Radical Agency

Since its inception in 2002, The Institute for Clergy Excellence (ICE) has offered a learning approach that employs creative agency as its core operational strategy. This methodology, which affords adults the opportunity to take charge of their own learning, has been developed and tested over time. An important ingredient for pastors and other leaders in this decade-long enterprise has been to claim their own agency for self-directed renewal. In this way, they have built and nurtured a solid foundation of their own making to sustain excellence in ministry.

Peer learning is energized by radical agency. Within broad administrative guidelines, peer groups are encouraged to take charge of their own learning. Adult learners are trusted to plan transformational learning experiences, which will lead them out of their comfort zones, enable them to take risks and be held accountable for results. Given this freedom, radical agency peer groups invent exciting new ways of studying the subject. Energized by the method, change for the better is dramatic, quick, and observable by congregations, spouses, and clergy themselves. .


Self-selection is the first sign of radical agency. Adult learners are not likely to enter into the sort of covenant relationship essential for agency without a strong sense of rapport and compatibility with others. Every group is expected to embody diversity but quotas are not imposed. Experience has demonstrated that diversity comes in all guises.

The discovery and cultivation of trusted peers with whom one can be vulnerable, share one’s work, and be held accountable for improvement is a rare gift. Peer groups establish friendships that overcome isolation in ministry. Group members encourage and uphold each other in taking risks. They monitor experimentation and provide mirrors for evaluating habits and improving skills. Friendships that develop are often life-long and see people through the seasons of ministry and personal life.

Self Directed Learning

Why is it rare for adult learners to be given the opportunity to take charge of their own learning? Is it because we are conditioned by didactic methods that assume an expert teacher and a passive learner? Have we forgotten that learning involves curiosity and requires engagement? We are trapped in a “syllabus approach” to education: at the beginning of the semester the teacher passes out the syllabus and it is the learner’s job to meet the requirements. That does not mean, however, that what is learned is what is needed.

There is an essential place for the syllabus approach. School exists for the purpose of enabling students to learn what society knows they need in order to be effective citizens. Moreover, requirements to be credentialed in a profession are expected. Candidates for ordination or other credentials must meet requirements. There should be a place, however, for mature learners to take charge of their learning in community.

To the extent groups and individuals take agency their energy and enthusiasm builds. This is in dramatic contrast to the energy drain that often occurs when learning what someone else thinks we need to learn. A facilitator reflects, “There was tremendous energy at each of our meetings as the group dreamed of what they would like to study, the people and places they would like to encounter.” A legacy of expert-driven models, most groups find it hard to believe that freedom and agency are expected of them. Once they embrace that permission, the conversations become lively and imaginative. Mature adults are able to take charge of themselves in community.

Study Together Over Time

Radical agency also comes into play as self-selected groups study together over time. New learning and skills take time to develop. Peer groups covenant to an agreed upon discipline of study and time away from regular ministry settings. A program of three years enables new ideas to gestate and new leadership strategies to show results.

There is value in people studying together. Group experience with an expert or in an innovative setting allows for many eyes and ears to evaluate and process the event. A mysterious cumulative corporate memory develops over time. The peer group comes to know and understand more than any one individual or even all the peers put together. A group can access resources and experiences that would be impossible for an individual studying alone. There are things you can do because you are a group that would not be feasible for an individual. Often peer group members say they learn as much from one another as they learn from teachers or resource people.

Peers Hold One Another Accountable

Peer groups hold each other to an agreed upon discipline of study and time away from regular ministry settings. Early in its life, a peer group is coached on how to lovingly but honestly evaluate one another. The group insists that each member remain accountable for integrating new learning into individual ministry settings. It holds members accountable to practice ministry congruent with their theological convictions.

Peer learning gives pastoral leaders permission to challenge their conceptions of how God is at work in their own lives as well as the lives of the congregations they serve. Exposure to new and challenging theological positions among peers vividly demonstrates to group participants the incredibly varied ways that people of faith approach God.

Accountability in a peer-learning model which gives radical agency cannot be based upon “you must” (law). Rather, it is based upon “you can” (grace). Holding yourself and your peers accountable in a context of covenant, grace and abundance supplies support and courage.