In the fall of 2006, I began my second year of seminary after completing a summer internship at First Presbyterian in Colorado Springs. I was in the Springs at the peak of the Ted Haggard’s ministry at New Life Church, and I had heard a great deal about his highly-admired leadership and ministry. Not long after I left, the story about his indiscretions hit the news. His ministry and life began to crumble and, perhaps most importantly, his witness to Christ became tainted.
“How could this happen?” I thought and pondered and prayed. I continued to ask that question as I heard other stories of pastors who were removed from their ministries and leadership positions because of extramarital or inappropriate emotional affairs. The questioning continued as my classmates began searching for positions in churches and were told of previous pastors who committed financial fraud or abused church funds. “What is wrong with these people?” I thought and asked (in an albeit quite judgmental tone of voice).
As I searched for answers among my professors, mentors, and peers, we discussed what happens when there is no one speaking the truth into your life. We talked about the importance of self-care and of being self-aware. And, of course, we pondered and contemplated the depth of our sinfulness and the trickery of the evil one who so subtly and craftily lures us away from Jesus.
Now, as a pastor, I get it. I understand more deeply because I have experienced the pressures and responsibilities of the vocation. As I have examined my own heart and actions on a number of (cough, cough, daily…) occasions, my judgmental tone has turned into sorrow and repentance. I am no different from Ted Haggard or the adulterer, thief, or liar. I am a sinner who is clinging to the cross and seeking to follow Jesus. Yet I, like many of you, have been called to a unique and privileged vocation of servanthood as a pastor and minister of the Gospel.
That’s why I love the distinction of the “C” and the “O” of ECO: the Covenanted Order. As I know y’all all know – Accountable Community is one of our key core values:
“We believe guidance is a corporate spiritual experience. We want to connect leaders to one another in healthy relationships of accountability, synergy, and care.”
For sessions and congregations, those relationships come into being through MAGs. For pastors, those accountable and covenantal relationships come in the form of Pastoral Covenant Groups (PCGs).
ECO polity defines PCGs in section 2.0402. The purpose of PCGs is clearly stated:
“to coach, encourage, and pray for one another as they [pastors] strive for greater missional effectiveness.”
I’d like to spend just a minute expounding on PCGs because, if you’re not in one yet, it’s time to make it happen (!) for the sake of Christ, the church, and your life!
Composition: PCGs are ordinarily 5-8 pastors organized around a relational willingness to commit. There could be groups organized with similar church types or proximate geography or they could be group from years past. They may also consist of pastors in similar life or ministry stages. Normally, due to the vulnerability and desired relational intimacy, the groups will be same-gender, but that is up to the group. The groups are self-selective.
Commitment: It’s recommended that the PCG meet at least once annually and stay together for three to four years, thus providing enough time to bond. Prior to meeting, the group should decide what type of resource they will use to facilitate discussion and relationship. In terms of the annual meeting, it would be best to plan on eight hours of talking time together. Table fellowship is encouraged. An overnight somewhere might be helpful.
Meeting together: Time should be spent getting to know each other – introductions, current ministry contexts, biographical histories, and sharing of call stories. Next, time should be spent going deeper into six areas of disclosure of health: spiritual, relational, physical, emotional, vocational, and congregational. Clearly prayer should be a key part of the gathering – praying after each person shares as trust and vulnerability grow. The meeting may conclude with asking questions like: What did we learn from our time together? How will accountability work over the next year? When will we meet again?
Challenges: For many of us, the idea of PCGs is a new thing. It may feel awkward in the beginning but, for the PCGs to have maximum effect, each pastor will need to focus on humility and vulnerability. Initially, groups should intentionally work on developing trust, being genuinely open, and practicing transparency. Confidentiality is paramount.
This proposed structure may serve as a starting for PCGs. As relationships begin to develop, groups may find that meeting structures shift and change. PCGs meetings may include continuing education or learning opportunities. Or, a group may engage in a more structured prayer, Scripture meditation, or theological engagement as part of their time together. Although the structures and/or process can be flexible, the core purpose of covenant groups – authentic accountability and faithful encouragement – should not be neglected.
Henri Nouwen wrote,
“No one person can fulfill all your needs. But the community can truly hold you. The community can let you experience the fact that, beyond your anguish, there are human hands that hold you and show you God’s faithful love.”
The pitfalls of sin and the devastation of it on pastoral ministry are frightening to ponder. Yet, as I think about us being in communities of accountability, my hope and prayer is that our PCGs become relationships and experiences of God’s joy, hope, grace, mercy, and compassion as we journey on in this ECO life together.
Soli Deo Gloria!