I n the 1970s, Peggy and Edwin Dixon of Birmingham, Alabama, established the Methodist Educational Leave Society (MELS) as a strategy to improve preaching in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. MELS offered generous grants to enable United Methodist pastors to take sabbatical leaves to study preaching. Soon the Dixon grants expanded to include peer groups in addition to individual study leaves. Howard Marks, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Roebuck, and Larry Dill, pastor of East Lake United Methodist Church, approached the Dixons and the MELS Board of Directors with an idea for peer-group learning. In addition to sabbatical leaves, they asked if the program could be expanded to include a peer group of eight who would study together over a period of three to four years. Ed Dixon had experienced the clout of peer learning at the Harvard School of Business. “In the 16-week Program for Young Executives,” he said, “I noticed that I learned as much or more from my peers than from the professors.” He encouraged the MELS Board to experiment with a peer learning program. Self-selecting peer groups took charge of their own learning by designing unique “non-churchy” travel/study programs whose goal was improving excellence in preaching. Pastoral leaders in peer groups studied together over time and held one another accountable to the learnings. The Institute for Clergy Excellence was founded in September 2002 by nine pastors whose preaching had been transformed by
Congregations benefit as well. A national study recently commissioned by the Lilly Endowment found that congregations served by a pastor engaged in a peer learning group are more likely to: • Be highly participatory and emphasize community service • Experience numerical growth • Have strong youth ministries, preparing young people for service In addition, their pastoral leaders also spend more time effectively representing the church in the community. Since 2002, ICE has been funded by: • The Lilly Endowment, Inc. • The Dixon Foundation • The Marie A. and Leon W. Bone Charitable Trust • The Daniel Foundation of Alabama • The Warren P. and Ava F. Sewell Foundation • ICE Board of Directors’ gifts • Fees from peer group participants • Fees from participants’ churches or ministry settings • Individual contributions from supporters who believe in the method More than thirty years after Ed and Peggy Dixon began implementing programs to help clergy excel, self-directed learning continues to be tested and refined by the Institute. Now, meet Larry Dixon with The Institute for Clergy Excellence.
MELS. They invited Ed and David Dixon to join them on a writing team to prepare a grant proposal for the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The Dixons encouraged the team to expand the peer groups beyond the United Methodist clergy of North Alabama. Since its inception in 2002,The Institute for Clergy Excellence (ICE) has sponsored peer groups with 192 pastoral leaders, including rabbis, from 28 denominations in nine states. ICE offers a learning approach that employs self-directed learning as its core operational strategy. This methodology, which affords adults the opportunity to take charge of their own learning, has been developed and tested for over 30 years. The generosity of Ed and Peggy Dixon gave pastors who participated in MELS the opportunity to design the learning experience that they believed would best sustain them in ministry excellence.The ICE program, in the tradition of MELS, assumes that pastoral leaders know what they need to be sustained in excellent ministry. It assumes also that pastors in peer groups can formulate how to go about meeting that need. Clergy who participate in peer groups that promote self-directed learning strengthen each other.Members of a peer group have the support to discern and make needed changes, as they go along. Interdenominational peer groups give pastors an opportunity to share vulnerabilities without fear of competition for future churches or judgment by a denominational leader.