Vital Pastors ‘Cohort Groups’ Report at Conference in San Antonio

Church of the Brethren Newsline
November 16, 2007

One group looked at postmodernism, another at being missional. Still another examined the balance of worshiping with both head and heart. In all, six groups of pastors studied a variety of questions over the past two years but all with the same ultimate goal: determining the qualities that contribute to pastoral excellence and how to sustain them.

The pastors groups reported their findings during a Vital Pastors conference held Nov. 5-9 at the Oblate Renewal Center in San Antonio, Texas. The conference continued the work of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program, funded by the Lilly Foundation. Dozens of institutions around the country, including the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership, received generous grants to make the endeavor possible.

“Lilly asked where can they best invest resources to build up the church, and they settled on pastors,” said Brethren Academy director Jonathan Shively, who led the effort to get one of the grants.

The first four Brethren “cohort” groups made their reports last February. A new class of six cohorts began their study in January of this year, another class begins in January 2008. The final scheduled class of cohorts will begin in January 2009. Three more concluding retreats are planned in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Each cohort group examines a “critical question” related to pastoral ministry, beginning with an immersion experience to study the issue in context. Groups that reported in San Antonio had traveled to the Iona community in Scotland, South Africa, Rome, Texas, Hawaii, and a pastors’ conference in San Diego, Calif.

Many of the questions centered on transformation, both personal and congregational, and on the changing culture in which the church finds itself. As one participant said, “I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a pastor in this emerging world…and it’s actually a lot of fun.” Another noted, “Fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians…. We can’t just assume there’s respect for Christians and Christianity.” That, he said, has parallels to the pre-Constantine era of the early church.

Most of the cohort groups are geographical, drawing four to six pastors from a particular district or region. One group, though, consisted of four clergy couples who are either serving together in team ministry or each serving separate congregations. Another grouped pastors who are serving churches in college or university settings.

In addition to the group reporting, in blocks of three hours each, the conference also included daily times of worship. Glenn Timmons, co-director of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program for the Brethren Academy with his wife, Linda, set the tone in the opening service with the reminder, “The reign of God shows up where we least expect it. We want to control outcomes rather than be surprised by grace.”

The next set of Vital Pastors cohort groups will report at a conference in the fall of 2008.

Walt Wiltschek is editor of the Church of the Brethren “Messenger” magazine.

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The Church of the Brethren Newsline is produced by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of news services for the Church of the Brethren General Board. Newsline stories may be reprinted if Newsline is cited as the source. To receive Newsline by e-mail go to Submit news to the editor at For more Church of the Brethren news and features, subscribe to “Messenger” magazine; call 800-323-8039 ext. 247.

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