Covenant Group Plays by the Rules
By Anne Marie Gerhardt, Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church
What do five pastors, in five different annual conferences and four different jurisdictions have in common? Besides the fact that they are all United Methodist elders and graduates of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, they’ve shared a unique bond for more than 10 years.
“We all met our first year of seminary in 2005, we all were in similar stages in our lives and started a covenant group together,” said the Rev. Rob Hamilton who is the pastor at Rochelle United Methodist Church in the Northern Illinois Conference.
The Rev. Matthew Sipe, who is the pastor at Delano UMC in the Minnesota Conference and originally got the guys together, said the seminary encouraged everyone to find a covenant group to study and share together.
“We all made the commitment and wanted to support and encourage each other through seminary,” said Sipe who added that their first step was to figure out what format to follow. “As we started meeting weekly, we looked to John Wesley’s General Rules as our foundation.”
Those General Rules date back to 1739 when ten people came to Wesley in London seeking guidance. Wesley appointed a day, Thursday, for all of them to meet every week to pray, watch over each other and help each other work out their salvation. The three rules expected of participants: 1) Do no harm, 2) Do Good and 3) Attend on all the ordinances of God, according to the Book of Discipline.
The Rev. Brian M. Marcoulier who is the pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in the Tennessee Conference says using the John Wesley’s General Rules as the basis for the covenant group with his Garrett classmates was a way to hold one another accountable to growing in grace.
“While throughout the years we’ve made a few adjustments (and added a few rules), I have found that repeatedly examining our lives in light of these rules has caused me to grow in the love of God and neighbor,” said Marcoulier.
Following seminary, the group moved across the country to begin their ministry careers but they continued meeting weekly to check in with each other by conference call. They would occasionally meet together vacationing with families, or one time tackling ice fishing. However, longing for more face to face time, the pastors began gathering annually for 3-4 day retreats which they rotate between their conferences.
“These post-seminary retreats have been held in each person’s ministry setting and involve card playing, discussions of theology and church as well as meetings with church leaders, seminary professors and mentors who are of meaning to the host,” said Hamilton.
This past November the group met in the Northern Illinois Conference in Chicago for their 10th anniversary and met with Bishop Sally Dyck who said the group demonstrates the importance of having a covenant group for clergy to connect with over the years.
“They have gone through major changes in their personal lives as well as their professional lives together,” said Dyck. “It’s a support that deepens with the years and their level of intentionality is remarkable. I encourage everyone to find covenant/support group because ministry is just too hard not to have one!”
The five pastors, which also include the Rev. Matthew Fowler with the Great Plains Conference and the Rev. Jake Adams-Wilson with the Mississippi Conference, acknowledge that in today’s busy world it’s not easy to take the time for a covenant group, but they suggest that anyone wanting to start one remain flexible.
“Over the last 10 years we have grown and made adjustments to our times, our format, and our retreats,” said Marcoulier. “We have stayed committed to this covenant group, yet do not expect it to meet every need. Many in our group meet with other clergy covenant groups in their local area, have spiritual directors, coaches, and/or counselors, and pursue a number of different continuing education opportunities. We do share those experiences and resources with one another.”
Marcoulier says they regularly use systems thinking, particularly family systems. “Therefore, often we ask curious questions in order to help the one speaking think more deeply about their personal journey,” said Marcoulier. “This is particularly helpful to me, as it allows me opportunity to be heard as well as to actively listen to another.”
The pastors can be lighthearted, too, and joke with each other about who’s going to be elected bishop first. But Hamilton says it’s their individual attention to each other’s personal journeys that contributes to the longevity and uniqueness of their group.
“When life happens, these are the people I want to talk to,” said Hamilton. “They love me enough to tell me the truth even when I don’t want to hear it. They provide holistic support to my whole life whether in my ministry, family, or spiritual
growth. They’re like family to me.”
In good times and bad through life’s ups and downs, these pastors know they have more than a covenant group to call upon.
“I always know there’s someone who is supporting me and knows where my heart is,” said Sipe. “This group has challenged me and helped me be faithful to my job as a pastor in the midst of difficult situations. It’s been key to keeping myself healthy and whole so that I can be the best pastor to the people in my congregation.”
While their initial intentions may have been to study and share together as young seminarians, it’s clear this covenant group has forged friendships that will last a lifetime – above and beyond John Wesley’s General Rules.