From Colleagues to Companions: Unexpected Fruits of a Peer Learning Group
What do you get when you put a diverse group of clergy around a table once a month? More beauty than you might expect.
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. Marc Nelesen participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Calvin Theological Seminary.
It sounds like the beginning of a good joke: “What do you get when you put an Episcopal priest, a rabbi, and a few ministers from the Reformed tradition around a table once a month for a year?”
For us, it was no joke but the beginning of new friendships, insights, and questions. Our group is grateful to the Lilly Endowment and the Center for Excellence in Preaching for creating the occasion for us to gather, break bread together, care for each other, read good books, and share phenomenal conversation.
As a group, we have discovered at least six fruits that have come from meeting together.
1. We have achieved an unexpected outcome: intimacy.
What began as an opportunity to get together over ideas, readings, and good conversation about preaching has turned into a solid place for support among trusted peers. We all found ourselves in need of each other in unexpected ways. Fortunately, our practice of meeting together has built bridges that can carry heavy loads. We have walked alongside one another through ministry stresses, transitions, health issues, and relationship challenges.
Though support wasn’t our primary purpose for gathering, it sometimes became the unexpected purpose for a scheduled meeting. After developing a pattern of meeting together, we experienced emotional safety and developed a deep sense of care and encouragement for one another.
This became extraordinarily evident when one of our group members observed, “Every time I am writing a sermon or stepping into the pulpit, I think of each of you. You go with me, and I think of your wisdom and perspective when I am writing and delivering. Being in this group has helped my sermons get better and helps me feel less alone with sermons.” Each of us responded with shared affirmation.
2. Our group fosters greater self-awareness.
We explored together how “where one comes from” and our families of origin play a key role in what we avoid or pursue in a text. Since several of us use the lectionary, we observed that some personalities are drawn to parts of a text that other preachers might avoid. Knowing our own story and origins—and knowing people whose stories are different from ours—helps each preacher to be aware of why and when we gravitate to particular parts of a text.
For example, one group member observed that s/he came from a family that never fought. That hidden experience plays into how this person handles conflict in the congregation and in the text. Knowing this is helpful but not at all comfortable. Because of our group, this person now sees the dynamic in new ways and—for the first time—can choose to engage it.
Some of us decided that when we are working on a sermon, we are really working on ourselves; the text, the congregation, and the occasion are just the settings for our personal work.
3. We have become much more sensitive to the preacher’s role in framing or reframing a text.
Preachers have a unique opportunity to tee up a text. How we set up a passage can determine how our hearers connect with it and experience it. Some in our group were already aware of this, while others hadn’t really thought about it. After several months, we began to pay more attention to how this is at work for all of us.
Preachers, we observed, have the ability to control the topic, the tone, and the timing of a message. To some degree, we can control how characters in a text are portrayed. We observed that this gives us a lot of subtle power, and we’ve come to believe that good preachers will be sensitive to multiple narratives and learning styles. We believe that on any given Sunday morning, our listeners will include thinkers, feelers, seers, and doers. Crafting messages with an awareness of these differences can only help our preaching.
4. Our group is highly aware of the polarized state of U.S. politics.
Sensitivities in congregations and within preachers run high. Few people are neutral on President Trump and current U.S. policies. We observed that preaching and public prayer are exceptionally hard in the Trump era. It seems to us that preachers and communities of faith are on edge, feeling either disgust, buyer’s remorse, or a suspicion that their pastor is politically to the left of them.
Recognizing this made most group members acknowledge that we know what needs to be said; we just don’t know how to say it. For most preachers in the group, this situation means preaching from a place of heightened anxiety—and that is not a good place to locate oneself.
5. We have learned the value of developing a feedback loop.
As a result of our discussions, most group members who actively preach developed feedback loops that invite the congregation to respond, reflect, or engage more deeply. One pastor began printing open-ended questions in the Sunday bulletin. Another circled back to congregants each Wednesday, asking, “So, what do you remember about last Sunday’s sermon?” Some have found that this helps congregants think about and retain sermons more effectively.
We observed that the absence of these practices can make a sermon yet another product that is consumed. As a group we tried practicing receiving feedback by inviting five laypeople to one of our meetings. These good folks, who were regular “consumers” of sermons, came from a different homiletical background than the rest of us. They ranged in age from 16 to 72. Intriguingly, they kept us anchored by agreeing on several characteristics they believe make for good sermons—and encouraged us not to let our sermons lag.
6. We celebrate our differences and diversity.
Our members don’t agree on everything, and we don’t feel a need to. Our group contains some unique polarities:
- Two retired clergy and one new minister
- Two clergy with no children and others with up to four children at home
- One who is single and another who is divorced and re-partnered
- Clergy with marital difficulties and a clergy member in a same-sex marriage
- Ecclesiastical diversity including the United Church of Christ, the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Episcopal Church, and the Jewish faith
What do you get when you put all these people together around a table? Rich relationship, honesty, intimacy, vulnerability, great conversation, ongoing learning, and a deep love and respect for one another.
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.