From Isolation to Encirclement: Finding the Preaching Voice Among Peers
By preaching to trusted peers and hearing their reflections, even veteran pastors can find transformation in the practice of preaching.
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. Monica Hall participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Vanderbilt University Divinity School.
“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you'll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
For years, sermon formation has taken place primarily in isolation. Preachers go to seminars and conferences, read volumes of publications, and go to well-staffed workshops—all so the individual can go home, think things through, and somehow gain expertise in sermon composition while huddled in a quiet office for a few hours each week.
A new peer preaching process removes preachers from isolation. It brings together homileticians who sit together and practice listening as peers, intent on processing what the preacher presents. The group members reflect on what they hear, and in trust they go together through the one door they have been told not to enter—or were afraid to go through—in the preaching life.
The practice of trust
The profound power of peer work in the formation and transformation of the preacher is possible only with trust. The clinical setting of an encircled group is critical, just as it is in a clinical pastoral education program or an interpersonal relations (IPR) group. Pastors often come to the pulpit wanting to preach like a beloved mentor or colleague. Preachers can mimic many techniques, but this program is about finding one’s own preaching voice through the trusted voices of others.
The peer group must have foundational behavioral covenants to achieve this success. In safe peer preaching groups, trust is as strong as a braided rope. The preacher begins the session by asking for specific feedback, and the voices of the listening peers rise to share responses based on what they heard. Through the peer group, the preacher gets to see and hear her voice in the reflections of her peers.
Peers do not give advice, nor are they responsible for directing the preacher to a particular place. The listener’s greatest task is to keep personal stories and suggested solutions out of the peer space and simply let the listening open up space for meaningful peer reflection. Often this reflection takes the form of questions that probe the preacher to think about what might underlie her asked-for responses.
Peer work is profoundly theological in the sense that the embodiment of Jesus Christ in mutuality is ever present. In truth, it is required.
The expectation of transformation
Recently I hosted a five-day preacher camp in the wilderness of Utah for four other pastors from across the United States. Two solo pastors, one associate pastor, and one head of staff gathered to engage in the unknown experience of peer work.
By day two, these peers were already beginning to see the results of listening to one another. At times the listeners’ questions were too simple or too narrow; we sensed the need to dig deeper, to move into a sphere of broader, more meaningful questions. By the third time we gathered in the circle, intentional listening was shaping the group’s ability to open up and share deep insights and queries, allowing the preacher to expound on the questions in depth.
One of the most poignant reflections from the group was the confession from “week in and week out” preachers that they never sit down to review recordings of their sermons. Some of them, after ten years of ministry, had never once watched their own preaching in the congregational setting.
One peer described her head of staff’s regular Monday assessment of the previous day’s sermon. It was painful, not helpful. It was advice and critique, with a dash of authoritarianism, cloaked in “decades of practice.” Over time this weekly assessment became stifling, causing the preacher to reflexively shrink with fear of expected failure. After a week of peer preaching, this pastor developed a renewed interest in trusting others with her preaching voice.
Peer preachers can expect transformation. Peers can also expect to find themselves reaffirming the centrality of proclamation for the body of Christ.
Through the listening of peers and the preacher’s desire for thoughtful feedback, veteran preachers can learn anew to trust others and grow in the sacred practice of preaching. The theological claim of belonging to God and one another is reborn.
A word for the curious
Peer preaching groups are not about “fixing” the preacher’s sermon. It is about connecting to the preacher’s current narrative, to the context, and to one another so that peers become a mirror for the preacher. The preacher can see clearly what she wanted to see by hearing the voices of those in the circle.
Of all the programs I’ve encountered in preacher formation and sermon formation, this model is the most effective and the most meaningful. The church is in a curious time. For some, preaching in America today causes Sunday-morning stomachaches, resignations, even abandonment of callings. Many preachers are stuck—not only in their own formation, but in how to form the congregation through the Word. It seems this kind of formation is needed right now. We need each other, and we need a renewed understanding of why the preaching life is central to the Great Commission and the good news of Jesus Christ.
The doors we avoid—watching our sermons on video, valuing peer feedback, trusting other preachers with our sermons—can be opened in peer preaching. No more rearranging the furniture. With peers, one need not go through the unopened door alone.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Explore sermon resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.
Learn about the David G. Buttrick Certificate Program in Homiletic Peer Coaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School.