Podcast Episode 13 | 11 min
Asking for, seeking out, and receiving feedback that will help you grow as a preacher.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley, editor of PreachingToday.com, on Monday Morning Preacher. I’m here with our guest host, the always dynamic and insightful wonder kid of preaching, Kevin Miller.
Kevin Miller: And side-kick to the superhero of preaching, Matt Woodley.
MW: Well, I want to introduce another superhero. Not of preaching, but of football. Peyton Manning, who in his 17 seasons as a pro football quarterback threw for over 71,000 yards and also 539 touchdowns, he was also the MVP of the NFL five times. As we say in Minnesota, that’s not bad.
Over his career, Peyton Manning also did something else, a little known practice that was behind the scenes, and he probably exceled at this maybe more than any other NFL player. You want to guess what that was?
KM: Dumping Gatorade on the coach?
MW: That’s a good guess, but he actually never did that, I don’t think. He actually exceled at getting feedback, at looking at his game. He paid special attention to his interceptions, all 239 of them. So he would analyze that film backwards and forwards, get feedback on it, look at it. As one article from ESPN said, “Manning was willing to put himself under the microscope.”
KM: I think I see where today’s episode is going. Are we going to talk about putting our own preaching under the microscope?
MW: Absolutely. The painful art of getting feedback. So here is one of the things that every preacher needs on their top ten list: Get feedback. Figure out how to get it, figure out how to learn and grow from it to become a better preacher. The Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent in this matter, let people see that you are making progress.” So Kevin, why do you think it’s so hard for us as preachers to get good, honest feedback?
KM: Well, let me count some reasons. For me, on Sundays I’m still usually too fresh, the sermon’s a little too emotional and raw for me that I’m not ready for the feedback right away, and then beforehand I’m kind of feverishly working, trying to get the sermon finished. I also wonder who’s the best person to give me feedback on my sermon? How do I get somebody that I trust but who knows me, knows preaching, will take the time, will not say too much.
MW: I can relate to all of that. Another point is that as preachers we’ve delivered a sermonic baby, and we don’t want people coming up and going, “That baby was kind of ugly,” or “That baby’s nose is really big,” or whatever. It kind of hurts. Some of this has to do with us being overly sensitive, but some of it is we really put ourselves out there and we’re up there baring our souls and to be criticized can really hurt. So we’re going to talk today about how to get good, honest, clean, helpful feedback that will help us grow. I have three tips.
Tip number one is pre-sermon feedback best post-sermon feedback. In other words, start getting feedback before you preach your sermon.
KM: I love this point because when you get feedback after you preach, and I preach in a church with one service, it has limited value because I’m not going to preach that sermon again, maybe ever. But when I get the feedback ahead of time it really helps. I can give a recent example from my own preaching. Recently, I was working on part of Matthew 5 Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said but I say …” and he does that six times. I was struggling to see, is this sermon really going to go more in the relationships direction, or is it going to go more in the inner integrity as the unifying theme. I could see either one, and I was spinning my wheels so I finally asked for some pre-sermon feedback. I happened to have access that moment to my wife and our church secretary, and they both said go with the inner integrity angle, and I did and it saved me time and I really like how the sermon came together.
MW: That’s a great example. You know, I was preaching on the text where John the Baptist is in prison and he’s discouraged, and I didn’t want to offer cheap, shallow advice to people who were in the grip of depression or discouragement, so I reached out to a few people that have been through some really hard things, and I said, “Hey, this is what I’m going to say, here is basically a rough draft of my manuscript, what do you think? Does this resonate with you, does this sound shallow? Does this sound to really speak to your needs?” And I got some really helpful pre-sermon feedback. I decided, I’ve got to do this more often. So tip number one, pre-sermon feedback.
Tip number two is solicited feedback tops unsolicited feedback. As when good-hearted, or maybe bad-hearted people, come up and drop unhelpful little comments.
KM: I remember the guy who came up to me and pulled a card from his shirt pocket and said, “Here’s what I was thinking about during your message today,” and hands it to me. I was really flattered. I was thinking, Wow, he was so engaged and paying attention. Then as I read the card, I thought, Well, actually, no, he’s more suggesting the way I could have outlined and what I should have said. Every week for a couple of months he gave me a card just like it showing me that was the better way I could have preached this text.
MW: When I was pastoring out on the East coast for nine years, I was shocked as a Minnesota boy to get this level of intense, immediate feedback, and sometimes even anger about a point I had made in the sermon. That really blew me away, and I started to have to set some boundaries and say, “These people are going to have more access to giving me feedback than these people.” You’ve got to wait 24 hours before you actually give me feedback. So if it’s really important after that, write me an email. So I started to put some structure around that unsolicited feedback. You know, still, it’s hard though, Kevin. How do you go about soliciting the feedback from people that are going to be helpful and constructive?
KM: I tried intentionally to do that about eight to ten years ago. I created a short little form that was about the size of a three-by-five card and had a few—two or three—questions about the sermon, and before the service I would try to find two people who would agree to fill that out for me during the sermon and then give it to me afterward. I told them over and over, “Please be honest.” But I found that people in the congregation would not offer constructive criticism, because I think they felt it was too awkward. They wanted to affirm me as their pastor, but they didn’t want to tell me how I could grow. So even when I tried to solicit they felt awkward.
MW: You know, here’s maybe some advice on that. first of all, for the hurtful unsolicited feedback, Bill Hybels even said—we know he’s got the skin of a rhinoceros—, “I just don’t go to people who are going to be always negative because they’re just going to hit me like with an ax.” So we can set some limits on that. But then also with this kind of nicey-nice unwillingness to engage, maybe we need to press into that a little bit and ask, “Tell me why you think it was a good sermon and then tell me one thing I could have worked on, specifically, that would have made it more effective for you.” So ask that next level of questions.
KM: Okay, what’s your third tip today?
MW: So tip number three is trained feedback is better than untrained feedback. You know what I’m talking about here?
KM: Yeah, in fact when I was not able to get from people in pew the kind of feedback that I wanted, I started getting it from people in the church who actually have done preaching, either other pastors on the staff or people who have been to seminary or have taught adult Bible class or whatever. That was so much more helpful because, one, they know what it’s like to want constructive feedback, they know what it’s like to get good feedback, and they were helpful. They would go right to the issue in my sermon that needed to be cleaned up.
MW: You know, the whole thing that we’re looking at here is how do we grow as a preacher? We want to grow. So all of this feedback is designed to help us grow. I can think of a specific example in my preaching over the last few years. I developed what I would call a one-pitch approach to preaching. I think sometimes preaching has to come with a challenge, it has to sometimes rebuke, it has to warn. It’s always about the gospel. It’s always about the good news of Jesus, but how we need different approaches to get there. My approach seemed to be always geared towards grace and towards comfort. Not towards exposing sin. So some friends over the years said, “You know, you really have one pitch, it’s the same pitch over and over again.” So I had to grow and diversify my preaching to do what the Apostle Paul said: “Preach the whole counsel of God.”
KM: That’s a great example. I’ve had people give me feedback. I tried one Sunday to open my sermon with a survey: “How many of you here today would say this is true of you. Raise your hand. How many over here would said this is true of you, raise your hand.” I could tell people were super-engaged, and they were raising their hand, they were looking at me and I was thinking, That worked great. So then I tried it again a few weeks later, and then I tried it again a few weeks later. A couple of people were said, “Surveys work, but not as often as you’re using them. How about a little more variety?” That was good feedback. Another thing that people have told me is slow down in your transitions; you know where you’re going but we don’t, so like Andy Stanley says, “slow down going into the curves.”
MW: Those are great examples of good feedback. As preachers, we all have these areas where we need to grow, so we have not achieved preaching perfection. So I don’t know why we pretend we have. It is okay to solicit feedback, to get feedback, to get it before the sermon, to solicit it after the sermon, and to get it from people who really know what they’re talking about. So preachers, we encourage you: Get your feedback today. It may hurt for a little bit but in the end you’ll grow as a preacher and your people will be blessed.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).