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Peer Learning: 8 Tips for Effective Programs

What do program staff need to know about planning and administering peer group programs that work for everyone?

By Eve Clayton

 

When Compelling Preaching grantees asked about best practices for planning and convening peer learning programs, we turned to Elise Erikson Barrett and Alaina Kleinbeck, program directors of the Lilly-funded National Initiative to Address Economic Challenges Facing Pastoral Leaders and Thriving in Ministry coordination programs, respectively. We’re deeply grateful to them for sharing the insights they’ve gained from their years in congregational ministry and grant program coordination.

Elise Erikson Barrett
Elise Erikson Barrett
Alaina Kleinbeck
Alaina Kleinbeck

Here are Barrett and Kleinbeck’s top tips for convening fruitful peer groups:

 

1. Listen, listen, listen

The main ingredient in any successful peer learning program is careful listening, from the start. Listen to those you’re convening—ask questions that will help you get to know them so you can “set a better table,” Barrett said. “You tailor things to the people that are going to be in the space.”

As the program unfolds, keep listening. Check in with participants. Ask what’s working and what isn’t, and adjust accordingly. Be flexible.

“You have to make choices based on the needs of your pastors or other participants. And you can only know what those needs are and what would be best for them by listening well,” Kleinbeck said.

 

2. Ensure clarity and accountability

The most rewarding peer group experiences—for everyone involved—are those that start with a clear understanding of what the group is for and what’s expected: “Here’s what we believe you can offer to each other; here’s why we think this is important,” Barrett said.

Experienced facilitators often ask their cohorts to create a group covenant that spells out their commitments to one another—how often they’ll meet, how they’ll communicate informally, what their structured group time will look like, and so on.

“Having clarity around those guidelines can help folks feel connected and supported,” Kleinbeck said. “And then people are reminded that they’re participating in a community, so there’s a mutual accountability to be engaged.”

 

3. Use kickoff and sending rituals

To provide the best peer group experience, plan both how to kick off the program and how to bring closure as members leave the group. In other words, offer opening and closing rituals—in the form of a liturgy, a meal, or something else.

Sometimes members find they have to leave a peer group before the end date. Having a sending ritual in place gives groups a meaningful way to bless their colleagues as they go. “Having the end in mind as you begin helps everyone feel less anxious when changes and transitions start to happen,” Kleinbeck said.

 

4. Provide multiple points of contact

Peer groups always have a formal means of gathering, whether in person or online. But Kleinbeck recommends also establishing an informal communication channel—a group chat, a WhatsApp group, or something similar—for engagement between meetings.

“Have some mechanism for that intervening sharing so that the time when they’re gathered can be more focused,” she said, since members will already be caught up on events in each other’s personal lives.

Because informal connections are vital for building community, peer groups often make participation in informal communication channels part of their group covenant (see tip #2).

 

5. Strike a balance

Barrett and Kleinbeck both discussed the need for organizers to find a balance when planning their groups. Three examples came up:

  • Structured curriculum vs. unstructured sharing: Groups that over-structure their time together often have to scale back their curricular expectations to allow for more unstructured conversation. Find the middle ground.
  • Highly diverse membership vs. highly homogenous membership: Groups that are too uniform may lack space for friction and growth, while groups with too much diversity may have difficulty finding common ground.
  • Insider experts vs. outsider experts: Content experts brought in to provide training for peer groups shouldn’t be so close to the learning community that they don’t bring an outside perspective, nor should they be complete outsiders with no understanding of the ministry context. Look for someone with “enough ‘outsiderness’ that they’re bringing something that can be engaged with creatively and can open new ways of thinking,” Barrett said.

 

6. Support your facilitators

Knowing up front how you will support your peer group facilitators is another important part of the program design. As they support the cohorts entrusted to them, facilitators too need a place to take their questions and challenges. Don’t underestimate how much time that debriefing could take, Kleinbeck said.

“Be generous in allotting time so that coordinating with facilitators and supporting facilitators is provided for in your staffing model.”

And don’t forget to attend to your own need for support, Kleinbeck added. To combat the loneliness that can come with the role, project directors should seek out their own peers to gather with and learn from.

 

7. Recruit strategically

Recruiting people for peer groups can be a challenge. Pastors and other participants are stretched thin. They may feel reluctant to take on this new commitment. To encourage participation, program directors should show the value:

  • For participants: What will they find in the peer group that will actively support their work and calling?
  • For the broader community: In what way will their participation bless others?

“We all need to know that when we offer our leadership and our thought and our time and our energy to a space, that it matters,” Barrett said. So when you recruit, communicate why it matters.

 

8. Close the loop

If communicating during recruitment matters, sharing at the end of a program matters even more. Listen to the discoveries coming from the peer groups—and feed those insights back into the community. Use any channels available—annual gatherings, program events, reports, blogs, websites, and more.

By sharing the learnings, program teams can spread the peer groups’ impact far beyond the groups themselves. “That is honoring the fruits of the peer group work by letting other people be nourished by it as well,” Barrett said.

 

This article first appeared as a private blog post for Compelling Preaching Initiative grantees. Republished with permission.

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