Arkansas pastor builds community among ministers through peer learning groups

Members of a peer learning group facilitated by Chester Thompson include Jacob Hayes, Doug Marsh Vincent Waller, Joe Tolefree, Maurice Waller and Gail Bryant.

By Amy Walker
Monday, September 28, 2009
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ATLANTA – Once a month, Chester Thompson drives 175 miles to meet with one of his peer learning groups, and every month he eagerly anticipates the meeting.
“When we all come and sit around the table, I don’t have everything and you don’t have everything, but sitting at the table together allows us to share our resources,” said Thompson.
The idea of sharing resources and providing support is the backbone of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s peer learning groups, part of CBF’s Initiative for Ministerial Excellence. Peer learning groups provide a community in which ministers can develop friendships with fellow ministers and offer support and encouragement.
“There’s a correlation between excellence in ministry and collegial relationships,” said Steve Graham, CBF’s director of ministerial excellence. “[Members] tell us that discovering each other has been the greatest discovery. Their primary goal is learning together, supporting each other and learning how to sustain both themselves and their ministry.”
Thompson, moderator-elect of CBF Arkansas and pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Camden, Ark., for 22 years, attended his first peer learning group in 2006. The group met in Little Rock, Ark., and the topic of the meeting focused on strategies for using small group models in ministry. Thompson was so impressed with the strategy that he returned to his church and reorganized both his men’s and women’s ministries into small groups.
After spending time as a member of that Little Rock group, Thompson felt called to lead a new group and help other pastors in his area. He is currently leading two peer learning groups, both of which began in January. One group meets in central Arkansas near his home, the other meets 175 miles away in Helena, Ark., one of the focal communities of the Fellowship’s rural poverty initiative, Together For Hope. 
In May, members from both of Thompson’s groups met together for a worship service in Mississippi to provide encouragement and financial support to a member of the Helena group who is in the process of building a church. 
Another time, a pastor attending one of Thompson’s groups appeared at their monthly meeting very upset because of serious conflicts in her church. Ready to quit her job and leave the church, she cried throughout the group’s meeting.
“Whenever she would start to cry, or address the conflict, we would just stop what we were doing and pray for her,” said Thompson.
The program, initially funded by a $1.99 million grant form the Lilly Endowment in 2003, now includes 95 active peer learning groups meeting across the country. Groups of 10-12 members meet monthly and topics vary by group. Initially, members commit to covenant together as a group for one year. Many groups gather around a common vocation or interest, including groups of music ministers, youth ministers and Hispanic pastors.
To learn more about peer learning groups, contact Steve Graham at or (800) 352-8741. To learn more about the Fellowship’s Initiative for Ministerial Excellence go to
CBF is a fellowship of Baptist Christians and churches who share a passion for the Great Commission and a commitment to Baptist principles of faith and practice. The Fellowship’s mission is to serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.

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