wesleyan way links the health of the Church with the health of its clergy. The leadership of healthy clergy is essential for developing outwardly focused and spiritually centered Christ followers.
Being a pastor can be a very solitary calling. According to Flourishing in Ministry’s study on clergy health, three types of relationships are key to pastors’ wellbeing: significant others, “similar others” or colleagues and those who support and resource them in their effort to reach proficiency as professionals. In the previous article in this series on “holy friendships,” we explored clergy’s need for significant and similar others. In this article, we’ll look at a practice that combines colleagues with the spiritual discipline of confession through clergy covenant groups or band meetings.
A recurrent insight emerging from Flourishing in Ministry’s interviews with clergy concerns the need for safe relationships with people who occupy equivalent positions and can truly understand what a pastor may be thinking and feeling.
“Meeting regularly with a small group of trusted colleagues has been a vital part of my spiritual, emotional, and physical health throughout my ministry,” said Rev. Andy Bryan, lead pastor of Manchester.
“When I moved this year to a new appointment, I made it a top priority to connect with a group. One of the very first things I did was reach out to nearby colleagues and ask about being a part of a covenant group, and I am overjoyed to say that our group of four is now meeting monthly. I consider it to be essential to our effectiveness as clergy to be in some kind of accountability group.”
Effectiveness is not solely about the numerical results many churches track, but the effectiveness of one’s own spiritual walk. Believing in Jesus does not always translate into discipleship. This doesn’t change when one becomes clergy. Communal spiritual practices are essential for any disciple, especially those formed in a Wesleyan tradition. For pastors, spiritual practices such as confession, fasting, service, solitude, study, prayer are critical to leading with integrity and abundant health.
Covenant groups with other clergy members is one way to help acknowledge the challenges of ministry while tending to the soul, work that Methodist movement founder John Wesley saw as critical. A commitment to one another and making the time to spend together is critical to soul tending according to Rev. Ron Watts, lead pastor of La Croix in Cape Girardeau. Watt’s long-term covenant group meets regularly, including a meet-up earlier in the year in Clearwater, Florida.
“While our group lives across the Midwest, we get together twice a year for three days. We agree to be there for each other when needed,” said Watts. “That often looks like regular contact through group texts and emails. On some occasions, it has even meant preaching at each other’s churches.”
Rev. Ann Mowry, retired elder living in the Southeast district, echoes this sentiment around commitment and accountability. “We are all busy, but we need the group. Being too busy to go…is not helping others through theirs.”
“We share our lives together: the joys and the sorrows. The ups and the downs,” said Watts. “I know that I can reach out to them and get an empathetic hearing and prayer whenever needed.”
The band meeting was a form of discipleship that helped small groups of men and women practice intense vulnerability and confession of sin together. John Wesley saw Moravians practicing this spiritual discipline and immediately understood its power to move profession beyond our words and into the daily lives of disciples. This practice helped sustain the Methodist revival in the 18th century, which was preceded by other versions of this spiritual renewal across Europe. The band meeting is a specific type of covenant group that follows a pattern of discipline as outlined by Wesley. Not every Methodist was part of a band. This was always a smaller subset of Christian community.
“For me, [covenant groups] work best when there is a set rhythm and pattern to the group,” said Rev. Karen Hayden, lead pastor of King’s Way in Springfield. “That way I am not just connecting when it ‘feels good’ for me, but it catches me both when I am at my best and when I need course direction.”
Technology helps to make the regular practice of covenant meeting possible for busy pastors. One group of clergywomen – Revs. Cassie Graham, Erika Gravely, Amie Littrell, Angie McNeil and Jen Shelton meet at 6 a.m. through Facebook Messenger.
Alan Deutschman, author of Change or Die, notes that people rarely change based on the “three F’s”: facts, fear or force. He says it is the “three R’s” that enable people to change: relate, repeat and reframe. The practice of confession plays an important role in this transformation. Members committed to this practice talk specifically about their temptations, successes and failures, knowing that part of effectively growing in their relationship with Christ means addressing the ways in which we come up short.
Confessional practices expose members to great vulnerability. Faithful listening builds the trust that enables acquaintances to come to know one another more deeply. One of the ways bands create trust is through spiritual practices Jesus outlined for his community of disciples.
Rev. Marilyn Moeller, pastor at New Horizons in Columbia, says her Jefferson City covenant group shares in communion and prayer regularly. This sets apart bands or covenant groups from a circle of friends or coffee klatch.
“The difference is purpose and intention,” shared Bryan. “A circle of friends is a great way to just be present with others, have fun, engage life experiences, etc. A covenant group is formed with the stated intention of holding one another accountable to living healthy spiritual lives and supporting and encouraging one another in living those lives.”