When affirmation isn’t enough

Posted Jan 05, 2016 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Peter W. Marty

One can preach a lousy sermon and still receive the kindest greeting at the door. “Good
sermon, Pastor.” I know this line and the warm feeling that accompanies it from firsthand experience. I have preached my own fair share of sub par sermons in 30 years of ministry, and each time there have been a handful of lovely and affirming parishioners uttering these friendly words afterward. Their praise even comes with a smile. It feels good to collect such compliments, at least until I give more thought to what I have actually done, or not done, through the day’s sermon.

Affirmers mean well. So do preachers who share their best from the pulpit.  

But notice what these well-intended words at the exit door are missing. They are devoid of specificity. “Good sermon, Pastor” offers no incisive word on actual sermon content. The phrase is a kind expression of goodwill, or hopeful encouragement if the sermon is altogether dreadful, as the case may be.  

Either way, affirmation like this is always punctuated by broad praise, a feature that renders it particularly useless as feedback. Helpful feedback, in contrast to general praise, requires critical insight, in-depth analysis, and specific strategies for growing the recipient’s skill set or effectiveness. How and when that feedback gets delivered will determine whether a pastor takes the counsel seriously or not. But there is something else required for feedback to find a solid home in a pastor’s heart.

The pastor has to want feedback. She has to desire it and be eager for personal and professional growth. Without some longing in this regard, whatever well spoken words a parishioner, or set of parishioners, may offer will fall on deaf ears. If the pastor has an oversized ego, is notably insecure, or believes he is above critique – especially from “these people” – feedback loops will not make a dent in growing pastoral effectiveness. 

Cultivating humility, at least enough to be curious about and open to insights others might bring to one’s ministry, is basic pastoral work. It is a fundamental practice of good ministry – the groundwork necessary if one is even going to think about creating a personnel committee or staff support team to conduct annual performance reviews.

Did I just write the word performance? Yes, I did. Performance is a word that scares too many pastors, especially when placed alongside those other two words, annual review. Many clergy have little secular experience with job assessment, and even less familiarity with how to strength an organization’s internal structure. So, they frown upon the idea of requesting or receiving a performance review.

Here I can only remind my clergy colleagues of the value of enlarging personal perspective through the wisdom of people in the pew. As gifted as some pastors may be, none of us are above the need to strengthen our personal, emotional, and professional capacities. 

As called ministers of the Gospel, we are not above public accountability. In fact, we are responsible to the congregations we serve. They trust us to lead, and we trust them to help us lead. This trust ought to mean more than some desperate hankering for praise. Who else but thoughtful members of our congregations can help us look in the mirror and see where we’re failing to meet deadlines, missing out on visiting key people, fudging the truth in order to exaggerate different claims, miscalculating certain decisions, devoting our energies to the wrong priorities, or simply acting busier than we really are?

There is one more blessing associated with healthy feedback. Perceptive people who offer confidential feedback can often spot loneliness in a pastor, or imbalance between his work and play, or general fatigue that may be overwhelming her. These and other gifts are what we receive when we open ourselves to more than just the joy of hearing that predictably pleasant word in the receiving line – “Good sermon, pastor.”

Peter W. Marty is senior pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa. 

Join us for the “PEN Talk,” a free webinar, with Peter Marty on Thursday, January 21, 2016 at 2 pm (Eastern Time). To participate in the webinar: https://cpx.adobeconnect.com/pentalkjan2016/.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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