The Friday Finish for the Feedback Fiesta

Since we’ve been thinking feedback all week, why not finish the week with one more post?  We’ve thought about questions to ask others, we’ve pondered the value of feedback others offer unasked, and we’ve thought about some key ingredients in the unrequested feedback of greater significance.  The week can’t end without a couple more nudges that I’ve made before.  You can improve your preaching by engaging in your own feedback too!

1. Prayerful Evaluation. Ask God what He thought of your message.  Process in His presence.  He cares more about your preaching than you do, and I’m sure He’d be glad to be your main preaching coach.  We can be so quick to pray about a sermon before we preach it, but say almost nothing afterwards.  Almost as if we want God’s help to do our thing well.  What about saying thank you?  What about asking Him what was going on in your own heart?  What about asking Him to nudge you in better directions?  What about processing the feedback received in His presence?

2. Audio Evaluation. I tend to listen through my messages as I prepare them for the archive.  I get to spot the bits that didn’t come across so clearly, or the moments when pause could have been better used, or the moments when my description was lacking in colour, or whatever.  It is worth listening to yourself because you are the only person who knows what you were planning to say after all the study and preparation.

3. Video Evaluation. I mention this periodically, but it’s worth the nudge.  If you watch yourself preach on video, it will improve your preaching.  Don’t need to do it every week.  But now and then.  You will spot things nobody has yet had the guts to mention to you!  You will realize that you are actually looking at your notes 72% of the time.  You will spot that you aren’t smiling as much as you think you are.  You will see some very effective gesturing (as well as some backward gestures).  You will be glad you did it.  Promise.

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Genuinely Realistic Worthwhile Feedback

After a couple of days of essentially suggesting we shouldn’t put too much stock in feedback that comes over a handshake, I want to suggest that there are some really helpful bits of input that can come without us requesting it.  Just as we need to learn to discern the generally worthless, let’s also grow in our sensitivity to the genuine and worthwhile input.  Several ingredients tend to go into helpful input:

1. Time. When someone speaks to you about a message and there is time involved, then you should put more stock in the feedback.  The time might be delay before speaking to you.  “The message you preached two weeks ago has really been on my heart…” keep listening and see what you can learn from this interaction.  “The message you preached last year on X really changed my life, here’s how…” keep listening and thank the Lord for genuine encouragement.

Or the time ingredient may be the length of conversation.  Even though it happens right after church, if someone wants to talk for a few minutes about the message, then perhaps they aren’t just being polite.  They may be socially uncomfortable and struggling to get away from you, but hopefully you are socially aware enough to discern the difference.  If there is time in a conversation, then generally that means there is something beyond the polite being said.  This could be encouraging/affirming, or it could be constructive/helpful – be alert, welcoming and responsive to both.

2. Thought.  If someone has put thought into what they are saying, then you should put more thought into processing it.  A from the hip comment may speak more truth than it knows, but often it can pass us by without  anything being lost.  But a thoughtful comment, an interaction about the message that has been thought through, this is the stuff of potential when it comes to getting constructive feedback.  Without straying into the pursuit of praise, you can probe with a question or two when someone is obviously and genuinely thinking about a message.  “What was it that stood out to you?” or “What would you say was the main point of that message?”  These aren’t questions to ask all, but they may be helpful with some.

3. Insight. Sometimes somebody can make a very brief, yet very insightful comment.  If you sense a rabbi, a jedi knight, or a wise sage has just said something, be sure to lock the thought away for further pensive perusal.  Not every quick comment should be quickly dismissed.  Sometimes the value of these comments only come out through prayer and meditation.

May God give us the wisdom to discern the difference between most comments and helpful comments, and may He give us the courage and humility to take onboard that which is helpful in all.

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Generally Relatively Worthless Feedback – Part 2

Yesterday I began this post on the less constructive kind of feedback we will get week in and week out (and without our requesting it).  The post-meeting handshake feedback tends to border on the meaningless as far as constructive input is concerned (although massively meaningful in terms of relationships, which are worth much more than your pursuit of improvement).

We thought about the polite comment, and suggested that you don’t build a sense of the great importance of your ministry on this kind of comment (remember, there were millions of people who chose not to be there to hear you, and some who were probably chose to mentally join the millions!)

We thought about the extreme comment, noting that either extreme praise or extreme attack tend not to be the most constructive help as you seek to improve your preaching!  Two more:

3. The no comment. These are hard to read too.  Is the person saying nothing or avoiding you because they are deeply challenged and convicted, or because they are livid (with good reason or otherwise), or because they aren’t sure how to do the polite thing since you were so offensive, or because they need time to process more deeply, or because they are socially uncomfortable.  Some of these could be really helpful sources of feedback, but you may not even realize the connection wasn’t made.

4. The misunderstandable comment.That was so deep!” should be interpreted as “that was completely over my head.”  The “thanks for your hard work preparing” might mean “shame it came across without evidence that you’d really mastered or been mastered by the text.”  “You certainly put a new spin on things!” could well mean “I don’t know of any good Bible scholar, church leader or theologian who would quite see it that way,” or even “if I weren’t so gracious I’d declare you a heretic, have you thought of starting your own cult?”  And I shouldn’t miss this one: “What a feast of Scripture!” could well mean, “that felt like an accidental explosion in a concordance factory, my goodness, I couldn’t keep up with your obsessive compulsive cross-referencing!” Be careful you don’t misunderstand the thoroughly misunderstandable comments that may be some of your most insightful feedback!

After preaching we tend to be vulnerable and perhaps not in the best place to carefully process the feedback that comes our way.  It is good to pray through everything people say and ask God to help us discern what is helpful, what is simply politeness in action, and what is from the enemy.  But if we want constructive feedback, that usually takes an effort on our part.  Having said that, tomorrow I will consider one other channel of feedback that generally is more helpful than what I have described in these posts!

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Generally Relatively Worthless Feedback

Yesterday I listed some questions we might use to pursue meaningful and constructive feedback on our preaching.  In most walks of life a combination of feedback, objectively measured results and supervisor evaluations are the norm.  Preaching is one of the few avenues in which helpful feedback is an optional luxury (athough many may be giving great feedback, just not to you; and the results are objectively measurable; albeit not entirely in the present; and the greatest of all supervisor evaluations is coming for us all).  But there is a cheap shortcut to getting feedback, and it is generally worthless.

Post-meeting handshake feedback is part of the package of ministry.  Tempting as it may be to hide in a study and pray, you have to interact with folks in case the odd one here and there actually wants to talk and there might be a deeply meaningful conversation.  That said, the majority of what comes with a handshake should be graciously accepted, without any delusions of having really received feedback on your preaching.

I think there are several categories worth pondering:

1. The polite comment. If someone gives you a cake, you say thank you.  If someone give you a ride, you say thank you.  If someone does anything for you, you say thank you.  If someone preaches a sermon for you, you say thank you.  And, since you are shaking hands at the time, you probably add another comment too since human interaction seems to require it.  Perhaps “thank you for the message,” or “thank you for preaching,” or “really appreciate you coming,” or “that’s given us a lot to think about,” etc.  I’m convinced there are some preachers who have built a lifetime’s ministry on this category of feedback without ever realizing that it is bordering on meaningless as far as constructive value is concerned.  People don’t tend to say, “thanks for preaching, your second point was unclear and I found your repetitive sword fighting gesture a bit distracting.”  You have to pursue that kind of helpful feedback.

2. The extreme comment. Some people are just polite.  Let’s face it, some people are just rude.  Or socially uncomfortable in the other direction.  They don’t know how to turn on the tap and get an appropriate flow of gratitude or critique.  Instead they always give a firehose blast and you aren’t helped much either way – “that was the worst thing I ever heard” or “that was the best message I ever heard” are both a bit hard to process.

Tomorrow I will add a couple more to finish this list.  Hopefully we can see that there is a world of difference between handshake comments and sought-after, permission-given, constructively thought through feedback.

Feedback Questions

Peter, who comments on the site frequently, asked what questions to use when requesting feedback on his preaching.

The challenge with getting feedback from others is that typically they are not trained in homiletics.  Let me be clear, this is both a positive and a negative.  But as far as pursuing feedback is concerned, you need to ask clear and answerable questions.  Complicated feedback forms are the staple diet of homiletics profs, but simple questions are worth their weight in gold.

Question 1 – Given that every oral communication situation demands an inherent unity of the presenter, did the speaker effectively engage with the single proposition of the text once the text is distilled using good hermeneutical principles? Ok, just joking.  This is a horrible question.  Long, hard to decipher, actually only requires a single word answer, yet at the same time touches on several elements of preaching.  Let’s try again:

Engaging?  Did the preacher make you want to listen?  How? – This is often the missing question on feedback forms I have seen.  It is possible to be biblically faithful, organizationally clear and personally relevant, yet to be completely unengaging.

Biblically sound?  Did you have the feeling that the preacher handled the Bible passage properly? – Might seem strange to use the word “feel” in a question on biblical accuracy, but for most listeners, that’s all they have to go by!

Clear?  Was the message easy to follow?  Why? – This points the listener to issues of organizational clarity, as well as allowing for comments on vocal clarity, and whether they knew where you were in the text.

Interesting?  Did the passage and the message feel interesting to you? – It is a sin to bore people with the Bible, so you might as well find out if you did or not!

Connecting or Distracting?  Did the preacher’s delivery help you connect or was it distracting?  How? – You need to give people permission to tell you that you keep picking your ear, or moving like a robot, or shuffling your feet, etc.  Furthermore you may think that your eye contact is great, but they may tell you that you’re always looking at your notes!

You may find that you need to add prompts for each question (i.e. for the last one you could add – eye contact, gestures, movement, distracting habits, etc.)  But then you are heading toward one of those complicated forms that only preaching teachers can really fill in!

And if you want the most challenging feedback of all?  Add this question:

Please write down the main idea of the message…

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Practice Makes . . . ?

The old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”  Maybe.  Practice can also ingrain bad habits.  I think it was Howard Hendricks who said that “evaluated practice makes perfect” (inexact quote, please comment to correct wording and source!)  I want to offer a suggestion for “evaluated practice” that can really help.  First the obvious sources of feedback, then the more obvious one.

Obvious sources of feedback – While you may not have pursued it diligently, you’ve probably considered asking listeners for feedback on your preaching.  Perhaps you’ve handed out evaluation sheets to a select few, or perhaps you’ve asked for feedback on a specific issue of content, clarity or delivery.  Perhaps you’ve sent your mp3 to another preacher or trusted friend for critique.  Perhaps you’ve gone so far as to form a preaching team that includes non-preachers, creative communicators, etc., to evaluate and feed into your church’s preaching.

The more obvious source of feedback – Perhaps this is so obvious, but it’s worth a mention.  Feedback as a form of evaluation is something you can also do for yourself.  Don’t just do this yourself and avoid the input of others, but don’t miss this either.  After preaching, why not carve out some time to prayerfully evaluate the message.  What went well?  How did the time slip away in the middle section?  Which transition felt clunky?  When did attention drop?  If possible, sometimes listen to the message and ask the same questions, plus, How much variation is there in vocal punch, pitch, pace and pause?  Now and then get a video of yourself and also watch for eye contact, gestures, expressions, movement, etc.  Whatever you do, whether it is thinking back over the message, listening to it, or watching it, be sure to make some notes.  Perhaps have a journal of sermon evaluation.  That journal will offer nudges in the right direction, and great encouragement when problem areas become strengths in time.

After all, evaluated practice makes perfect . . . or realistically, evaluated practice makes better.

Non-Sermon Specific Feedback

It is healthy and helpful to get feedback on your preaching.  Sometimes you might pursue this by asking several people to fill out an evaluation of a sermon preached.  Perhaps you ask for specific feedback on handling of the text, or aspects of delivery that you are working on, etc.  Another approach is to form a group for feedback and have someone lead the group as they discuss the message and the preaching together.  Other times it is very effective to watch yourself on video (and see the things people don’t want to mention to you).  But here’s another approach to add to the feedback quiver.

It may be helpful to ask a handful of people for their reflections on your preaching in general.  Perhaps do this after not preaching for a week or two (if you never get a Sunday off, pray about whether that is healthy for you or the church).  Ask people to give their general impression of your preaching.  You could ask specific questions in respect to handling the text, communicating clearly, relevance of the messages, etc. Or you could simply ask for a one or two sentence description of your preaching ministry, along with your top two or three strengths and two or three areas to focus on for improvement.  It might be interesting to see what people say – especially if there is overlap between the comments made.

Sometimes we get feedback on a specific sermon and “preach out of our skin” on that Sunday.  Now and then it might prove helpful to get a more general impression from some listeners.

Disturbing Feedback

Yesterday I made a passing comment about “disturbing feedback.”  Let me begin with yesterday’s example and then add some more.  They tend to speak for themselves.  Don’t be too encouraged when you hear these kinds of comments after your preaching:

“Ooo, I never would have seen that in that passage!”

“As ever, such a rich message.  I mean, real steak that, really rich.” (This could be good feedback, but it depends on whether they could chew the steak or not!)

“I’m amazed at the long words you know.”

“I can’t wait to come back next Sunday, I need more Bible in my life!”

“I really enjoyed that story you told about the German sailor in the storm during the war, I’ll never forget that illustration!”

“If only I had gone to seminary, then I’d be able to be as clever as you!”

“Don’t worry about finishing fifteen minutes late, the nursery workers said the kids were really burning up some energy in there!”

“If I knew my Bible like you do, then I wouldn’t need to keep going to the table of contents every thirty seconds to find the passages you were quoting!”

“Phew!  I’m out of breath!  What a journey through the whole Bible you took us on today!”

“You’re right, we do need to try harder to live better.”

“You tell ‘em, preacher, they really need to hear that!”

“I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what Paul meant in that passage, will we?”

“I like Jesus, shame he’s not around today to fix all our problems!”

“I’m with you, let’s be as good as we can and then we’ll all get to heaven!”

And how about this one, simply because I have to stop somewhere:

“I loved that quote – ‘By all means preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.’ – fantastic!  Now I know I don’t need to ever say anything, just live well.  Thanks!”

What would you add?  Not necessarily from personal experience, although if you have any . . .

The Ache of Preaching

I recently ended a post with a quote from William Willimon, in which he states, “On any Sunday you can give it your all and still know that the Word deserves more.”  How true that is!  In my experience, the majority of preachers, the majority of the time, do not feel great after they have finished preaching.  Sometimes a sermon may leave us energized and excited.  Yet so often we feel vulnerable, weak, drained, even regretful.

The post-sermon interactions with folks are complex.  Some people have used the analogy of giving birth in reference to preaching (to which I quickly add that a shorter gestation, a shorter delivery, and the fact that it is not the same experience at all does slightly undermine the analogy – it’s too easy to minimize what some people go through in this kind of analogy!  My wife deserves much more credit for her birth-work than I do for mine!)

Perhaps we could pull in another analogy and then reduce it appropriately?  Think of a time of emotional trauma – a car accident, a death, a major moment in life (the verdict of a judge, the pronouncement of pass or fail in a major examination), etc.  In the time after a major emotional event, there is that time when things aren’t quite real, when words people say don’t register properly, when the slightest thing can mean too much.  Now reduce that life-sized grief, tension, emotion…reduce that down to the weekly experience that is preaching.  Post-sermon interactions with folk are complex.

Post-sermon emotions are complex.  Swirling feelings of failure, of inadequacy in representing such an awesome God, of having fallen short of really teaching that passage as it deserves.  This swirl of emotions is not the time to evaluate in detail, to make decisions regarding the future, or over-react to a small thing that, at least in that moment, means too much.

Cling on to the Lord’s hand, make a few notes, get through the turmoil time and then evaluate the comments, feedback, etc. on Tuesday morning.  You’ll probably be thinking clearly and reacting appropriately by then!

Favorable, Yet Flawed Feedback

I’ve mentioned before that it is not wise to evaluate your preaching by the polite pleasantries passed at the shaking of hands after preaching.  Now I’m reading an engaging and enjoyable book that I will review in due course, but it suggests several reasons for positive feedback in the post-sermon pleasantries that are worth taking into account:

1. Hopefully this doesn’t apply in your church, but many people are actually positive about poor preaching because they haven’t heard any better.

2. Certainly most Christians are relatively polite and pleasant.  Much post-sermon feedback is church culture speaking.

3. Christian listeners appreciate the character of their preachers, even if they are grossly lacking in competence.  That is to say, your preaching may be poor, but you care for their family, buried their grandfather, etc.

4. Most Christians are listening to sermons to have their own spiritual distinctives reinforced.  This writer calls this the reinforcement bells.  If a preacher rings the right bells, which they typically will since people choose the church that suits them, then they will feel “pats on the souls back.”

This is a helpful list.  I am looking forward to telling you more about the book, but I want to get further into it first.  (If you feel bad that I have not cited my source in this post, just ask and I will let you know – once I am back from my vacation/holiday! . . . or wait and the review will soon arrive!)