The Impact of Peer Learning Groups for the Preaching Life
The leader of preaching peer groups in northern Indiana and on Chicago’s South Side shares his insights about what makes these groups so effective.
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. Virgil M. Woods participated in a peer learning group sponsored by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
It’s been almost two years since I began as a peer group leader for the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Styberg Preaching Institute. Already possessing a love for preaching, I entered eager and excited to see what this journey held.
The academic group
I started with a peer group I’ll call the “academic group.” These were busy seminary students and graduates, some already pastoring, who were eager to develop their homiletic skills. We met at a church and took turns preaching and critiquing one another. We also discussed resources for preaching, both print and online. I call this the “academic group” because the members were generally studious, they offered several literary sources, and they tended to take discussions to deep levels.
The resource sharing was amazing. We would stack all our books in the middle of the table and use our phones to photograph the spines so everyone went home with a long list of titles. At every meeting we would simply ask for book recommendations and—voilà!—we were adding to our list. I cannot overstate how valuable this was, particularly for those looking to build their personal libraries.
One month we discussed the topic of eulogizing strangers, and we had a healthy discussion of some dos and don’ts. One pastor shared the process her church follows in these situations, and it sounded so effective that she offered to share copies of the forms they use with families when preparing for the funeral or memorial service of someone the pastor didn’t know. What a blessing! Again, I cannot express how valuable the sharing of resources is in this type of scenario.
Gennifer Brooks of Garrett Seminary says that preaching is so dear to our hearts that sometimes it is hard for us to hear critique. In our group, however, we loved critiquing one another, and no one seemed thrown off by the concept or uncomfortable with it. Of course we were nervous at first, but we came together expecting this to be part of the process, and we were ready for it.
We had one person preach at each meeting and moved through the group in rotation. After the sermon, we gathered for critique and discussion. We instituted one rule: The preacher cannot respond to others’ comments until everyone is finished speaking. This made our process much more fruitful. To be clear, we did not view this rule as stringent or negative; it actually became a light-hearted joke: “Remember, you can’t say anything.”
The practicum group
After the first year, the “academic group” began to dwindle. These active students and pastors found their schedules constantly challenged, and attendance reflected it. We met on the south side of Chicago with the hope of drawing students from both the city and from northwest Indiana (about ten miles away). But after a short spell of low attendance, we moved the group closer to Indiana to focus on preachers in and around the city of Gary.
Our attendance increased and now our group is made up completely of people from Gary. Simply put, this group came in eager to preach. Though they are not less academic than the first group, they are not seminary students. They are not employed as church leaders and pastors. Some are ordained, some are not. These people are occasional preachers, and they come to improve their preaching skills. Though we share resources, we spend more time discussing and critiquing preaching.
When this “practicum group” meets, we all draw at random from a pile of Scripture passages I’ve selected, and we each have twenty to thirty minutes to prepare a five- to seven-minute sermon. We then take turns preaching our sermons and receiving critiques. We believe you get better by getting up. This experience is extremely valuable for members who may otherwise go weeks without a preaching opportunity.
The exercise also presents opportunities to discuss sermon preparation: What made you take that angle? What did you see in the story? What didn’t you understand in the story, and how did you find what you needed? We did not discuss preparation methods in the first group.
This “practicum group” met monthly for several months; then members said monthly was not enough. We now meet twice a month. It’s a great feeling to see this kind of fervor for delivering the gospel.
As for my personal reflections, allow me to share these four:
- I wrote about these two groups to acknowledge that group dynamics change. This is what can make the experience so amazing. As some members leave, others come, each bringing a unique reservoir of knowledge and experience. Embrace the change.
- Having a place to share and grow is needed. I know of no other place where you can get input on the following Sunday’s sermon before you deliver it. The group’s insights have edited many of my sermons.
- You only get better by getting up. A small block of confidence is added to the preaching tower every time a sermon is delivered. Watching that confidence grow in others has been the most rewarding part for me.
- Iron sharpens iron. We need healthy places to receive criticism in love and to vet our weaknesses. There is always solace in discovering that your struggle is not unique to you.
I enjoy our peer group experience. I have been preaching for more than twenty years and still find fresh fruit at every meeting. I am always excited for what I will hear next.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the effects of pastor peer groups.