I leave on Sunday for my yearly meeting with a group of clergy that calls itself "The Well." (The story of how we ended up with that name is a post in itself.) We patterned ourselves after a group of hoity-toity pastors that have been meeting together for something like 25 years. I think there are other groups like ours too. This is our fourth year to meet, and here's how it works:
We are each assigned two Sundays in the upcoming lectionary year, and for each of those Sundays, we are responsible for writing and presenting an exegetical paper. These papers analyze the text and typically provide 2-3 sermon "trajectories." There are currently 15 people in our group, which means we leave with a head start on 30 weeks of preaching. From time to time we think about adding members, but haven't figured out how to do so without cutting into evening free time, something we are not willing to do.
People have said to me, "Aww, I wish I had a group like that." I always tell them, "Just do it!" It's really not that complicated to put a group together. I would love to see these groups propagate. So to encourage people to give this a try, I thought I would write down a few things we did to get started or keep going. I think most of this is taken from the hoity-toity group, so no claims at originality.
1. Start with a core and invite. Our group began with a few seminary friends kicking around the idea of a yearly lectionary study group. Once this core group was locked in, each of us invited another person. If you still need more, have the invitee invite someone else. That casts the net wider. Decide what kind of denominational/regional/theological/seminary diversity you want, or don't want.
2. Have a covenant. We were advised to set the expectation: if you don't have your papers done, you don't come. That sounds harsh, but the integrity of the group depends on everyone doing the work. We have granted exceptions for truly dire situations---in those cases, the folks brought one paper instead of two. Nobody has arrived empty handed.
3. Have a "dues guy." We charge dues for basic operations of The Well---this is collected ahead of time by one of our members and kept in an account through the church he serves. Dues might pay for a few lunches, a dinner or two, evening snacks and drinks, etc. We use a sliding scale based on how big people's continuing education budgets are, but it's somewhere between $100-$200. Then each person is responsible for their travel expenses plus accommodations.
4. Divide the jobs and respect the royalty. We start with a short worship every morning, and someone new handles that each year. Another person draws names out of a hat to figure out who's assigned to which date in the lectionary year. We make these determinations about 9 months ahead of time so people have time to write the papers (though I assure you, there is plenty of cramming going on as we speak). We also take turns "hosting" the event. That doesn't mean it necessarily takes place in that person's city, but one person is in charge of securing lodging (we like B&Bs), a place to meet (a local church, perhaps) and also moderates any discussion that needs to take place in between meetings (via e-mail). We've taken to calling that person the King or Queen, because they are "the decider" for that year. We have a lot of type A people in our group (if I ever write a book about our group it will be called "Too Many Alphas") so it's good to have someone in charge.
5. Use Dropbox. We've tried a number of things in terms of paper collection and distribution. We used to bring copies of our own papers for everyone, but lots of us preferred electronic copies for various technical and environmental reasons. This year we're uploading our papers to Dropbox so people can download them onto their laptop and/or print them, if they're a scribbling type. We make them due by Saturday morning before we leave, and if you miss the deadline, you are responsible for bringing copies of your own paper for everyone.
6. Schedule for the week: We do 40 minutes per paper. The person reads the text, reads the paper, and then the discussion begins. Someone watches the time so we stay on schedule. In the past, we've had a block of time with a scholar or pastor to talk shop, and this year we even have a free afternoon. Heaven.
7. Leave evenings free. I've heard that the hoity-toities do papers into the evening, and honestly, I don't know how they do it---by the time we finish for the day, I'm fried. Guess that's why they're hoity-toity. Our group likes to have a leisurely dinner, then hang out late into the night. We also started a yearly competition, with a trophy awarded to the person with the most outrageous ministry story. And yes, there's an actual trophy.
So, there it is. The Well is one of the best things I do as a clergy person and one of my happiest weeks of the year. And I say that despite the fact that I preach the lectionary less than half the time. The scripture study is awesome and stimulating, and of course, spending time with other people who "get it" and with whom you can be real is HUGE. I think I laugh more that week than I do the rest of the year.