Five Things I Love about My Preaching Peer Group
A young pastor calls his preaching peer group “a funeral and a pep rally in the same ninety minutes.” Find out why.
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. Jacob Simmons participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Beeson Divinity School.
This past summer I had an idea. Our ministry staff was preparing to preach through Jonah, and I was assigned chapter 1. I decided to do something different for our congregation. Before I began reading the passage, I asked the people to stand and—this is a very big and—I asked them to sway. I asked them to sway to mimic the waves of the sea.
I wanted them to feel the movement of the water and the motion of the wind. I wanted them to feel like the sailors in the boat. I wanted them seasick.
Now, I knew we were Baptist, but I didn’t know we were THAT Baptist. I started reading, and no one moved. No one. I had asked clearly. Politely even. But not a squirm.
I hadn’t asked them to move their feet—shoulders only. Maybe it was too close to dancing. Maybe they weren’t in the mood. I thought it’d be fun. It wasn’t. It especially wasn’t fun to preach that sermon after the entire congregation had used their frozen figures to say, “Nope!” I was Jonah, ready to be thrown out of the pulpit.
When I told this story to my preaching peer group, the first thing one of the other preachers said was, “You should have run that by the group. We would have told you it was a terrible idea.”
He was right.
The six of us laughed and laughed at my misfortune and talked about how you can recover from a moment like that. We talked about how congregations respond to things from the pulpit that are different or unexpected. We talked about the best ways to engage people creatively in a sermon without alienating them or pushing them too far. We talked about the elements of my idea that were good and how I might engage my listeners the next time. (No swaying!)
For two years now, I’ve been a part of a preaching peer group. We meet for ninety minutes on the last Thursday of every month, and it’s one of the things in my schedule I look forward to the most.
Our group consists of six pastors who represent varied congregations, from large suburban megachurches to small urban church plants. We have pastors who have been preaching for forty years
and some who are just cutting their teeth. We represent multiple denominations and socioeconomic backgrounds. But we’ve all been called to the same task: to preach the Word.
Our time together focuses solely on the act of preaching. We could be tempted to discuss church politics or denominational gossip, but we try to remain disciplined in our task to encourage one another in our preaching. The question we use at each meeting is “How can we help?”
Before each meeting, an assigned member distributes two sermons to the group as an audio or video link or a manuscript. Group members come prepared to offer encouragement, ask questions, and provide constructive critiques. The preacher for the month opens by giving the context for each sermon—Was it part of a series; What came before and after; What was happening in the life of the church—and then asks the group for feedback on one or two specifics. For example, Did this illustration work? Was the introduction helpful? Was this turn too jarring?
Then we’re off and running. As it turns out, six preachers can fill ninety minutes with ease!
This group has been such a wonderful experience for me. It’s taught me some valuable lessons both as a preacher and as a pastor, and I hope it has begun to instill some good and healthy habits for a life of ministry.
- The group is a safe space to process ideas. It’s a place to talk shop about preaching with trusted confidants. The discussions we have are best held outside of the flock, for the safety of the sheep and the shepherd.
- The group encourages a spirit of humility. It’s hard to be prideful in a group where every month another preacher humbles himself to ask, “Where can I do better?” It’s an excellent question to ask and a beneficial one to have answered.
- It offers accountability. There are a great many churches where the sermon is a sacred cow; no one can offer the preacher feedback. A preaching peer group expects all members to be open to discussing their preaching, both its strengths and its areas for improvement. This serves each preacher, and it serves each congregation by holding the preacher accountable.
- It offers a different perspective. Left on our own, we might write sermons that begin to feel, at best, familiar and, at worst, repetitive, regardless of the text. We are all tempted to write and deliver sermons in ways that cater to our own tendencies. Every meeting offers me a chance to hear another preacher deliver God’s truth in a way that’s different from my own. And because I’m in a group with some great preachers, it works. More often than not, I’m inspired to try something different. I’m exposed to new methods and ideas, and I’ve used them to improve my preaching. We laugh because we’ve all confessed at one point or another, “I was thinking of this group when I wrote that!”
- It offers immense encouragement. To be able to sit with this group after a whale of a stinker (hey, Jonah) and have them say, “OK, that might not have worked, but here’s the grace and truth that God delivered through you,” is invaluable. It’s a funeral and a pep rally in the same ninety minutes.
A preaching peer group validates the difficult moments of preaching and challenges us to push beyond them for the glory of God and the edification of his church. For me, it’s holy. I’m immensely thankful to have this group, and I would encourage all preachers to find one of their own.
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.