How to give a homily: follow-up

Encouraged as I was by Claire Mathieu’s post on lay evaluation of preaching, I contacted Fr. Michael E. Connors, CSC, director of the John S. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame [martenprogram.nd.edu], to see if he had any information about similar programs in the United States. He, in turn, connected me to Dr. Karla J. Bellinger, director of the Center for Preaching, Evaluation and Prayer [thecenterforpep.com], whom he called his “trusted advisor on matters of homiletic evaluation.” Dr. Bellinger kindly allowed me to post the appropriate parts of her email to me here at Pray Tell:

“In terms of evaluation of seminarians, our seminary in Cleveland, and I suspect others also, have lay preaching boards who evaluate interns in their third year and also transitional deacons. That is rather common, I believe.

I don’t know of such a movement that is currently ongoing in the U.S. for clergy. There have been fits and starts of some since FIYH made the suggestion for preaching feedback groups, but nothing that seems to have consistently stuck across the board. If there were such a “movement”, I think that we would have heard about it during the coursework at Aquinas. In our DMin courses, we each worked with a preaching advisory team. It’s not a new concept. It’s just rarely done.

For my thesis in preaching, I designed a process for parish renewal via a reverse mentoring process, varying the make-up of lay advisory teams. I have two (and possibly three) parishes that will begin to pilot that process here in my local area – one parish beginning in August, the next in October. If the third is a go, they will begin in January. You can find a description of that process here: http://www.thecenterforpep.com/our-work/preaching-consultation/connecting-pulpit-and-pew-the-connect-process/ . The process is a combination of lay, consultant, and self-evaluation. Both pastors involved are good preachers who would like to be better. They are very interested in better connecting with their people, especially their youth. Both are also young to be pastoring very large parishes (early 40’s).

The book that I am writing for Liturgical Press, Connecting Pulpit and Pew, deals specifically with this issue. I have just completed a joint research project with the NCCL about the interaction of catechetical staff with those who preach in a parish: a significant finding from both my listener study of youth and the study of catechetical leaders is that the quantity of lay conversation with the homilist aboutthe homily correlates closely with the quality of that preaching. That does not give causation; but very clear correlation.

The short answer: for seminarians [lay evaluation process of preaching], yes, rather commonly; for ongoing preaching interaction in a parish, pretty rare.”

I thank Dr. Bellinger for her information and hope that it is of interest and help to Pray Tell’s readers.

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5 comments

  1. Thank you for posting this, Michael. Is anyone aware of substantive programs (continuing ed, archdiocesan, parish) to improve the preparation and preaching of permanent deacons without having to send them away to obtain a degree? Because permanent deacons have come from the “lay world”, many assume that they will be able to connect pulpit and pew easily. However, multiple experiences of diaconal preaching have demonstrated to me that their preaching is more often stilted, didactic, and distant. Other than a “real world” joke from time to time, usually at the expense of their wives or family, insightful, meaningful connections to the assembly gathered are missing. I suspect their training is woefully inadequate to the task.

    Question: By virtue of their ordination, does every priest and deacon have the gift to preach the Word of God with words?

    1. @Dolly Sokol – comment #1:
      Dolly, if the your question has an affirmative answer, some of them are hiding it extremely well!! 🙂
      I wanted to make 2 comments; unlike you, I have heard fine preaching from our deacon……..which leads me to my 2nd comment. I believe that great preaching , like any other talent, is a gift…..a gift not everyone called to ministry posseses. Do I think preparation will improve homilists? YES!!!!! Do I think classes on preaching and homiletics will improve homilists? Absolutely!! But each minister has the gift in varying degrees. There are some that can get up at any given liturgy and deliver a soul stirring homily with minimum preparation. I have heard them! Then there are others who can carefully prepare and still fall short. It is a gift.

  2. I remember that years ago, Saignaw’s Bishop Ken Untener of blessed memory began a process whereby each priest in the diocese who was willing had a homily videotaped (that was the technology then), shared it with a small group of others to watch, and then convened that small group to do constructive critique. And the story I heard was that the Bishop went first! This is all that I recall, but perhaps someone on here from Saginaw knows more….

    1. @David Philippart – comment #3:
      David, I’m not from Saginaw, but your memory is correct. Bp. Untener wrote a book describing this, Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists (Paulist Press, 1999). I’d love to hear from someone in the diocese as to the people’s reaction to this or whether this program is still going on in the diocese.

  3. The idea of “strengthening the assembly’s listening skills” by involving them in the assessments is very interesting. I have not heard it before. I wonder how well it works, though: anything that involves the entire mass of people instead of just a few volunteers risks running into inertia. Does it really work?

    There is much about the process, which sounds very well thought out, but what about the skills themselves? “Work with individual preachers on homily improvement” sounds great, but what do those improvements consist of? Are there some examples? At what level do people work?

    All in all, it sounds very appealing. I love the idea of jointly training the priest to preach better and the assembly to listen better!

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