Yes, And . . .
Experiencing pastoral burnout, Denise Luper began a yearlong leave of absence soon after joining a peer preaching and learning group. The peer group became an important part of her healing 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.
I’ve borrowed the title of this piece from Fr. Richard Rohr’s collection of daily meditations because to me it describes beautifully and simply the experience of peer learning groups for the preaching life.
The preaching life is not lived just through pen and paper, or keyboard and screen, or pulpit and microphone. It is a life lived deeply and authentically in relationship. Thomas Merton once said, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied; it is to be lived” (Thoughts in Solitude, The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, 1956). I believe the same is true of the preaching life and of my experience with my peer learning group, for both are a spiritual life. The preaching life it is not either/or; it is both/and.
A process of healing
The invitation to participate in a peer learning group came at a time when I was beginning to question God’s plan for me as a pastor. In fact, soon after our first peer group meeting in March 2017, I decided to take a one-year leave of absence from the local church to which I was appointed. I was worn and weary emotionally, and I didn’t have much to give to my parishioners, who deserved so much more.
I pondered giving up my spot in the peer group so that a “real” preacher could have it. After all, I wasn’t planning to preach for the next year, and perhaps I’d never preach again. Yet I knew that if I ever did choose to return to the pulpit, I would need to keep the cobwebs and weeds away from my preaching skills while also keeping those skills watered and fertilized. I decided to remain with the group for this reason, and I am so glad I did.
A lot of life can happen in a year. During the year I spent with my peer group, members had babies, lost parents, experienced divorce, saw careers take unexpected detours, and suffered serious accidents. One of our pastors even helped birth a new worship experience at his church.
As a group, we started out as younger and older, veteran and rookie, male and female. Those differences seemed to define us at our first few meetings, but they slowly faded away as we shared life deeply. We prayed together, cried together, laughed together, broke bread together (lunch!), and processed life together. We learned and preached together. We encouraged and supported each other.
Soon we began to realize that no matter our differences, we all experienced the same kinds of joys, concerns, struggles, questions, and pain. Suddenly, we were one. We were able to shed the “smile on a stick” of our false selves and be authentic. We began to share on a much deeper level, and our preaching reflected that.
The sermons we preached to each other in the second half of the year were different from our sermons in the first half of the year. They were better. This was partly because we had learned a lot but mostly because we were connected. We trusted each another and felt safe being vulnerable and authentic with one another. With my peers, I developed a deep sense of belonging and value. The learning, practicing, and sharing were part of my healing process.
The books we read each month gave us something new to think about and practice together, whether it was a tactic, a creative strategy, a metaphor to hold on to, or a subject to tackle. Some books were less “user friendly” than others, but there was always a takeaway.
One of our books, Novel Preaching by Alyce M. McKenzie (Westminster John Knox, 2010), suggested developing “a knack for noticing.” That really caught my attention, because I had been kind of doing that without realizing what was happening. In my mind, this “knack” is the work of—and a gift from—the Holy Spirit.
As I practiced noticing, I found that God had so many growth opportunities for me if I would just focus my attention on what was right in front of me. As I took a walk down a country road one day, a fallen tree became a lesson to me in staying connected to my source of life—to God. An amazing, powerful “aha” moment came over me. Thank goodness I thought to take a photo. I have since preached and blogged about what this tree taught me—that is, what God taught me through the tree.
I’m back in the pulpit now. A year away helped me to regather myself and to listen and pay attention to God. The time away also helped me to sharpen my knack for noticing, something that became such a gift to me as I got back into the routine of sermon preparation.
A year away allowed me to journey with my peer learning group while I was in a vulnerable state. I have now taken what I’ve learned and brought it into the pulpit. My first sermon series after my return was titled “Stop, Look, and Listen”—my way of teaching about the knack for noticing.
I’ve completely let go of notes and now move among the pews as I preach, simply speaking God’s word to God’s people. Yes, it’s scary not to have a safety net, but leaving my notes behind helps me to rely on God and on the fruits of all the fertilizing and watering I’ve experienced. By letting go, I’ve realized that my peer learning experience laid a firm foundation not only for my preaching, but for connecting with my congregation.
Did I get a lot out of my peer learning group? Was it a valuable experience? Was it a gift of God’s grace? Oh yes, and . . .
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Explore preaching resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching.