Seeing from Other Viewpoints
Engaging deeply with peers and perspectives from outside your tradition is the best way to grow in your understanding of others and enrich your own view.
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. Kevin C. Walker participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Use different angles. Get a new perspective. This was the advice I heard when I started filming teachers and preachers for online videos—something I do from time to time in my ministry at the Charles Simeon Trust. Our filming equipment includes three cameras, and initially I wondered why we would need three cameras to film one speaker. My trainer explained the advantages of seeing from multiple angles.
Seeing from multiple perspectives is the most obvious benefit I’ve received from interacting with my preaching peer discussion group. New perspectives have come to me in two ways.
First, I’ve read and discussed books chosen by someone else without my input. I’ve been introduced to unfamiliar authors. I’ve picked up books that I would have rejected by the looks of their covers. Some of the authors are outside my “theological camp” and take different approaches. Already—simply by reading books that were chosen for me—my perspective is broadening.
These authors and their approaches have yielded beneficial insights. One example comes from William Willimon’s book Who Lynched Willie Earle? His most memorable point of application is simply to speak out. A pastor must at least speak to confront racism. With all of the contemporary discussion about this issue, Willimon gets to a simple point of action: Speak out. Period.
The second way I receive new perspectives is from my discussion partners. My reading partners represent different ethnicities and backgrounds from mine: one is Chinese American and the other is African American. I was not particularly intentional about choosing them; they are just my friends, and we live and work near each other. They are also pastors, so it made sense for us to meet together.
But I think our friendships and peer-group discussions have been so helpful because the three of us are so different. We approach preaching, ministry, and books from different angles. The other two have gleaned fruitful points from our readings that I did not notice. They underlined sentences that I glossed over and responded to paragraphs that I found less interesting.
One of the main takeaways for me from these peer-group discussions is the advantage of reading widely and having discussion partners who are different from us. We can challenge one another on areas of preaching and ministry where we disagree and encourage one another in the areas where we agree. In fact, our different perspectives have made both of these activities more fruitful because we weren’t simply affirming each other in order to affirm our own position; our affirmations were genuine.
Our understanding of and approaches to preaching had to be—and became—more precise and carefully articulated as a result of reasoned discussion.
The need for new perspectives through conversations with peers with different viewpoints is further underlined in my current ministry. My primary task at the Charles Simeon Trust is training pastors in studying and preaching the Bible. We do this mainly through local workshops hosted by churches and through our online curriculum, drawing pastors and teachers from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations.
An essential element of each of these training initiatives is a small-group component. In these groups, participants present work they’ve done with a particular biblical text. They are asked to engage various tools and strategies for studying and preaching the Bible. They then receive collegial feedback on their presentations from peers. These small-group discussions for the purpose of sharpening one another are the most beneficial part of anything we do. People are often surprised that we do not offer any kind of “answer key” to our work. We find that the work done by presenters and the progress made by the group as a whole go further than any answer key could.
My encouragement for pastors and others in ministry is to find a peer who is different from you. Use the opportunity to read, think, talk, and pray together. Your peer’s perspective on ministry will enrich your own viewpoint.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Learn more about Who Lynched Willie Earle? by Will Willimon.
Explore preaching and ministry resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.