Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Pastors' Prayer Groups - Nuts & Bolts

How Our Group Works

{Permission granted to post this exerpt from "Leaders That Last"}

There are a lot of conferences and books on leadership skills, theology, organizational development. "But what I value here is being able to talk to you guys about things I’m dealing with on a personal level and finding that someone has already dealt with these same issues. I get the benefit of all your experience."
Pastors in Covenant group member

Success in ministry isn’t just about knowledge, spirituality, vision, and leadership skill. Gary and I think it is also about emotional maturity, and part of that is connectedness with others. Pastors who excel in ministry recognize that they must be continually nourished, refined, and renewed with other people who are like they are.
Effective pastors have to address colliding expectations and shifting demands in ministry. They must balance self-care with service to the congregation, community, and their families. To do this effectively requires sustenance, support, and continual growth and change. As Gary has explained, growth and change come through the application of God’s wisdom and truth in the day-to-day experiences, difficulties, and crises of lifečas we are encouraged and coached by peers, mentors, advisors, and friends who understand. This is why we believe that God is calling pastors and other ministry leaders into a new leadership model that requires transformational covenant friendships.

Let’s Do More Than Lunch
What we are proposing, however, is a leap beyond ministers’ luncheons and prayer summits. Those kinds of things are both important and indispensable, but working togetherčor even praying together regularlyčdoes not necessarily allow us to do the kind of relationship work that is so desperately needed for leaders to last.
If your experience is like ours, you probably have become acquainted with other pastors and ministry executives in your area as a result of some event or task. It may have been something as basic and as vital as prayer, but it was a task nevertheless. Regardless of what denomination we belong to and how many apostolic networks and kingdom partnerships we form or are a part of, we leaders continue to dance and court without ever really making a serious commitment to one another to be long-term, accountable friends.

All Kinds of Leaders Need Support
My brother-in-law, Lynn, and I (Al) were riding down the cart path of the third hole of a beautiful desert golf course in Scottsdale, Arizona. A successful businessman, Lynn has survived multiple business transitions and crises and a few family ones too. Knowing that he had once gone to therapy himself and that his wife is a therapist, I was wondering what he would say when I asked him, “With the difficult things you’ve gone through, what has helped you the most in life?”
“My TEC friends,” was his immediate answer.
I kind of expected him to say, “My wife,” or, in jest, “Therapy.” But no, he said it was his friends who stood by him and helped him through life. Are you a pastor? A Christian leader? How would you have answered my question? Would you have given me a more “spiritual” response, like, “God sustained me”? Or, “The Bible”? Obviously, the foundation for wholeness in Christian ministry is our relationship with God and his Word! But if you are a leader, do you have significant friendships?
Lynn belonged to a TEC group for eighteen years. TEC is an acronym for The Executive Committee. Owned by Michael Milken, TEC is a program specifically designed for top business executives to ensure their long-term success. It’s based on the knowledge that “it’s lonely at the top,” and therefore high-profile executives need peer relationships. TEC members meet once a month for a full day, the morning session for a relevant business presentation and the afternoon session for personal sharing. Lynn told me, “My TEC friends helped me through the hard business times and also through the personal crises. I wouldn’t have made it without them. Since I’ve sold my business, I am no longer in TEC, but those guys are still my friends. We get together for lunch at least once a month.”
Isolation isn’t endemic to ministry leadership alone; it happens to all kinds of leaders. TEC is a profitable company that charges members dues of more than a thousand dollars a month. Business leaders gladly pay itčbecause it works! It helps make them successful. TEC cultivates leaders who last.

Intentionality - Core Value
Our Pastors in Covenant (PIC) model is similar to TEC. We didn’t design it that way; it just evolved naturally. Both, though, have much in common. For example, being intentional about relationships is a major core value for us. Pastors are busy; business executives are busy. Demands of the day often exceed the time limits of the day. If, however, we are too busy to have friends, we are simply too busy.
When husbands, for example, come to me for counsel on how to pay more attention to their wives, I tell them, “Just put it into your schedule!” I learned early that if Susan, my wife, was on my schedule for lunch Friday, I would end up meeting with her and enjoying our time together. But if I didn’t schedule it, something always seemed to come up. Every little pressure and crisis seemed to take precedent, and we’d rarely end up meeting for lunch. It’s what some have called “the tyranny of the urgent.”
Our good friend Hal Sacks has pioneered a bridge-building ministry for ministers in Arizona and has been influential around the country in getting Christian leaders together. After years of experience he says:
Relationship must be intentional. We are called to something we know nothing about and yet we preach aboutčrelationship with God, your family, and the world around you. After years of working with Christian leaders, I’ve come to realize that relationships are the most important issue and the most elusive. I’ve brought men together to pray assuming that prayer together would cultivate intimacy, but that in fact doesn’t happen.

Someone once said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Likewise, the road to failure in ministry is paved with good intentions. Pastors know so much more than they can ever practice. Most will agree that they need meaningful relationships with peers. Few, however, take the simple step of making and scheduling time for them.
I like our PIC model because it is an easy way to schedule needed relationship. And it is okay to schedule relationship. Those who are more relational connect easily with others, while some find connecting difficult. To form a peer friendship, however, one need not be highly relational, only intentional and consistent about scheduling time with peers to talk and pray.

PIC Group Meetings
Since understanding how a PIC group works may help you become more committed to relationship, I will tell you about our prototype PIC group. Dan Scott is the pastor of Valley Cathedral in Phoenix. We meet monthly at his church on North Central Avenue. He has a small, well-lit, yet secluded cottage in his church’s prayer garden. It is just right for us, because it is centrally located and private. Moreover, Dan’s staff always provides a very nice spread of refreshments. We meet from 9 a.m. until noon on the first Thursday of every month. A few of us are always on time and a few are often late, but no one gets too upset about others not being punctual. As Gary has often said, “I have to ‘perform’ everywhere I go. This is one place I can just be myself.”
I (Al) am currently the group facilitator, meaning that my role is to make sure everyone in our group gets a turn to share. This is a challenge when you’re in the same room with seven other strong-willed Christian leaders who are often far more comfortable speaking than listening. Others have served as facilitator in the past; we share leadership. Mutual respect is another of our core values, and we believe that leadership of the group is a shared responsibility of all of its members working within their gifts and abilities.
We also think that a PIC group, whenever possible, should be comprised of the leaders of both large and small churches. In our PIC group we have a mixture of church sizes. We even have a couple of ministers who are not presently pastoring a church. For example, I am leading a ministry that assists churches. Another member pastors a thriving “upscale” church of over a thousand, while another pastors a small messianic congregation. Gary’s interdenominational church has more than forty-five hundred attending every weekend. Another member, on the other hand, just left a church he founded to start a worldwide traveling ministry. One pastors a multiethnic congregation of several hundred, another is transitioning from a church to a parachurch ministry, and yet another is the second senior pastor of a one-thousand-member church that has been in crisis for several years. So, as you can see, our group is quite diverse. At eight participants, though, our group size is probably a little too large. When I share more about group dynamics, I will comment on how a smaller group size works better.
Our group meetings begin with informal dialogue between members. We spend time catching up on what has happened since the last meeting.
“Did you hear about....?”
“Did you know that ... is happening?”
These warmups are often followed by, “I read an interesting new book last week./.” Many group members enter into the discussion, others listen.
Our meetings seem inadvertently to follow the TEC meeting format my brother-in-law described. We usually start with “shoptalk” and conclude with sharing personal needs and concerns. The initial discussions often cover a wide range of subjects, from how to do worship services to the latest in church growth paradigms. We even get into local church politics on occasion.
Because our group members like to “preach,” we’ve had to make a rule. Near the beginning of each meeting, somewhere in the middle of the shoptalk, I ask, “Who needs time today?” This ensures we don’t miss the opportunity to hear and support a brother with a need. Second, we have committed to turn off the pastor babble by no later than 10:30 so that the remaining hour and a half can be focused entirely on personal issues. Most of the people in our group seem to feel more comfortable talking about ministry rather than personal issues. Once the sharing starts, however, all eyes are riveted on the person sharing his needs, and it is evident that everyone cares.
If no one needs immediate attention, we go around the room and check in. That means each of us shares a bit of what is happening in his personal life and ministry. Our sharing times over the years have been deeply personal and painful at times and joyful and hilarious at others. We’ve talked about everything:
ź attraction to women other than our wives
ź our marriages
ź conflict with staff
ź conflict with each other
ź children on drugs
ź children alienated from parents
ź every kind of church problem
ź personal doubts
ź ministry failures, successes, and opportunities

We have tried to be as open with one another as we know how, and we have made our share of mistakes. Not infrequently we have to remind ourselves of the guidelines we have embraced to keep us on track. Here are the more important boundaries we have set for our meetings:

1. Whenever we open up the meeting to share what has been happening in our lives, the facilitator needs to ask, “Is there anyone here who needs time today?” With so many dominant personalities, we don’t want to overlook someone’s need.
2. After someone shares we will often ask, “Do you need counsel on this, or prayer, or both?” It is not always appropriate to give each other advice. Sometimes the best thing we can do for one another is to listen and pray.
3. We all agree to allow any of us to ask any of us any question about our personal or professional life, not rudely, of course, but gently and in the best interest of the one being asked the question. Without this openness there can be no real accountability and authenticity.
4. Occasionally, when we are spending time sharing personal needs, we break up into two or more smaller groups. We think this is helpful because the larger size of our group may at times complicate the group process.

Our group style fits us, but it isn’t necessarily ideal for everyone. For example, Dan Davis and others in Austin, Texas, keep their groups smaller and in some cases will not allow shoptalk. Our other local PIC groups are also smaller. Some don’t have nearly as much interaction about ministry issues and prefer to do things like read a book together and share its personal application. Regardless of the individual group style and size, though, all of us in PIC groups have embraced common core values formed in the early stages of the formation of our first pastor’s groups. These are:

Relationship, Not Task
The core value that sustains us is treasuring relationship over task. Maybe a better way to say it is that our goal is to develop healthy viable peer friendships that will stand the test of time. The primary purpose of a PIC group is not to engage in joint kingdom partnerships or events. This happens, but it is not our goal. Yes, we believe that healthy pastors leading healthy churches change cities, and pastors and ministry leaders need to join together in life-changing initiatives. We believe that covenant groups, though, must remain relational in focus and not become task- or initiative-driven. Dan Davis, the catalyst for covenant groups in Austin, says it this way.

A major purpose of these groups is to help us become more human. I have needed what Pastors in Covenant promotes: a safe place to be connectedčwith the assurance that this is not just another organizational solution. Coming together around tasks does not sustain relationships, but sustained relationships can lead to effective kingdom ventures.

Gary and I believe that when Christian leaders are committed to forming healthy relationships with one another, cooperative ministry will be the healthy outflow of those relationships. Pastors are often entrepreneurial by nature. Many want to do something together with other Christian leaders, but often the missing element is the trust, personal commitment, and close relationship needed to partner together in the work of Christ.
George Barna tells us that only a percent or two of churches in the same area ever work together, even when they have shared vision. We believe that more partnerships are scuttled by mismanaged conflict, wrong expectations, suspicion, and lack of trust than from lack of vision. Relationship is a vehicle for purpose. One of our covenant brothers has struggled over the years with trying to bring churches together, but since joining a covenant group, things have changed. He says, “It’s the friendships I’ve formed in my PIC group that have made it possible for us to sustain combined joint efforts to reach our community for Christ. It’s also these long-term relationships that overcame the competition that existed.”

Character Development
In attempting to define what we are trying to accomplish in our covenant groups, it was necessary for us to identify, understand, and embrace key core values. Godly character development is another one of those values. During one of our meetings, one of the guys shared about his background:

I grew up in a pastor’s home. When my father reached a point in his life when he was struggling in ministry, he had no one to go to. When he went to the guys in his denomination, they shamed him. So he left my mom and the ministry and has lived the last years of his life isolated from and hostile to the church. There was no place for him to deal with the inconsistencies of his life, so he just kept them hidden. I’ve seen that pastoral training and development is almost entirely information-driven, not character-based. Integrity is the gap between the way you ought to live and the way you actually live. Hypocrisy is acting like that gap doesn’t exist.

There is a desperate need for authentic relationships in the body of Christ. When I (Al) work with ministries in helping them select new senior pastors or ministry leaders, I challenge them to look for three things:

1. Calling. Without a clear call from God there will not be the grace necessary to meet the extraordinary challenges of Christian ministry. Grace for the task always comes with the call.
2. Competence. Look for the skills needed to fulfill the calling. If the job is primarily pulpit mastery and organizational envisioning, then make sure the person you select has these skills.
3. Character. Strength of personal character is the third foundation stone of a successful pastoral life.

Covenant group friendships cultivate good character development. When one of us is hurting and every emotion inside us wants to strike out, our close friends are the ones who help us bear the pain and respond rather than react. Responding to difficult, sinful people with a soft word, a conciliatory attitude, or a spoken apology demonstrates the character of Christ. We then become part of the solution rather than the problem. That’s when we live out what we preach. Here is what a few covenant group members have shared about their character development.

Through the intentional friendships I’ve developed with other pastors, I’ve discovered the God-given treasure of mature, godly friends, who speak into my life and refuse to let me drown in the swamp of my own self-interest. I couldn’t have survived and thrived in ministry without their love and firm wisdom.
The group has helped me become more transparent. Being transparent helps to overcome all the things that undermine my life and ministryčfear, insecurity, inhibitions, pride, anxiety, lack of training, my tendency to be overly controlling.╩.╩.╩.
We leaders can only lead out of who we are. We can’t lead effectively and do ministry out of concepts that are just ideas. Preaching is not where we fail. The subculture of the church is dysfunctional in proportion to the dysfunctions of its leaders. The church can never be anything more or less than who we are and how we act. The church will never change unless we repent of our artificiality, get real with ourselves and others, and change. My friends help me do just that.

Ten Character Assessment Questions
I (Al) borrowed the following idea from Bill Thrall’s Leadership Catalyst Seminar partner Bruce McNicol. It’s a list of key questions about character and conduct they use to evaluate whether or not a church leader is ready to participate in their leadership development program. I use their questions when interviewing candidates for ministry positions. How candidates answer them will tell the interviewer a lot about their character formation and relationships.

1. If you were losing objectivity, how would you reclaim it?
2. Whom do you trust? Whom are you willing to trust with you?
3. As you look over your shoulder, who is in the wake of your influence and how are they doing?
4. With whom do you intentionally share your needs? Which relationships have helped you mature?
5. Tell us two stories of times when you were in personal trauma, pain, or crisis and you trusted someone else to give you counsel and protection.
6. In what ways have you ignored advice that could have helped you?
7. Share two stories of when you paid the price for a choice of integrity, knowing that it could cost you reputation, a title or position, finances, or some other resource that was valuable to you.
8. Which of your life issues continue to surface to the extent that you need others to guard, guide, and protect you in those areas?
9. What challenges are you accepting for the benefit of those you are influencing?
10. What do you do to develop the kind of communities where integrity and character are nurtured?

Of course, no covenant group in itself can guarantee that a participant will develop godly character. What a group and intentional covenantal relationships do, though, is provide a context for growing in grace and character for those willing to risk the adventure.

Other Core Values
Values are the things we esteem to be most important, the things we live by, the truths that govern our priorities. Values, then, determine how we conduct ourselves with one another. Values are what we live by, not just what we believe. Here are a few more we think are important for covenant groups to be effective:

ź Dialogue. Forums on various theological, leadership, and personal issues are important to fulfill the group’s purpose of developing healthy leaders. We do this by both allowing and encouraging shared insights and knowledge among those of us in our group.
ź Availability. The members of our group extend their commitment to be available to one another outside the schedule of our monthly meetings for developing friendships further or for providing personal counsel in times of difficulty or crisis.
ź Inclusivity. We see the need for relationship among pastors of every denominational persuasion and ethnic group. It is healthy to intentionally include others of different traditions, church sizes, and ethnic or racial origins. Covenant groups should be open to anyone who feels a personal need to become a participant.
ź Consensus. We make decisions by consensus. We agree to disagree, but we will not make a significant decision affecting the members of the group unless there is full agreement among the members. Leaders in our groups facilitate and serve; they do not govern.
ź Process. Group members must be sensitive to group process. Pastors tend to speak in uninterrupted, thirty-plus-minute segments and at the end expect everyone to say, “Amen!” What works in the pulpit doesn’t work in board meetings, staff meetings, and especially gatherings of other pastors. As pastors learn how to dialogue with one another (and submit to one another!), they will become more effective with the gifted, outspoken people in their own congregations.
ź Transdenominational. There is an emerging need among pastors in denominational settings (including pastors of independent evangelical churches) to relate to other Christian leaders outside their own denominations and movements. We think covenant groups should cross denominational and nondenominational lines. We even have groups in which charismatic and Pentecostal leaders are in covenant friendships with those who are not charismatic or Pentecostal. Imagine that!
ź Multiplication without division. After more than six years of meeting together, we have discovered firsthand why it is so difficult for cell groups in the local church to divide or even to include new people. It takes so much time and energy to build meaningful relationships that people in those relationships are unwilling to start over and exchange them for new ones. We have determined, then, that to start up other groups, two or more must serve as a kind of leadership catalyst for a new group while continuing to participate in the original group. This allows multiplication without division.

Spouses of Group Participants
Possibly one of the more interesting issues we have struggled with is how to include or even whether to include our spouses in our relationships with one another. Here are some of the comments from participants in our initial covenant groups (all men) about the involvement of our spouses in our group activities.
I do not expect my wife to have the same kind of relationship with the wives of the men in my group as I have with those men. I like the suggestion that everyone in their group should find a counselor for their marriage, for their family, and to report back to the group the specific name of the counselor. That seems like a good safety net.
My wife feels a need herself to connect when we are going through a crisis in the church. She can’t vent to people in the church, and few women understand the pressures on the pastor’s wife. And the smaller the church, the greater the pressure. My wife can’t go to her pastor (me) for help.
I believe my wife needs to know the men of my group have the right to speak into my life on every issue. The men in my group, by my choice, have great power in my life. So I’m looking for a way for my wife to get to know the men in my group.
My wife is generally not interested in knowing my friends. She has her own friends.
Sometimes it really helps me understand the other guys in our group when I see them in the context of their relationship with their wife.
Maybe it would help if we could encourage our wives to get into a group of women who can pray.
The issue is not who’s in each group, but whether or not we see the value of a support system, a group, to encourage spouses, to help them, to love and challenge them. Should we not consider encouraging our wives to reach out to form a commitment group? A support system?
Research shows that wives of pastors suffer more than their spouses. They are, perhaps, even more isolated than their husbands who are in the ministry.
And then there’s the whole issue of women in ministry, when the wife of the pastor is in ministry with him. My wife is in partnership with me, so she doesn’t want to meet with a bunch of “pastor’s wives.” Just because she’s female, she has been excluded from many church and leader meetings that could be so helpful for her.

So, what did we conclude when a number of us discussed this issue? Nothing! As you can see from the comments above, no one was quite sure what to do with the issue of including spouses. So on a group-by-group basis, some include wives in dinners or retreats and some don’t.
We do know of several women-in-ministry covenant groups that meet on a regular basis, and our group includes our spouses in our annual three-day retreat. Last September we traveled together to Coronado Island across the bay from San Diego. We rode bikes, ate out, walked a lot, played golf, and went boogey boarding in the surf. It was great fun, except for our structured meetings.
On Monday and Tuesday morning we all met in a large suite for morning worship and devotions. Everyone was pleasant, but the men were talking while the women remained quiet. One of the men began our devotional time by talking about how “riding the waves” of the Spirit can get you in trouble. That led into one of our typically loud, heated discussions about theology and church life. After ending our morning gathering with a good prayer, we were off to the business of having fun.
The next morning started out pretty much the same. We worshiped and then began the devotion. Once again the men were out-talking the wives, until my wife, Susan, blurted out, “Is anyone else here feeling left out? I am feeling marginalized by all this church talk.”

After a prolonged silence, the other spouses slowly but surely chimed in with comments like:
“All you guys do is talk at each other.”
“You don’t listen; you just talk.”
“What are we doing here?”
“Nobody is sharing anything personal.”
“I don’t want to keep coming to these retreats if this is all we’re going to do.”
“Is this what you do when you get together?”

One of the wives even confronted her husband, right there in front of us all, telling him that all he ever does is talk without listening. This led to some lively and surprisingly healthy dialogue about relationships and communication styles. As a result, we men have released the task of planning our next retreatčincluding the content and focus of our devotional timesčto our spouses.

The Journey
As we all know, successful pastoral ministry is a journey with ups and downs, twists and turns. Our covenant group is showing us that meaningful relationships are also a journey. Each time we think we have something working, along comes an incident (or our spouses!) to remind us that we still have a lot of work to do.
A friend said, “A lot of discouragement goes on in pastors’ lives. The covenant group is a safe place to share with and pray for one another. Real friendships have developed in the groups. These brothers are friends I can count on.” In the next chapter, though, I want to tell you what happened in our group when we didn’t count on each other.

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