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Communities of Practice make a difference for clergy

Starting in September and October, 47 West Side clergy in local churches and specialized ministries—more than half of the active Western Washington clergy—will participate in five small support and learning groups through Clergy Communities of Practice (CoP).

virta crouch barber

Bobbi Virta and Gail Crouch are two facilitators who are working with Tara Barber, coordinator. Photo courtesy of Tara Barber

The PNC received a two-year $23,630 matching grant from the Pastoral Excellence Network at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis to launch Communities of Practice.   The PNC is raising matching gifts of $25,000 through offerings, other grants, budget and participant fees over the nest two years.

Those funds plus many participants’ volunteering to pay the full $250 fee have made it possible to extend full scholarships to all who requested them, plus there are funds for an expanded scholarship program next year.

“We urge every church to budget $250 in 2016 and beyond so their pastor can participate,” said program coordinator Tara Barber of Alki UCC.  

Next year the program will expand to include East Side clergy and to find a way to offer groups that meet virtually—to include clergy in Alaska and other remote areas.

Tara and the Church Development Committee will offer a one-day opportunity for learning and support for pastors and congregations on Nov. 21.

Communities of Practice is based on a model the Massachusetts UCC Conference developed and has used for 10 years.  It was funded by Lilly to bring clergy together to look at what they are doing in ministry, to engage in peer learning and to reflect on how they work.

“Clergy peer learning brings together the best of our experience and our expertise alongside our growing edges. In conversation and in faith, we will become better pastors, chaplains and human beings,” she said.

Tara and five other PNC clergy went to the San Francisco Bay area in May.  The others are Gail Crouch, retired at University Congregational UCC in Seattle; Peggy Derick of Mercer Island; Jill Komura specialized minister chaplain United Churches of Olympia; David Kratz, retired from Fauntleroy, and Bobbi Virta at the United Church of Ferndale.  

Conference Minister Mike Denton said CoP is an “effective, proven, healthy and affordable program that has made a significant difference in lives of hundreds of clergy. On a conference level we’ve struggled with how to best support clergy in their variety of contexts. I’m convinced this is the ministry we’ve been looking for and I encourage PNC pastors to learn more, then get involved.”

Groups will run through June/July 2016, with a one day summer retreat to evaluate and build support.  There will be monthly assessments by facilitators, quarterly written responses from participants and year-end personal interviews to determine the effectiveness and growth areas for the program.

After the initial grant, Tara said the PNC will look to increasing participation and seeking funding through special offerings and the PNC budget.

Facilitators shared their experiences and expectations.

David expects the groups will provide support, challenge and learning opportunities for UCC clergy who participate.  

Gail hopes all clergy will join a small group to “find ways to become stronger, healthier and more vital pastors, finding joy in our vocations.”

For Bobbi, the art of ministry is best when clergy are present with others in life’s everyday joys and sorrows.  

“Clergy do that best when they take care of themselves by nurturing their own minds, bodies and spirits in a community that understands the joys and challenges of holding sacred space for others.” she said.

She values working on life’s challenges with others.  

“When the waves of tough times come, I need my support system firmly established so I know I am being held in prayer,” Bobbi said.  

Recently, her congregation and community grieved about the death of two students—one a member of the congregation—and injury of two others.  

Bobbi relied on colleagues to intentionally hold her in prayer so she felt God’s strength and grace and could be  fully present to those in need.”

She asks clergy:  “Have you ever felt empty as you prepare yet another season of Lent or confused about a situation? Have you ever wished you knew more about a subject for a sermon series, Bible study or book group? Have you ever felt lonely or overwhelmed by the work before you and wished you could get a neutral point of view to ground you?”

Communities of Practice is a structured way for clergy to come together with peers in a safe, nurturing environment where they are present to one another to offer and receive support and challenge so that they can be healthy, she said.  

Healthy pastors make healthy congregations, and healthy congregations make for a healthy ministry, which “plays a part in rippling God’s love into every community,” Bobbi said.

Peggy served several years as a pastor in Massachusetts and belonged to a monthly CoP group of eight pastors for support and learning.

“We shared the joys and challenges of our ministries, learning and worshiping together.  Sometimes we considered a case study, article or concept.  Often we learned through discussing an issue in a member’s church,” she said.

A deep trust developed, deep enough to hold their uncertainties and celebrations.  The group’s diversity made it a place to explore new ideas for ministry.  It was also a place to step out of worship leadership and simply worship with peers.

Peggy added, “It was a place I could take anything that arose in my ministry, knowing I would be supported and held in prayer, and that whatever I was walking through, I would not walk alone.  Being a part of this group enriched my ministry as well as my personal life.”

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Copyright © September/October 2015 - Pacific Northwest UCC Conference News


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