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Karla J. Bellinger on Lay Contributions to Compelling Preaching

Have you ever gone home from worship disappointed that the preacher or Sunday homily didn’t seem very effective? Recent research reveals that listeners can help preachers help their peers grow closer to God.

Karla J. Bellinger is a systematic theologian with a doctoral degree in preaching who describes herself as “a homiletically educated lay woman who works with those who preach.” She researches and writes about how to connect pulpit and pew for more effective preaching. In this edited conversation, she explains how listeners can grow into homiletically trained conversation partners for preachers so that sermons and homilies connect the gospel with real life.

Can you say a bit about your background?

In my own Presbyterian upbringing, I sat at the feet of Ernest T. Campbell, a superb preacher, throughout my adolescent years. My teenage takeaway was that the subject of God was weighty, substantial, and worthy of my deepest consideration. Campbell told stories of everyday life and how it all pertained to the gospel. Therefore, it takes a lot for me to say that the Catholic preaching I hear is “excellent.”

Dan and I got married in an Assembly of God church. We joined the Catholic church during college in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Father Thomas P. Hadden’s toe-tingling preaching touched us deeply. I’ve worked with Catholic youth in parishes and schools, written intergenerational faith-formation curriculum, and served in lay ecclesial minister and other church-related roles.

How did you become interested in connecting pulpit and pew? 

In my work, I saw too many Catholic youth yearning to encounter God yet feeling disconnected from homilies. I believe that we as a church can do better. And, as a theologically trained mother and grandmother, I offer a perspective that is not often academically heard. This problem does not just grab my interest; it fires me deeply. I care that the people in the pew—my children, my students, my friends—hear a word that gives them life.

Jesus prayed that we all be one (John 17:21), and we are not. I feel called to do what I can to connect pulpit and pew. How much could we learn if pulpit spoke with pew, young conversed with old, and different cultures opened up to each other? The better we understand each other, the more we can together grow closer to God.

What have you researched and written so far?

Preaching research is in its infancy. For my doctoral thesis, Are You Talking to Me? A Study of Young Listeners’ Connection with Catholic Sunday Preaching, I surveyed 561 Catholic high schoolers about their preaching needs. I wrote Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching while leading research at The Center for Preaching, Evangelization, and Prayer. As associate director of Notre Dame University’s Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics, I led peer groups and retreats and did one-on-one coaching for a hundred preachers in one-year cohorts. With Marten director Michael E. Connors, CSC, I co-authored Remembering Why We Preach: A Retreat to Renew Your Spirit and Skill

I retired but was called back into this work when The Catholic Foundation and the University of Dallas asked me to become the founding executive director of Institute for Homiletics. I wrote the forthcoming Encountering the Living God, Together: A Resource for Listeners to help two-year lay groups become homiletically trained conversation partners. Now I’m writing a book for the second year, where preachers and lay groups will follow a structure to help listeners help preachers help their peers grow closer to God. Almost all I have researched and written applies to both Protestants and Catholics.

What’s one reason for the disconnect between preachers and listeners?

The purpose of preaching is to help the faithful encounter the triune God. Our research shows that youth, young adults, and older adults all hanker for homilies to “go deeper.” They are pleading for a word from the Lord to help them in their struggles, rouse their faith, give them courage, and comfort their pain. They want to hear more about what God is doing right now in this particular community of believers on a specific day in a certain church building. The moment of the homily is a relational act of love between those who speak and those who listen. In this hurting world, the Word and the word matter.

Ironically, because Catholic and Protestant preachers receive so little feedback on their messages, they often think of preaching as less important than their congregants do. And when sermons don’t connect the gospel with real life, they pass on an implicit theology that God is not interested in you.

How can listeners participate in renewing the Sunday homily?

Start with prayer. As God’s people, we pray for spiritual renewal, for both lay and ordained. Many preachers and listeners have painful memories connected to church, so we have to pray for their healing from memories of discord, bullying, abuse, gossip, betrayal, being messed with or hurt in a parish situation. 

My new book, Encountering, offers contemplative prayer exercise so we laypeople, like St. Augustine, can ask for God’s grace to be attentive, to notice through all our senses, how the Lord is at work. Try listening to God for short periods of time at frequent intervals during your day. Start small. One minute is a long time to listen to God. Let the love of God wash over you. 

Also ask God to help you discern your role. First seek to understand, then internalize the vision of where we are headed; pray for preachers and their preaching, and then ask the Holy Spirit to lead you in the direction to which you are uniquely called.

How can listeners discern their roles?

As prayer and listening to God help you notice and name everyday graces, ask God to help you notice the good you are already doing. You can strengthen the effectiveness of Sunday preaching by sharing your own faith stories with children, grandchildren, and youth. Listen for God throughout the Mass. Catholic schoolteachers and church schoolteachers pass on the vocabulary of faith, relating the gospel to everyday life. If it weren’t for these supports, the homily could not connect at all. Seek to strengthen what is already in place.

Maybe your role is hospitality. Priests and nuns used to be considered family friends and were often invited into parishioners’ homes and to their events. Two cultures run in parallel in a parish. The priest does not live the same life as you and his other listeners. When you experience the loving, living God, then you can’t keep it from your eyes, mouth, and body. Share with your preacher the joys of experiencing God’s bounty in your garden as well as struggles you see in your own life or maybe while serving at food and clothing banks.

These conversations help preachers name where God is already at work in people’s lives and then gently stretch them to where Christ is calling them. Pastors preach differently when they know that they are cared for by God and by God’s people. A parish hears differently when they know they matter to God and the homilist. This creates a sense of belonging to a people trying, with God’s help, to make a difference in the world.

How can listeners prepare to listen better during homilies? 

Ask God for a sensitive heart and responsive mind, ready to let the message sink in. Prayer and scripture reading promote receptivity, as does loving God. It’s easier to listen for God in the homily when you’ve already had kindhearted experiences with the preacher or faith community or past enriching experiences of preaching. Sometimes, though, desperation is what prepares us to listen. We come seeking answers to profound questions about where God is in personal, community, or worldwide struggles.

How can lay groups become better conversation partners for preachers?

You can gather to read and discuss Connecting or Encountering. Both books will teach you about effective preaching and show you how to listen for God’s presence in the liturgy and in scripture. Rather than leap into conversations about “how to fix Father,” take time to build camaraderie in your group. Learn, discuss, and pray—a lot. Allow God to work. The Holy Spirit is the Tie Who Binds.

What types of feedback can help preachers?

Communications experts say that feedback is composed of appreciation, evaluation, and coaching. Appreciation is like a pat on the back or an encouraging comment. Preachers can ask for evaluation when they actually want to know how they’re doing, both strengths and weaknesses. Coaching answers the question “What could I do to get better?” You can use them together or use each at a different time. To be effective, homiletically trained conversation partners, we must learn to be adept at each feedback type and know when to use each one.

People can’t always understand priests’ or preachers’ accents . . .

Many people in the Protestant world are used to calling preachers that they choose. But in the Catholic world, you get what the bishop gives you. In Catholic parishes in Victoria, Texas, 25 percent of priests are from Ghana. In another Dallas-area county, 25 percent of priests are from another country. Vietnamese-speaking churches tend to get Vietnamese priests. But it’s not uncommon to have a Nigerian who knows Spanish preaching to a Spanish-speaking congregation.

With accents, listen as carefully as you can so that you recognize where the difficulties lie. Are there certain words or sounds that are most difficult? Take notes if you can. As you form a trusting relationship with your preacher, ask him if he is willing to let you give feedback on his pronunciation. If he will allow you to do that, each week help him with just one word or sound. Some of the challenge is that the muscles of the face and jaw are used differently in other languages.

Who should begin the conversation about sermons and homilies?

Ideally the feedback loop starts with the preacher. I recommend to preachers who don’t have coaches to seek feedback from church staff. Then invite one or more trusted people in your parish to join you in going through Connecting, which has discussion questions. I know priests who have gathered people on Mondays or Tuesdays to talk about upcoming readings for Sunday. Some preachers will even say, “This is what I’m thinking of preaching on.” Laypeople’s life experiences can really nourish preachers. Simply preaching an abstract theology of resurrection may not connect. But a grandpa knows the joy of seeing toenails—which form in the second trimester—on a child not expected to survive in utero.

Why might preachers be reluctant to seek feedback from listeners?

Seeking feedback makes them feel so vulnerable. The cynical tendency when someone points out a need for growth is to shrink in fear to an all-or-nothing defensive stance. It helps to keep in mind that the homily is to be a concrete act of relational love. Through research, we’ve discovered that diocesan priests in our Dallas-area peer groups get more analytical feedback from our lay coaches, all women with doctorates in preaching, than they do from priest coaches. They agree that priests are pretty easy on critiquing each other because they have to live together. Diocesan priests usually remain in the same diocese for life.

My book Remembering gives reasons to encourage the priest, deacon, bishop, and abbot to be open to homily feedback. This often takes at least six months. My friend Craig Alan Satterlee is a Lutheran bishop who taught at Notre Dame when I did. His book My Burden Is Light: Making Room for Jesus in Preaching talks about how preachers can learn to encounter Jesus in their hearers. But it often takes three years for “the courtship, the dance, the trust between the one in the pulpit and the many in the pews to develop. So, both preachers and listeners need to be patient with one another,” he writes.

What is a good first step for listeners if preachers don’t seek their help to improve preaching?

If a preacher doesn’t solicit feedback, then begin with affirmation. Comments must be clear, concrete, and specific. This is especially important for preachers who feel insecure. Listen carefully. Affirm something, anything done well: “Your sincerity touches my heart,” or “I appreciate how your point about ___ clarified something for me,” or “The way you said ___ fires my will.” If the preacher bristles, back off and try again later. Encourage preachers to join peer groups where they evaluate and coach each other.

Anything else? 

I cannot say it too often: go slowly. Tread carefully. Build trust so that you hear each other. Remember that sometimes a preacher gets worse before he gets better. He can be so focused on the homily’s technical details that he forgets that preaching is supposed to be an encounter, a liturgical road, that leads people to God. Our deepest desire of this Institute of Homiletics endeavor is that by the third year (and beyond), this process of clergy and laity working together will become a given of parish life—clergy learning from their lay people and the laity sharing with their priest or deacon how the Lord is working in their lives.


Read two books authored or coauthored by Karla Bellinger: Connecting Pulpit and Pew: Breaking Open the Conversation about Catholic Preaching and Remembering Why We Preach: A Retreat to Renew Your Spirit and Skill. Anticipate her field-tested forthcoming book Encountering the Living God, Together: A Resource for Listeners.

Check out preaching books by Scott Hoezee, founder and director of Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His slim volume Why We Listen to Sermons advises listeners to evaluate whether sermons are biblical, authentic, contextual, and life-changing.