Final Exams Every Week: Life with a Peer Learning Group
Peer learning groups promote faithful endurance and mutual encouragement in the face of what makes the preaching life challenging.
In this Strengthening Preaching blog series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc., which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support. Cole Huffman participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Calvin Theological Seminary.
You haven’t really lived as a preacher until you’ve received both praise and criticism for the same sermon. It happens to me every blue moon or so. I’m thankful the dissonance doesn’t jar me now, after three decades of preaching, the way it did when I was first starting out. Relationships I’ve developed with preaching peers are a big reason why.
Preaching is a hill to climb, a weekly creative deadline to meet. Sunday is always coming. In his autobiography I Must Say, Martin Short compared his work as a writer and performer of sketch comedy to having final exams every week. The preacher can relate.
I’ve been reflecting of late on Romans 15:5, where God is called the God of “endurance and encouragement” (NIV). Not one or the other, but both. Christians tend to have an either/or relationship with endurance and encouragement. We believe encouragement is on the other side of something endured—it can’t be within it.
But the preaching life abides in the tension between endurance and encouragement. We don’t find the church sometimes encouraging and sometimes a lot to endure. It’s a mash-up of both. When Eugene Peterson called the church “equal parts mystery and mess,” he wasn’t taking a shot but speaking to the both/and experience of pastoring as we await the Lord’s return.
Each time I convene a peer learning group with other local preachers—four times a year—we block off the better part of each meeting day. We read the same books ahead of time and listen beforehand to at least one sermon from each of the others in the group. When we meet, we discuss the books, give sermon feedback, and share struggles and best practices. I can fit our takeaways under two main headings: mutual endurance and mutual encouragement.
C. S. Lewis once observed that friendship is born when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” My preaching peers and I consider working from a pulpit the toughest job we’ll ever love, as the old Peace Corps slogan put it. The Bible was honest about this all along, and we’ve found it out for ourselves, too.
My peers and I discuss what makes the preaching life challenging: biblical illiteracy, media preoccupation, attention span deficits, generational divides, and our own insecurities. It’s not all endurance all the time; God is always doing more than we know. Christ is being formed in his people. But we feel birth pangs, as Paul said he did on the Galatians’ behalf (Gal. 4:19), and this calls on the preacher to develop some push-through resiliency.
A sense of loneliness can permeate the preaching life, even when our congregation affirms and appreciates us. Still, we’re usually the only ones in our respective churches doing what we do. The pulpit, like Papa’s recliner in the living room, is understood to be our spot. We’re expected to deliver from it every Sunday, no matter if our week has been lousy or our spirits flat.
Compounding things, preachers often have golden tongues but glass jaws. In our peer learning group, we admit to one another when we’ve found we couldn’t take the punch of criticism. We remind each other of the New Yorker cartoon in which a speaker stands before a cheering audience, everyone smiling except for one guy scowling in the second row, arms folded. Looking only at him, the speaker says to herself, “They hated me.”
In the interest of faithful endurance, peer group members share with one another the ways we deal with the inner and outer murmurs inevitable in our work. We pray for renewed strength to do what William Barclay said endurance does: it helps us not just bear a hard thing but “turn it into glory.”
While building “You too?” vocational friendships provides needed catharsis, my experience shows that peer learning groups support conditioning more than commiserating. Encouragement is at its best when it emboldens. “Stay in the ring,” we tell one another.
It’s not our churches we’re fighting, but the world, the flesh, and the devil, whose most effective weapon against us is discouragement. Discouragement preys upon and amplifies the loneliness and insecurities a lot of preachers feel along the way. One of the most important countermeasures we can deploy is reaching out to a brother or sister in our peer learning group. Getting coffee or lunch throughout the year is a way to be in one another’s corner.
I’ve discovered in peer learning groups that I’m not the only one who is hard on myself. Even with long experience, it doesn’t take much to send me spiraling into self-doubt, like a jet losing altitude. I’ve been at my present church almost seventeen years and still get a gnawing sense at times that says, “Couldn’t this congregation do better than me?”
In his book Adorning the Dark, singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson shares his fears “that whatever that thing is that makes the songs work, the mystical gas in the engine, [it] will be cut off, this thing will slow to a trickle and die, and I’ll put out an album people hate. . . . Or maybe God will finally have had enough of my sin, my pride, my lust, my resentment, my self-centeredness, and if I haven’t learned my lesson by now then he’s going to have to take drastic measures and really serve me up some failure on a grand scale.”
Substitute “sermon” where Peterson has “songs” and “album.” I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this. How much we need encouragement! In the peer groups I’ve convened, members remind one another we have to preach the gospel to ourselves most of all. We need to hear again, ourselves, the encouraging word of welcome from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:6).
Stride for stride
When I gather with peers, the extended thought we give to how God attends to the work of preaching every Sunday—even when we didn’t feel particularly on our game—spurs us onward.
We “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2). Endurance and encouragement, stride for stride, until we take our place in the great cloud of witnesses.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Explore preaching and ministry resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.