Evaluating Sunday's sermon

It’s difficult to get honest feedback. But it’s important to seek out constructive criticism about preaching and other aspects of leadership in order to improve, writes Nathan E. Kirkpatrick.

A few Sundays ago, I preached a sermon that wasn’t stellar. It wasn’t one of those sermons that are so bad you want to apologize to the congregation as you’re preaching. No, this sermon just wasn’t a home run. I knew it, and I could tell from looking at the people shifting in their seats that they knew it, too.

What was fascinating about that Sunday was what happened at the end of the service. As I stood at the back door, the beloved folks of that church, almost to a person, shuffled by and offered praise: “Nice sermon, preacher”; “Good message today”; or -- my favorite -- “I wish my neighbor had been here to hear that.”

Whether a sermon is good or not, most churchgoers are kind enough to say it was.

The problem comes when we who preach professionally take these comments to be more than they are. In my time as a parish pastor and a frequent guest preacher, I have learned that these comments are not meant to be evaluations. Rather, the Sunday morning praise is simply the conclusion of the preacher-congregation encounter; these comments are statements of gratitude for the gift of a sermon received, more manners than meaning.

This raises an important question: Where can we find an honest and constructive critique that will help us become more faithful, effective and engaging preachers? As a facilitator of the Institute of Preaching, which Duke University conducts with the United Methodist Church’s Florida Annual Conference, I’ve seen how difficult this can be.

Questions to consider:

  • When have you received helpful feedback in your professional life? Who offered it to you? In what context?
  • When have you received less-than-helpful feedback? What was the situation?
  • Who are the people within -- or outside -- your organization who can provide you with a peer review of your performance?
  • Apart from the formal processes of performance review, how might you indicate your willingness to receive constructive feedback?

A related question is broader but equally important: How in our professional lives can we receive the kind of evaluative feedback that will help us develop as leaders of congregations and institutions?

There are no obvious answers to these questions, and this, coupled with the vulnerability required to receive feedback, means that most of us are content never to receive it apart from formal (and somewhat awkward) processes put in place by congregational or denominational policies or institutional HR departments. As a result, most of us will find it difficult to improve our preaching -- and our professional practice more generally -- because it’s easier to do nothing than to try to figure out how to make it better.

This is sad. If we have the opportunity to offer words of hope to a hurting world and words of faith to doubting hearts, one would think that we would do whatever we could to improve -- if not for the sake of our calling, then for the sake of those who listen to us. Likewise, if our leadership can help build thriving communities that bear witness to God’s love for the world, one would think we would be willing to risk being vulnerable so that those we serve might benefit.

But how might we do that?

I have been struck by how two clergypersons (and friends) have worked to hone their preaching skills; from their example, I think we can draw some analogies about how we might receive helpful evaluative feedback about our leadership, too.

Both of them have been in ministry for more than a decade now and, between them, have served five different churches. Their stories remind me that improving as a preacher requires commitment and an investment of time and energy.

One of my friends has found peer review to be helpful. On Monday mornings, he meets with a colleague at a local coffee shop. They talk a bit about the Sunday before and exchange DVDs. Later in the week they meet for lunch and each one offers a review of the other’s sermon. They have even exchanged pulpits to get a firsthand glimpse of each other’s churches.

Part of what allows this frank evaluation to work is the fact that the two are not close friends. They are colleagues who see their primary responsibility as to a shared calling.

This friend’s witness says something to me about the importance of peer review. It is beneficial to hear the perspective of other practitioners, because they share similar experiences. In the case of my friend, both of them know the pressures of week-by-week writing and Sunday-by-Sunday preaching, and often they will have wrestled with the same texts in search of a word from God for God’s people.

Peers within an organization -- and peers outside of it -- can provide us with useful feedback, because they can empathize with what we are experiencing while offering alternative and creative ideas.

Another friend has taken a different approach. Instead of looking to colleagues, she has sought out members of her congregation. She selects four to six persons annually to serve as a review committee. Once a month, she sits down with them for constructive criticism.

There are several important factors that make this arrangement work. The pastor ensures that the rest of her congregation doesn’t know she meets with this group, so its members are free to express their own opinions and not feel obligated to speak for others. All meetings are confidential, allowing everyone to speak freely.

My friend’s experience reminds me that, in the right setting, the good folks who spend their Sunday mornings in the pews have a great deal of wisdom to offer to the preacher. Given the right opportunity, they don’t have to mind their manners, and their honest feedback can be welcomed. Repeatedly, my pastor friend has reminded these churchgoers that there will be no damage to their relationship for negative feedback and no benefit for only affirming her preaching.

There seems to be a helpful analogy here, too, for feedback on our leadership broadly imagined. Those we lead have opinions about how we are doing, some of which might affirm our actions, some of which might surprise us. If we can indicate that we are open to receiving their opinions, people are happy to offer them -- and all benefit.

Receiving this kind of feedback involves more than trusting the “Good sermon, preacher” at the back door of the church and its equivalent in the workplace. It takes time and energy, but it is worth it.

Through peer and congregational feedback, the clergypersons described say that they have found the courage to experiment in their preaching -- both in content and delivery style. They have had epiphanies about the messages that they didn’t mean to send but did and about the things that they tried to convey but didn’t. By making the effort, they have found their voices and have improved.

For each of us, whether preacher or CEO, the same is possible. We just have to create the space in which it can happen.