The Peer Group as Incubator
At a time of transition in his personal and church life, a young pastor jumped at the chance to join a pastor peer group. Learn how this group has helped shape his preaching process.
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.
Every pulpit has its own unique context, and all pastors have their own particular circumstances. My context was a seven-year-old urban church plant in the wake of a difficult pastoral scandal. As a 28-year-old boy—and I really did feel like a boy—I was asked to take on the role of lead pastor in the midst of a leadership transition. Days later, my second child was born. My life was in transition on multiple fronts, and in between the changes taking place as a parent and a church leader, I was trying to shepherd hurting people.
It’s safe to say there wasn’t much in the way of critical thought surrounding my sermon preparation and preaching. Preaching had become an exercise in survival and, to a certain extent, was the outward processing of what our community was going through.
That’s why the moment someone offered me the opportunity to spend time in peer-group preaching conversations with other pastors, I jumped at it. I knew this could be an important catalyst in my formation as a preacher, as well as a therapeutic way for us as pastors to remind one another what we are passionate about: proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.
Any pastor can recognize the significance of community in the spiritual formation of believers, but I’m not sure we have come to fully recognize the value of community in the spiritual formation of preachers. Pastoral ministry is an isolating experience, and it necessitates an intentionality on the part of pastors to find community—not merely within their own congregation, but among others who share this preaching responsibility.
The small community of pastors that has formed in our peer group offers a diverse collection of voices to help shape our preaching. Our group represents six churches and five denominations. Some of these pastors preach twenty-minute sermons, and others preach forty-minute sermons. Some preach from manuscripts, while others almost entirely internalize their sermons. Each of us prepares differently and brings a different perspective to the act of preaching. It is from this diversity that much fruit has been born in my preaching.
I have learned that when preaching is formed in isolation, it reflects the heart, mind, and experience of one individual and the work of the Spirit in that person. But preaching formed among a multitude of voices reflects a host of hearts and minds, all bringing their own experiences and wisdom to the table. It is refreshing to find, in conversation with other preachers, that we all share some of the same obstacles, insecurities, and questions regarding our call to preach.
But more important than finding solidarity and affirmation in these small communities of pastors, it’s vital that we hear others who call into question some of our unhealthy or unfruitful preaching practices. Listening to others discuss their approach to preaching and seeing all the ways their ministry aligns with and departs from my own is both humbling and enlightening.
The process of learning to preach is never pretty. We all must pray and learn and stumble our way through the process. Peer groups provide a place for pastors to stumble together in the right direction. This group has forced me to embrace the struggle of it all and to make hard decisions to make changes, even when changing feels like moving backwards.
Our preaching sometimes must get worse in order to improve—and that’s a hard choice to make. One example of this for me came as we were talking about the process of sermon preparation. While convinced my own method worked best for me, I slowly realized that I was the only one in my group who didn’t write out their sermon to some extent. I tended to prepare and internalize a sermon with no manuscript, using nothing more than an outline. This is because I have never wanted to be tied to a manuscript during a sermon; to me, it always seemed like a barrier between a preacher and a congregation. I still believe that can be the case, but I came to recognize the value of creating a manuscript, and I committed myself to trying it.
When you find yourself walking against the crowd, you always imagine it’s because you are bold, but sometimes it’s because you are walking in the wrong direction. It was difficult for me to make the transition, but I immediately recognized that creating a manuscript was a more realistic and sustainable way to prepare. On weeks when the demands of pastoral ministry or family life overwhelm my plans for sermon work, this has been a much more helpful method of preparation. As I sit here typing this, it sounds absurd to me that I didn’t heed the advice of professors who taught us to preach this way.
But I also know that our formation as preachers doesn’t—and shouldn’t—happen only in seminary. It happens in churches, among people in real-life situations. That’s the value of preaching peer groups: They provide another space outside the life of normal church community for our formation as preachers to continue years after we leave the classroom.
For those who value the task of preaching, a peer group becomes a kind of incubator—scripturally, theologically, rhetorically, and pastorally. The hope is not just that our preaching improves in its quality, presentation, or intelligence, but ultimately that it becomes a more faithful vehicle for the message of the kingdom.
My hope is not merely to preach better sermons, but for these sermons to become a more pleasing act of worship before the Lord. Peer groups provide an opportunity to see this happen in our lives as pastors and preachers. It’s worth investing ourselves in that endeavor for years to come.
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.