History of the Pastoral Excellence Program

At the end of 2002, the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ, was awarded a grant for nearly $1.6 million from the Lilly Endowment, Inc. to develop and sustain Pastoral Excellence among the 500+ pastors and nearly 400 local congregations.  We are one of 63 judicatories, seminaries, and other Christian organizations from many denominations who received a similar grant. We are particularly pleased to share this honor with the Nebraska Conference, UCC.  The Massachusttes Conference has been selected to receive an extension of this grant for half the original amount. This grant period runs from January 2008 - December 2012.

The purpose of our Pastoral Excellence Program in Massachusetts is to develop, promote, and sustain pastoral excellence.  To accomplish this goal, we have created a vibrant Conference-wide network of small groups and large learning events for our clergy in every season of ministry, offering opportunities for collegial support and ongoing development in the practices of pastoral ministry.

New Clergy Groups

Since the beginning of the grant period nearly 100% of the new clergy in our Conference have met monthly in a small group of three to five new pastors.  Each group is assisted by a more experienced pastor who is trained to serve as facilitator and mentor.  Currently there are 9 New Clergy Groups across the Conference, with more forming as needed. There have been a number of other groups who have  completed their three year commitment.

Clergy Communities of Practice

Currently there are 16 groups of seasoned pastors across the Conference which also meet monthly.  These groups of 8 to 12 clergy offer our more experienced pastors opportunities to find and offer support to colleagues, to grow in faith together, and to be engaged in an intentional learning community focused on the practices of pastoral ministry and the meaning of pastoral identity.  All of our clergy groups are committed to being, to borrow a term from Parker Palmer, “circles of trust,” where each person’s soul can show up and the Holy Spirit is apt to draw near.

Graduating Seminarians

Early on in our program, we saw a need to add opportunities for another population closely linked to new clergy – graduating seminarians.  What started as a one-day event to introduce UCC students from the five Boston area seminaries to our denomination’s search and call system has grown into an annual four-part series focused on enabling our newest pastors to get a good start in ministry.  The seminar covers ministerial profile preparation, interview skills, negotiating a call agreement with a local church, the benefits programs offered by the UCC Pension Boards and, and conversations about the pastoral role and the pastoral life.

Young Clergy

We have also helped our young clergy (40 years old and younger) find one another.  We have sponsored a number of retreats to gather these folks together and several of the young clergy in Massachusetts are now also actively engaged in establishing the 20, 30 Clergy Network, a denomination-wide group.


Our Pastoral Excellence Program includes Colloquies, Conference-wide learning events designed to provide rich opportunities for learning from expert practitioners and conversation with colleagues on particular topics. These events have ranged in scope and topic and have included Fred Craddock, Anthony Robinson, Diana Butler Bass, Dorothy Bass, Lib Caldwell, John and Caroline Westerhoff, Marcia McFee, Peter Steinke, Martin Copenhaver, Mary Luti, Patricia Hayes, Matthew Myer Boulton, N. Graham Standish, Larry Peers, Chris Braudaway-Bauman, and others.

Testimony from Pastors

From the beginning, we imagined that the clergy groups would be learning communities for disciplined reflection focused on the practices of ministry.  Our pastors are intentional about sharing with their colleagues their resources for ministry and ideas of things they have tried with their own congregations.  While we are enthusiastic about such exchanges, the stories and comments that inspire us more are those that reveal how our pastors are growing in faith and wisdom, finding their commitment to pastoral ministry reaffirmed and their appreciation of one another as friends and colleagues deepened.  The testimony of several of the groups is that they are nurturing a more generous and compassionate spirit in our clergy, enabling them to more fully inhabit a pastoral identity and to stay in touch with the real joy of ministry.

 “I believe the primary impact has been breaking down the isolation that so naturally occurs with clergy. We have spent a good deal of time working on getting to know each other and building trust so that when it comes time to ‘go deeper’ with a subject we are ready to do so. This happened when we talked about the influences in our lives that shape our theology. A rather straight-forward discussion quickly evolved into a sharing of powerful moments of loss in our lives and the ways God was present and known.”

“Our group’s reflection has helped me see the bigger picture, to recognize that every church has difficulties as well as strengths. This larger perspective has helped me stay out of the wrangling of my congregation and not be swallowed up by a chronic complainer.  I have come to appreciate and even love the most difficult person in my congregation, in spite of the fact that he always sees something wrong and he never apologizes.  I can now hear him when he has something legitimate to say and to let the rest go.  He is still sometimes the thorn in myside, but the thorn no longer pierces me the way it used to.  In fact, I now see him as my greatest teacher.”

“This group is ‘the balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul.’  It is healing to hear that my struggles in ministry are shared struggles that others experience also.  It isn’t because there’s something wrong with me or my abilities.”

“This group reminds us of why we do what we do.  So often, these group sessions are a re-affirmation for me of the power and beauty of parish ministry, even with all the pieces of it that are messy and aren’t in our control as pastors.”

“The other members of this group are landmarks, touchstones, sacred cairns for me.  We provide role modelsfor each other of integrity, spirituality, humility and good ministry.  It is awesome how willing everyone is to share both their failures or fears of failure, and the joy and flush of their successes.”

“Being a member and facilitator of the group has made me more self-reflective and self-aware about aspects of my leadership style, pastoral responses, and ways of doing ministry that I had begun to often take for granted after many years in the profession. This old dog is learning some new tricks, and taking new (and sometimes critical) notice of some old tricks that in some instances were getting a little stale. My congregation will benefit – indeed is already benefiting – from the fresh ideas and energy I bring to my ministry because of this group.”

“I am reminded at each meeting of the diversity of the gifts that God gives to us, and how ‘my way’ is one way, and only one along the path of service and discipleship. I am strengthened by this diversity, and (in a circular way) affirmed in my own path by others being authentic to their own. It is one of the ways we strengthen the body of Christ.”

The Future of the Pastoral Excellence Program

The Massachusetts Conference, UCC, is now seeking in the words of James Antal, our new Conference Minister and President, “to make pastoral excellence part of our DNA.”  No longer an experimental endeavor, the Pastoral Excellence Program is now considered one of the best things we do together.  No one in any setting of our Conference – from the Conference staff and Board of Directors to our local churches and local church pastors – can imagine the Conference without it.  Instead, our focus now is on how to make it a permanent part of our ministry, and even to let it shape the way we do all of our work.  Having recently received word that we have been awarded a renewal grant from Lilly, this report reflects not only our work from the past year, but also our plans to continue and deepen it.

In 2010, the Conference launched the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Endowment Campaign to ensure the future of this program.

We are looking for opportunities to share our experience with others in the United Church of Christ for the benefit of the whole church and every congregation.  Two years ago, we began to extend invitations to all Colloquies to all UCC clergy in every Conference in New England.  A few new clergy in New Hampshire and Connecticut travel to Massachusetts to participate as members our New Clergy Groups, and we hope that soon. New Clergy Groups will be available to all of our newer pastors in Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

We are eager to talk with you about our experience and about what we have learned about how to nurture and sustain pastoral excellence. 

For more information, please contact:

Ellie Richardson at richardsone@macucc.org or at 508-875-5233 ext. 233.

Andrea Bellarosa at bellarosaa@macucc.org or at 508-875-5233 ext. 230.

For more information about all the programs across the wider church in Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, visit the website: www.divinity.duke.edu/programs/spe