Catholics shy away from talking about preaching. An elderly woman shuddered when she told me, “I couldn’t talk to Father about his homily!” One catechetical leader said, “There’s no conversation. It’s the elephant in the room . . . No one is willing to talk about it.” (Connecting Pulpit and Pew, 8). The subject of preaching is a difficult conversation.
In recent months, homilists have found that speaking to a camera felt flat, learning that preaching is a two-way relationship. If the purpose of preaching is to bring the community into an encounter with the living God, then we need each other in the homiletic event. But cultural change is hard. How do we get the conversation going?
Ideally, the feedback loop starts with the preacher. When I coach preachers, they have asked for my help; they desire to grow; they are receptive. We work together in a relationship of trust. As a preacher, if you don’t have access to a coach, find someone(s) that you trust in your parish. Learn together about what effectiveness looks like (Connecting Pulpit and Pew is designed as a parish resource with discussion questions for a small group). Begin to talk, little by little, recognizing that this is a sensitive topic on all sides.
What if feedback is not solicited by the preacher? A parishioner could blurt out at the door, “Geez, Father, you sure rambled a lot!” That is not feedback. That is “launching a grenade” (Difficult Conversations, Introduction). Firing criticism does not build trust or begin conversation. When folks think of feedback, negative critique often comes to mind first. But feedback comes in three forms: 1) affirmation, 2) evaluation, and 3) coaching (see Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).
Whether you are a layperson hoping to help a homilist or a preacher looking to improve a friend’s preaching, start with affirmation. Start small. Be concrete. “Good homily, Father” is too broad to be helpful. Listen carefully. Affirm something, anything done well: “I like the point that you made about _____ ,” or “I appreciate the sincerity of your preaching,” or “The way you said ___ moved me.” (Don’t lie just to butter him up!) Then, observe how that affirmation is received. If the preacher bristles, back off and try again later. Not all preachers receive feedback well. Take it slow.
Study the attributes of effective preaching and train yourself to evaluate. You do not want your feedback to lead your preacher astray from the purpose of preaching, which is an encounter with the Lord. Learn about your own response. What moves you? What brings you closer to God? What leaves you cold? What makes you fall asleep?
Coaching means offering a way to move forward: “Based on what you are doing well (affirmation) and where you are (evaluation), here is how you can grow stronger (coaching).” Coaching is tricky. It requires a deep trust, otherwise the response can be defensive, even in the strongest of relationships: “Who do you think you are to tell me what to do?”
If a homilist is insecure in his preaching, give him affirmation. If he’s doing well, offer him ways to grow stronger. Do not spout your own personal opinions; study and learn the objective criteria for what makes a homily effective. Preachers can coach fellow preachers in peer learning groups when they learn what criteria to affirm and evaluate. I cannot say it too often: go slowly. Tread carefully. Build trust so that you hear each other.
The Church has much learning to do about how to help our preachers to effectively preach. But working together on preaching is worth our best efforts.
It is a high calling to pass on the Word of God. Like Jeremiah, the love with which we have been loved burns in our bones (Jeremiah 20:9). We cannot hold it in. We must not hold it in. The living God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is at work in our world. Whether we preach from a pulpit on Sunday or from everyday life on Monday, we name that. We witness to that. That is the power of preaching.
Come, Holy Spirit, and renew our preachers. Renew our preaching. Come, Holy Spirit, bring us a new Pentecost and renew the face of the earth!
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Featured Image: Raphael (1483–1520), St. Paul Preaching in Athens (1515); public domain.