By Ervin Stutzman
In the last issue of Equipping, I wrote about the challenges that pastors face when they wish to receive good feedback in ministry. I write this month’s column specifically for those who wish to give good feedback to pastors, such as deacons, elders, church council, or Pastor-Congregation Relations Committee. Since feedback is designed to help leaders learn and grow in ministry, I have assembled a list of criteria that characterize helpful feedback.
- Helpful feedback considers the needs and interests of the pastor. Feedback is most helpful when it “scratches” where the pastor “itches.” Pastors may be particularly interested in feedback regarding 1) new areas of ministry, 2) areas where they seldom get feedback, 3) areas where they are experiencing frustration, or 4) areas where they want to test new ideas. Consequently, pastoral review committees or supervisors will do well to ask pastors to suggest areas where they are looking for feedback.
- Helpful feedback is descriptive rather than evaluative. Feedback tends to be more helpful when it reflects the experience of the one giving feedback, rather than a judgment. It is more useful to say, “I was caught off guard when you brought up that issue in the meeting,” than to say “You should never bring up matters like that in meetings.”This provides the opportunity for the pastor to ask more questions about your response. In the process of the discussion, you might even ask: “I wonder if it might have been better to discuss the issue at another time, rather than at this particular meeting.” This response gives opportunity for the pastor to think reflectively, rather than defensively.
- Helpful feedback is specific rather than general. General feedback seldom leads to growth and change. “I liked your sermon” may be an encouragement to a pastor, but it will not likely help a pastor produce better sermons. More helpful feedback regarding a sermon might sound like the following:“Your opening illustration really caught my attention. I could identify with it.”“Your main ideas came through clearly. Having them projected on the screen helped me get them firmly in mind.”
“I had a little difficulty keeping up with you. By the time I found the scripture passage, you were moving on to another idea.”
- Helpful feedback is solicited. Sometimes, you may feel compelled to give unsolicited or unwelcome feedback to a pastor. If so, it could easily take the form of a confrontation. Even so, there are helpful ways to request an opportunity to share unsolicited feedback. For example, you might say: “I sense the need to speak to you about a difficult matter. When might be the best time for us to get together?” or “I have some perspectives to share with you regarding the way you handled the meeting last night. Would you be open to discuss that with me?”One of the best ways to encourage pastors to solicit feedback from others is to solicit feedback yourself. By inviting feedback from the pastor, you can model openness to growth and new insight. Pastors will tend to be much more open to receive feedback from others to whom they can also give feedback.
- Helpful feedback addresses itself to matters that the pastor can do something about. Feedback should focus on matters pastors can improve or change. Most pastors will respond defensively or become frustrated if they are given negative feedback regarding matters over which they have no control. Pastors cannot change their ancestry, their intelligence, their basic physical appearance, their family members, their predecessor or their past.Pastors can change their approach to ministry, their knowledge of a subject, their ministry skills, their choice of clothing or hair style, their relationship to family, and/or the way they deal with their past. However, before you offer unsolicited feedback to a pastor even in these areas, ask yourself: “How willing would I be to change in one of these areas?” If you would be reluctant to invite feedback on these areas for yourself, proceed with caution if you intend to offer it to others.
- Helpful feedback is well-timed. Good timing is important for good communication. The proverb says it well: “If anyone blesses a neighbor early in morning, it will be taken as a curse” (Proverbs 27:14 TNIV). There are times when it is best to withhold feedback merely because it is the wrong time. Pastors may be less open to feedback when 1) they’ve experienced a major loss, 2) they’re tired, 3) they’re experiencing marital or family stress, or 4) they’re feeling overwhelmed.Generally speaking, feedback regarding specific acts of ministry is best given at the first opportunity, when the situation is still fresh in the pastor’s mind. Commenting about someone’s action in a meeting a week or month later may not be as helpful as the day after.
- Helpful feedback is part of an established routine. While feedback might be helpful at any time, established routines can help to eliminate unpleasant surprises. Many congregations establish a routine for feedback by naming a review committee. This committee, whose members should be supportive of the pastor, can provide regular feedback for the pastor. They can work with the pastor and a supervisor in gathering and presenting feedback from the congregation. In some congregations, a board of elders can serve the role of a review committee.A review committee should be in communication with the pastor at least once a year to discuss the pastor’s work and offer feedback on selected acts of ministry. This could include preaching, pastoral counseling, cell group oversight, visitation, vision and goal setting, administration, and worship leadership.
- Helpful feedback is checked to insure clear communication. After giving feedback to a pastor, it is helpful to invite a response to make sure the feedback is understood as you intended it. You might ask questions such as: “Does that make sense to you?” “How does that strike you?” or “What did you hear me saying?” In essence, this is an invitation for feedback on the manner in which you have given feedback. Giving opportunity for dialogue maximizes the potential for mutual understanding and growth in ministry.
I hope that this list of criteria will provide an opportunity for pastors and other leaders to discuss the review process in their congregation. Next month, I intend to address this topic in more depth.