Preachers Need Friends, Too
The peer cohort is a place for preachers to strengthen their skills in real time while building intentional friendships.
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. Mitchel Lee participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Calvin Theological Seminary.
In recent years I’ve had the privilege of gathering quarterly with more than a dozen preachers from a variety of ministry contexts: urban church planters working in refugee communities, college campus ministers, student ministers, freshly graduated seminarians, and preachers from large denominational and nondenominational churches. We came together as Anglos, African Americans, and Asian Americans from locations across the Baltimore–Washington, DC, region.
At each gathering, we would discuss a book about preaching, review one another’s sermons, and workshop a specific preaching skill. Presuming each person had already developed exegetical skills, we focused on the mechanics of preaching. We closed each meeting with prayer for one another and shared a great meal.
Our meetings covered quite a menu of preaching skills. The workshops allowed me to pay attention to just one of the many parts of a sermon, such as crafting an intro, telling a story, using on-screen visuals, preparing my heart, or attending to cross-cultural variables in preaching. I came away with several new tools for sermon preparation and delivery.
The book discussions were stimulating, and they kept a steady diet of preaching books on my reading list. (Admittedly, books on preaching don’t bear the same sort of urgency as other genres in my pastoral reading life.)
The sermon feedback helped me identify and root out little idiosyncrasies that had crept into my preaching, be it a nervous gesture or the repeated use of “um” or “right” as fillers. Each evaluation opened a door to self-discovery and improvement.
While every pastor has experienced a congregant who says “Great sermon, pastor!” or who sends an email explaining why a sermon didn’t hit the mark, feedback from fellow practitioners carries a different sort of weight. It’s the difference between an athlete being critiqued by fans in the stands versus a coach or fellow teammate.
While any of these lessons would have made these peer gatherings worthwhile, the true treasure for me was the context for our engagements. To borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan’s work on communication, “The medium is the message.” An intentional community gathered to deliberately work on our craft proved far more important than any specific skills we worked on.
My greatest takeaway from the preaching cohort was a simple truth: Preachers need friends, too. That may sound insultingly simplistic, but if you consider the nature of preaching vis-à-vis sermon preparation, perhaps you’ll see how important it is.
Private preparation vs. public engagement
Preaching is public speech. No sermon is ever the same twice, no matter how well-rehearsed the content; every time a text flows out of a preacher’s preparation to a particular group of listeners, the Spirit does something unique. Preaching requires both a speaker and a group of listeners, regardless of the number of listeners or how (un)engaged they might be. Though preachers sometimes use the phrase “preaching to ourselves” to convey that we’re also reminding ourselves of the gospel, preaching is an interpersonal public speech act.
Yet sermon preparation is often done in solitude. Reading, reflection, consideration, careful exegesis, and much prayer are all necessary disciplines for faithful sermon preparation. This is the accepted process for developing not only a sermon but also a preacher: individual preparation and formation with the goal of public delivery.
In best-case scenarios, a would-be preacher receives instruction in the neonatal unit of a homiletics class before arriving in a church pulpit. Most of the instruction is designed to instill a framework, or method, for crafting a sermon—the hard skills. The assumption is that the soft skills of preaching will develop through public engagement—the proverbial “getting your reps in.” But just like a golf swing, preaching skill doesn’t necessarily improve with repetition.
This formula is a recipe for burnout, insecurity, and stagnation in the preaching craft. Consider the development process for other disciplines. There often is a rigorous peer critique system, a skin-thickening deconstruction that can be downright humbling. Writers endure brutal peer edits. Doctors suffer through intense rotations and clinicals. Musicians develop through recitals. How are preachers sharpened in the crucible of sermon delivery?
This proved to be the real benefit of the preaching cohort for me: It was a place to sharpen my skills in real time while building intentional friendships. For group members, the size of one’s ministry was irrelevant. Church background didn’t take center stage. Preaching experience influenced but didn’t define how we gave feedback. The commonality of calling—and our desire to get better because God’s Word and God’s people deserved it—laid the foundation for friendships to form and blossom. By regularly meeting with my peers to share a meal, ideas, and prayer, I experienced the power of a circle of colleagues committed to growing in the craft—and I am better for it.
I’m convinced that a key ingredient in growing as a preacher is forming genuine friendships with other preachers—and not just friendships where we share our latest sermon series or illustration. We need friends who will be sounding boards and fellow sojourners as we preach sometimes uncomfortable, always otherworldly truths in an increasingly post-Christian culture. In the context of friendship, we are more open to receiving and giving informed feedback about what may or may not work, both in the preaching act and in our sermon preparation.
Such friendships guard us from insecurity. As we entrust ourselves to the watchful eyes of our colleagues, we can begin to dismantle the natural defensiveness we feel when anyone critiques our work. Through friendship, we develop the character-forming habit of receiving and giving feedback in grace and truth, a necessary habit not just for growing as a person but for improving in our preaching. I still wince when I recall a preacher who harshly and matter-of-factly called out his people’s sin. His tone and approach made me wonder how often he had sought feedback.
Friendships also guard us from the self-righteousness that can creep into our pulpits. Without the presence of preaching friends, we can settle for the status quo in our preaching. Sitting in a circle of preachers from different contexts reminded me of the variety of perspectives and applications that exist in the church. Remembering where and how some of my friends preach produced in me a careful humility as I preached to my congregation.
I’ll share one more insight about these kinds of friendships. Of the fifteen of us who met, I saw only three of them outside of our quarterly meetings, yet the bonds formed in the cohort were friendships nonetheless. Lest you think that a circle of preaching friends must become your social circle, know that God can use the intentionality of these friendships to sharpen you even through infrequent meetings. As we gathered each time, we cared for, prayed for, and sharpened one another as if no time had passed.
Who are your friends? Who are the ones to whom you entrust yourself and your preaching? Just as we assure our people that God doesn’t intend for us to walk the Christian journey alone, I believe the same holds true for our preaching life. While a certain amount of work has to happen within us in study and solitude, the peer learning group helped me recover an awareness of the growth that happens in community—an understanding that I’m sure will yield blessings for our congregations.
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.