A pastor in southwest Alabama’s Bethel Baptist Association was feeling low. He had preached at another church but failed to receive the requisite vote to be called as pastor. Now he had to return to his church, explain what happened and hope they would take him back.
The association’s monthly ministers’ conference was just what he needed. The pastor shared his situation while others listened. Then they recounted their own experiences, read scripture and prayed for him.
The discouraged minister went back to his church, and today “all is good,” thanks in part to the network of pastoral support, said Mike Snow, Bethel director of missions.
That pastor’s experience is representative of the way ministers receive encouragement, according to a new study from Lifeway Research. Released in July, it found most pastors feel supported by a network of local ministers. In Alabama, that stems from a variety of approaches to ministerial fellowship across the state.
If ministers aren’t fellowshipping with each other, Snow said, “they’re missing something.”
Need for support
According to Lifeway Research, 82% of U.S. Protestant pastors agree they feel supported by peers in their region. Just 14% disagree and 4% aren’t sure.
For most, support comes from a relatively small group of peers — 54% of pastors say they personally know and spend time with fewer than 10 other local pastors; 27% know 10-15; and 19% spend time with 16 or more peers.
Perceptions of support increase the more fellow pastors they know. Pastors who strongly agree they feel supported spend time with an average of 17 others. Those who somewhat agree spend time with 10 peers; those who somewhat disagree with eight; and those who strongly disagree with five.
Small church pastors tend to know the fewest ministry co-laborers. Among those with fewer than 50 in worship attendance, 12% of pastors say they only know one or two other local peers. That number drops to 6% among pastors with 100-249 in attendance and 5% for those with 250 or more.
Because the need for support is clear, associations are seeking the means of pastor fellowship that works best for their region.
Methods vary across Alabama, said Rick Barnhart, state missionary with the Alabama State Board of Missions. Some associations maintain a traditional pastors’ conference, where pastors gather periodically for a message from one minister and discussion of ministry challenges. Other associations have moved to regional gatherings rather than one large conference. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred others to begin online fellowships.
‘Accountability and encouragement’
“Pastors having friends in their own church can be a sensitive thing,” Barnhart said. “So they need to have friends that are peers or mentors … for accountability, for encouragement, so they don’t resign every Monday morning when their adrenaline levels are low and they get a slightly depressive spirit.”
In Mobile Baptist Association, approximately 15 pastors gather each Monday for a sermon by one and a discussion of happenings at their churches.
“It’s a fellowship and then an opportunity for each one of us to share the gospel with each other” to “lead us into being better servants,” said Billy Ray Robinson, associational ministers’ conference president and pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church, Citronelle.
At Etowah Baptist Association, Gadsden, director of missions Craig Carlisle has organized pastor meetings by zip code to help ministers enjoy camaraderie with co-laborers near them. That approach has helped bring bivocational pastors into fellowship with their peers, Carlisle said, noting they often have difficulty attending a traditional pastors’ conference during the workday.
“Pastors tend to be loners by nature,” Carlisle noted. Fellowship with a small group of peers “gives them an opportunity to be real, to be open, to share their hearts and what they’re actually going through.”
Thriving Pastors Initiative
Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School is so convinced pastor interactions are important, it has launched a five-year Thriving Pastors Initiative, centered around small groups of pastors across the state that convene to encourage one another. The pandemic drove those groups online, but their interactions still provided comfort for some who were “at the end of their ropes,” said Thomas Fuller, director of the initiative and associate dean at Beeson.
It “aims to help pastors thrive in congregational leadership by improving the quality of relationships pastors have with one another,” according to the initiative’s website. It also includes periodic conferences and a blog.
The small groups stem in part from research by Notre Dame business professor Matt Bloom indicating pastors receive more social support from other pastors than from their own churches.
“The wisdom of being connected with ministry colleagues for pastoral wellbeing is not a brand new idea,” yet it has “been regarded as an elective or secondary matter,” Fuller said. “In all the press for time” it “so often gets pushed back in our priorities. It’s a good and encouraging trend that many pastors are beginning to recognize, that it is not nearly as elective as maybe they once thought it was.”