Twenty-three years ago, a conversation among three pastors planted the seeds for what was to become the most successful continuing education program of their careers, as well as that of many other pastors. It began in 1982, when these pastors met at a preaching seminar at Austin Presbyterian Seminary and developed a friendship. They enjoyed one another’s company and appreciated the seminar leader, Fred Craddock, so they agreed to participate in another Fred Craddock seminar the following year. During that next seminar, hosted by Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, the three ministers met several other pastors who shared their interest in participating in a disciplined, ongoing continuing education seminar focusing on homiletics. I was one of them. One evening, the group—now consisting of eight pastors—began to talk about the possibility of forming the “perfect” continuing education experience. We fantasized about what it might look like: “It would be limited to those who are preaching on a regular basis and are willing to do serious preparation,” one pastor suggested. “We would choose our own visiting scholar, as well as the subject matter,” another added. Several others expressed a desire for an event that would move about the country.
Since we were meeting at Louisville Seminary, we sought out the seminary’s director of continuing education to get some feedback on the feasibility of our idea. Craig Dykstra, who held the position at the time, assisted us in shaping our dream into a reality; he gave us permission to hold meetings at the seminary, at the same time allowing us to retain the right to determine who could participate. (We wanted to include only those pastors whose passion for improving their preaching and willingness to do the work necessary to prepare for meetings were as high as our own.) Soon after getting the green light from Dykstra, we formulated a plan to gather again at Louisville Seminary and to invite Tom Long, then professor of homiletics at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, to be our presenting scholar. In addition, we agreed to recruit other participants. It wasn’t long before we had expanded our group to include four other pastors who shared our commitment to the study of homiletics. So it was that in 1984, 12 ministers assembled in Louisville and The Moveable Feast was born. Since then the group has grown to include 25 Presbyterian pastors from across the country, the youngest in her thirties and the oldest in his sixties. At present, group members serve churches in 15 states, and three are presidents of Presbyterian seminaries.
Unquestionably, this group has been the most significant continuing education program of my career. One can’t help but become a better preacher in this environment.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of The Moveable Feast is the opportunity it provides to be with some of the finest biblical scholars in the nation. Since the group began its work, it has been assisted by an impressive array of topnotch scholars, including Walter Brueggemann, Gail O’Day, Fred Craddock, Daniel Patte, John McClure, David Buttrick, Beverly Gaventa, Luke Timothy Johnson, Tom Long, Patrick Miller, James Sanders, Clifton Black, Beth Johnson, David Bartlett, and Dennis Olsen. In fact, the group’s reputation is such that some scholars have sought an invitation to participate in our gatherings. More typical forms of continuing education simply do not offer the same access to such luminaries.
But the scholarship of The Moveable Feast doesn’t end there. That of the participants is also of great significance. Each participant arrives at the meeting with papers on two different selections from the lectionary, so each of us comes away with 35 to 40 well-researched papers. The value of having this sort of scholarship at one’s fingertips when preparing sermons cannot be overstated.
The most intangible yet one of the most significant benefits of The Moveable Feast is the community it has become. To have an opportunity to participate in a group in which all members are committed to improving their own preaching and to doing the advance work necessary to be of the greatest possible assistance and support to other members is truly an honor and a gift. Here, we communicate with one another in an honest yet supportive manner. We have come to know, trust, and love one another through our participation in this unique gathering, and our congregations have benefited from our combined work. For me, this community has become church in a very real sense.
Planning the Event
Here’s how it works: Every year we hold a business meeting where we determine the topics, speakers, and locations for future meetings. These decisions are established by vote and are made three to four years in advance because both facilities and scholars tend to be booked far into the future. The scholars we select are typically people who are deeply committed to the church and have a passion for preaching. Since many of these individuals are professors at seminaries or other institutions of higher learning, we purposely hold our meetings in early January, when many schools are still on their winter break. Nevertheless, we typically decide on one or two alternates to prevent the need to reconvene the group for another discussion and vote should our first-choice scholar be unavailable.
Once the topic, scholar, and location for a meeting have been decided, one group member agrees to contact the speaker, another offers to make the logistical arrangements, and a third agrees to lead worship at the meeting. The Revised Common Lectionary is central to the group’s work, so another member will volunteer to make the text assignments. Each participant then agrees to prepare a five- to ten-page paper on each of the two lectionary selections he or she is assigned.
Our papers contain exegetical material and suggestions of homiletical trajectories. Instead of choosing from among the lections for the assigned Sundays, we focus on texts suggested by the visiting scholar. If, for example, the scholar’s field is Old Testament, we write papers on Old Testament lections.
Our meetings always span five days in January, but the site of the meeting changes from year to year. In addition to Louisville Seminary, the group has met at a state park outside of Nashville; at Princeton Seminary; at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia; at the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C.; at a church camp in Memphis; at Holmes Retreat Center in New York; at The Michigan League on the campus of the University of Michigan; at Stoney Point Retreat Center in New York; at San Damiano Retreat Center in San Francisco; and at Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe. Once a site has been selected and the necessary arrangements have been made to secure meeting space, members are notified. They are then responsible for the cost of their own travel and accommodations. Each of us also pays an annual fee of $150 to underwrite the honorarium and expenses of the visiting scholar.
At the meeting, we begin each day with morning prayer. This is led by the individual who assumed responsibility for developing the liturgies for the meeting. Over the years, our emphasis on the worship element of these gatherings has grown, becoming a richer and richer part of our experience together. Later, we gather to hear the presentation of papers. Our visiting scholar presents first, typically for about 30 minutes. We then hear papers from group members. Thirty minutes is set aside for the presentation and discussion of each paper. The visiting scholar and members of the group then engage in a lively discussion about the paper. In order to accommodate the volume of papers to be presented, the group works from Monday morning through Friday noon and sometimes one or two nights as well. Each participant leaves the event with a copy of each of the papers presented, along with notes from our discussions.
Of Friendship and Commitment
We’re not all work and no play, however. Just as we have devoted more time and focus to worship as the years have progressed, so too have we recognized the importance of having a social component to our meetings. Taking the time to relax and enjoy dinner out with one another helps solidify our friendships and provides a much-needed balance to our hard work of the day. Therefore, when we look for meeting space, we have become careful to select a location that offers convenient access to restaurants.
As you might imagine, there is a waiting list for participation in The Moveable Feast. Despite our openness to the idea of including new members, it is impossible to accommodate more than 25 participants per year given the length of the papers and presentations, so the group serves best as a model for a novel continuing education program rather than as a direct opportunity for participation. Exactly how one would go about putting such a group together would depend on the vision, personality, location, and contacts of the founder(s). However, the experience of a spin-off group to The Moveable Feast may provide some insight into possible sources of funding or other support. During that group’s first two years of existence it was supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment. In its third and fourth years it was partially funded by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People of Faith. By its fifth year it was well-established and had become self-supporting, with each member contributing an amount commensurate with his or her resources.
For those interested in creating a similar community of learning and support, I cannot recommend this format highly enough. The Moveable Feast is the most productive and helpful continuing education program in which I have been involved, and my colleagues from this community say the same is true for them. To have annually participated for more than two decades in a context where everyone has the same dedication to learning has had a profound and lasting impact on my ministry, my preaching, my congregation, and my life. I wish the same for all my clergy colleagues.
Questions for Reflection
If you have had a difficult time finding continuing education events that “scratch” precisely where you are itching intellectually and spiritually,seek dialogue with others who share your commitment to spiritual and intellectual growth,and can think of a few scholars with whom you would like to study,a continuing education program modeled after The Moveable Feast may be what would best serve you.To begin to formulate a more specific plan for your own Moveable Feast,consider these questions:
If some of the same names appear in your answers to numbers 2,4,and 5,give those individuals a call and start a conversation about the possibility of developing your own group continuing education event