Many of the readers and participants here will be preaching today. Those who hear will be reacting in some way to the sermon and some reactions will come in the way of visible or audible feedback.
So, pastor/preacher, how do you handle feedback on your preaching?
A faithful layman, with some degree of sensitivity, approached his pastor about his preaching. The problem wasn’t the content of the sermon. The pastor was not plagiarizing the work of others. There was no perceived lack of preparation. It had to do with sermon delivery. The pastor had settled into a pattern of loud, angry sermons that seemed to this layman to be inappropriate and even harmful to the pastor’s ministry and the church’s general spiritual health. Some members were leaving the church as a result. Other members would leave after Sunday School, skipping pastor’s regular forty-five minute incendiary tirade.
The layman (and this is an actual situation but representative of many) thought it important enough to initiate a private conversaion. He found that the pastor was aware that some members were attending Sunday School and then leaving before the worship service but was not aware of the cause. I’ll share the result of the meeting below.
All of us who pastor and preach have experiences with feedback from members. Most of us receive routine feedback as we greet people leaving the service. These polite, routine (“Good job, preacher”) words are welcome but seldom helpful. Occasionally, these brief, instant feedback sessions indicate something more serious. In such cases the perceptive pastor will make a mental note to contact the member during the week.
Twice in thirty years I had members leave me notes, once on my office door and once on the pastorium door. One was an anonymous scribble, a single word, “Yell!” The other was a longer, signed note that said, essentially, that my sermon stunk that Sunday. I had productive and mutually beneficial conversations with both of these post-sermon note-writers.
We may not desire feedback on our preaching but we will receive it. Seems to me, there are several options on handling sermon feedback:
1. You can ignore it completely.
After all, you are the Man of God, Called to Preach, Proclaiming the Word. Why should you listen to critics? Perhaps the pastor who takes this haughty high road might reconsider and listen. Such might prove helpful.
Maybe you aren’t aware of some of your mannerisms. I once invited a man to preach who had the maddeningly annoying habit of clucking throughout his sermons. He would say a few words and then make a clucking sound with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. A few more words, another cluck. Did he learn to preach in a chicken coop?
Another preacher would get cranked up into his message and would accumulate a bit of white spittle in the corners of his mouth. Most everyone could see it and it distracted from his message. People left thinking, “Yuck, give the brother a hankerchief” rather than pondering his message.
I asked the clucker, a younger man, if he was aware of his habit but got the sense that my feedback wasn’t appreciated. Last I heard, he was still clucking away. I didn’t approach Rev. Spittle, an older man and much my homiletical superior.
The wise pastor will listen, not ignore.
2. You can listen to it selectively.
It’s almost reflexive for pastors to accept positive feedback but screen out negative feedback. Surely, we all need a few folks that pat us on the back, tell us that we are doing a good job, that our preaching is enjoyable and helpful. My experience is that being affirmed is helpful but most of these compliments have little value. A preacher whose style or delivery alienates most of his hearers might hang his hat on the two or three who appreciate his style. If we take the validation from the few and ignore the many, we may well miss something God is trying to show us.
Take the feedback and sift it for those tidbits, positive and negative, that might be helpful.
3. You can react indignantly and negatively.
Is preaching is so fundamental to our work as pastors that we consider any criticism to be an attack on our essential manhood?
I once had a man criticize my preaching in a rather direct way. He was quite plain that he considered expository and/or textual preaching to be uninteresting and not relevant to him, though he didn’t use those exact terms. My reply was kind but pointed, “I’d be interested in what you would like to hear me preach but I must preach what I feel God leads me to preach.” Most feedback is short of this extreme.
Sometimes pastors who have been criticized use the pulpit to address indirect or anonymous critics, “I hear some of you don’t like my preaching….” That is probably unwise, although the kind, insightful pastor can find a proper way to help his congregation understand his approach to preaching. Perhaps he is not being understood or is unclear, perhaps uses vocabulary not understood by most of the congregation. Honest criticism, even if we think it not valid, should be received with kindness.
An older lady would on occasion speak to me after a sermon and say, “Preacher, that was deep…deep.” She was too kind to say what she really meant, “Preacher, I had no idea what you were preaching about” but in time I came to understand the polite euphemisms she was using and considered them to be useful feedback.
Perhaps there is a story behind a harsh critic and that the criticism actually has little to do with you personally or your preaching. Be patient, listen well, cultivate a relationship and you may find it. Blow up or be blithely dismissive and you surely will not.
4. You can listen profitably.
It’s the height of hubris for the pastor who may have preached under 100 sermons to consider himself to have arrived at the point where he doesn’t need or cannot benefit from feedback. Bump that number up to 500, 1000 and still find hubris.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers used the number 10,000 hours as the amount of time it takes to achieve mastery in a given field. That amount of time might translate to five or ten years of regular preaching. I admit to lacking mastery after 30 years, but I was a lot closer in the latter years than in the former. Finding a comfortable style of delivery took years.
Sometimes God gives us others to help in this area. Most of us would be able to discern honest, helpful, affirming feedback from cheap criticism. The latter may hurt but we can calibrate both our ears and emotions to be more receptive to the former. Many pastors ask a trusted and knowledgeable layperson to share regular feedback on his preaching. Such takes a modicum of self-confidence, since the pastor is asking for criticism but I see many wise colleagues encouraging this.
Preaching to the same bunch Sunday after Sunday is a tough job. It will be made easier by listening as closely to the Lord as we can as well as understanding that sometimes God speaks to us through those non-seminary educated, non-ordained, non-clergy laypeople whom He has put in our charge as pastor. The old standby axiom holds true almost always: If your congregation knows that you love them, they will put up with most anything, even shabby preaching. That doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of praying, preparing, praying some more, and delivering a message from God as best we can, but it does give us space to learn and grow in serving Him and the church as a pastor.
And the angry pastor above? He seemed receptive to his concerned deacon sharing some feedback about his preaching. But, after a couple of conversations not only did the deacon not notice any change but he learned from others that the pastor had dismissed his concerns out-of-hand and justified it because he had received a preaching award in seminary and had few supporters who liked his style. Critics, the pastor seemed to conclude, just didn’t recognize good preaching when they heard it.
Preaching is a tough job. We need all the help we can get and sometimes those to whom we preach are the best helpers.
Preach the Word today…and keep your ears pricked for valuable feedback. God bless you in your task.