The Power of Peers (Wayne Schmidt)

Many of us may quote Proverbs 15:22 – “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.”  We know it is a mark of wisdom to seek counsel, yet we may still find to be intimidating to do so!

Last week some of our peers came to town to provide “outside eyes” on how effectively Wesley Seminary at IWU is implementing its stated purpose.  While the structure of the visit is somewhat unique to educational entities, I couldn’t help but think how amazing (though challenging) this experience would be in the local church.

Those peers formed an “Accreditation Site Visit Team” for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), another step in the process of adding an additional layer of accreditation to our Seminary.  Their positive recommendation to the Board of Commissioners (who makes the final decision in June) may be part of the reason I feel so positive about the concept of a “peer review” visit!

What if local churches were to have the benefit of peers helping them to explore whether they were really executing their vision?  Not to tell the church what they are to believe or how they are to minister, but based on their stated beliefs and purpose help them to see whether their behaviors align with what they express.

These are the transferable dimensions of that visit:

  1. Know the indicators of mission fulfillment.  The ATS team spent time identified outcomes that reveal whether we were achieving our stated vision and serving those we said we would serve  For local churches, there has been extensive research into “church health indicators.”   Dr. Charles (Chip) Arn, in our course he teaches on “Diagnosis & Prescription for Church Health” identifies about a dozen different approaches to measuring health.  A local church could select the indicators they believe are most relevant to their mission and ask a team of peers to help them explore their effectiveness.
  2. A self-study takes place prior to the visit.  In our case, our Academic Dean, Ken Schenck, took the lead in assessing the various indicators in advance, expressing our perception of how we are doing in mission fulfillment.  The team received this self-study in advance, and it prepared them to know what to look for in their visit with us.
  3. There is power in questions.  The ATS team met with administrative leaders, faculty, students, alumni, board members…and asked lots of questions.  They were not there to prescribe the right answers, but to explore whether the answers of the various groups matched (was their clarity and communication among the various constituencies) and then if those answers aligned with our overall mission.
  4. It is beneficial to have “outside eyes.”  They were peers – members of the team included academic administrators and ministry practitioners – not full-time reviewers.  But they were from outside our immediate context – those of us who work daily within a setting may be unable “to see the forest for the trees.”  They had inside information, but outside eyes.
  5. The learning was mutual.  Several times the ATS team members referenced what they were learning during the process, and even hoped to implement in their own contexts when they returned home.  There was not a spirit of condescension or an arrogance of expertise – but one of together learning how to more fully live out the mission with which we had each been entrusted.

We’re working right now on a pilot project related to church revitalization.  We will soon offer a “certificate” (available to anyone) or a “specialization” (available to our students within their M.A. or M.Div. degrees) in church revitalization.  I’m struck by the similarities between the components of an effective revitalization process and the peer review visit we just experienced:

  • A church does a “self-assessment” based on key areas of health and mission fulfillment.
  • A “consultation team” interacts with pastoral and lay leaders of the Church, probing areas of strength and identifying areas of needed development.
  • Interaction takes place with a broader representation of people within the congregation.
  • The leadership and congregation receive recommendations from the consultation team, which they then decide whether to adopt as a “prescription” for church health and vibrancy.
  • If adopted, the Church works with a coach to help it act upon the prescription they have decided to implement.

This is not peer pressure but peer perspective…helping us to prepare for the “well done” we all seek to hear as we stand before our Heavenly Father one day.