(Feb. 26, 2007) — “Thank you for the re-call to ministry.” Those words, uttered by a pastor during a closing circle prayer, capped two years of exploring with colleagues what it means to pastor with excellence. Many of the 18 pastors in the circle might have expressed the same sense of renewal.
Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, an initiative of the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership funded by a $2 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant, aims to give at least 200 Church of the Brethren pastors the opportunity for such renewal over a five-year period.
The 18 who gathered in Ellenton, Fla., Feb. 12-15 and joined hands for that prayer were the first group to finish the “Vital Pastors” (ViP) track of the program. Meeting in small “ cohort” groups, the pastors spend two years exploring a “critical question” related to ministry. The experience includes an immersion trip to a destination, often overseas, that helps in the investigation of that question.
At the Florida retreat, these groups spent three hours each telling the other groups and Brethren Academy staff what they had learned in the course of their journey. One group studied Brethren heritage; another studied contemplative styles of worship; the others pursued questions related to mission and developing leadership.
John Weyant, a member of the Mid-Atlantic District cohort, said the study of Brethren heritage, including a trip to Brethren sites in Germany, left him inspired. “We need to re-establish that passion,” he said in the group’s report, “and it starts right here.”
The cohort studying contemplative worship, from Southern Ohio, found inspiration in European churches finding new ways to reach new generations in a secularized atmosphere. “The message is strong enough to survive,” cohort member Jerry Bowen said, “but our churches have to find a new vehicle to share that message.”
A Northern Ohio group focused on ways to “identify, nurture, and release leadership gifts” in congregations. “God gives the congregation the gifts of leadership it needs,” they concluded. “We’re just not always aware of it yet.”
A South/Central Indiana group found a “heart” for mission in Brazil as it looked for ways to develop that same mission spirit back at home. “If you go home the same as you left, you missed it,” cohort member Bruce Hostetler said, discussing mission experience, whether near home or abroad.
As these were the first groups to complete the process, they were “guinea pigs” of sorts to see how it would all work. They noted the challenges of pulling the cohorts together initially and of scheduling the frequent meetings through the process, but each group expressed that it had been worthwhile. Humor and laughter permeated the reports. Many groups planned to continue meeting together now that the formal program is done, building on the relationships formed.
“This is a week of deep satisfaction now that we’re here,” said Jonathan Shively, director of the Brethren Academy. “We have really anticipated this first gathering to learn from you…. This is a turning point in how we understand pastors and parish ministry. What you have done has not been just for you.”
Six more cohort groups began their study last year and will have a concluding retreat in November. Another six groups are beginning their study this spring. In all, about 100 pastors have now been involved in Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, most of them in the Vital Pastors track. Another 18 have participated in the Advanced Foundations of Church Leadership track, which brings together cohort groups of eight to 10 pastors for quarterly retreats to study pastoral leadership and pursue self-development.
Shively noted, too, that the Brethren piece of the program is part of a “much more extensive web” of pastors connected to the Lilly initiative in various denominations and organizations.
Glenn Timmons, who coordinates the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program along with his wife, Linda, encouraged this first Brethren group to spread the message of what they had learned, and to encourage other pastors to seek the renewal and reinvigoration they need. “You are ambassadors now,” Timmons told them, “whether you realize it, or want to, or not!”
–Walt Wiltschek is editor of the Church of the Brethren magazine “Messenger.”