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My first-ever sermon feedback came from my wife on a Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, Iowa. She was sitting in the living room of our basement-level apartment, and I was standing near her, not ten feet away, proclaiming what would be my first sermon in front of a live audience – not made up of seminary students.
She gave me encouraging looks, but must have been thinking, “I hope this does not become a weekly ritual in our marriage.” (It didn’t.)
I received more direct feedback that year from the elder who was assigned to be my supervisor. He and I met in his office at the university on Monday mornings, and (I must say) he could be very blunt. He seemed to believe that I could improve, even when there was little supporting evidence.
After that first year as a student pastor, my sermon feedback became more haphazard. It usually consisted of comments at the door after worship as I was shaking hands. Those comments at the door, within minutes of giving my best effort, could sometimes be hard to hear. The most embarrassing one came when someone let me know that I had mispronounced the name of the lead singer for U2. (I have avoided most popular culture references ever since.)
Mostly I would stand at the door after worship and listen and smile. I was always determined to become a better preacher, whatever improvement in my case might mean. A better delivery? Yup. More substantive exegesis. Wouldn’t hurt. More colorful stories or illustrations? I worked at all of it. I have never worked as hard on anything in my life.
Early on, the really biting sermon criticism would arrive in the form of a handwritten note. (A typewritten letter would usually mean something even more serious.) What happened was that church members would hear something in my sermon they didn’t like, brood about it on Sunday afternoon, and then drop a note or letter in the mail on Monday. Those comments never reached me until Tuesday, at the earliest, and by then I was usually able to read without too much defensiveness. Okay, some defensiveness.
Email was not a welcome invention for me – nor, I imagine, for other preachers. Instead of going home and thinking about the comment or criticism or complaint, the church member could go home, sit down at the desktop, and let it rip. Sunday afternoons were never quite the same after email. Eventually I learned not to look at my email inbox until after I had finished the Sunday crossword puzzle.
Texting turned out to be even more of a blessing. I served several churches where the offering was received after the sermon, and those three to four minutes while the ushers moved around the sanctuary with their offering baskets turned out to be a perfect time to take out the phone and dash off a text message which would be waiting for me in my office after the service.
Fact checking worked in pretty much the same way. At the door, while shaking hands, I discovered more than once that someone had gone to Wikipedia to double check a date or some other fact I had mentioned. “I think that book you mentioned was published in 2005, not 2004, as you said in your sermon. Thought you would like to know,” said the church member who was holding the phone in front of me, with quite a satisfied look on his face.
After that one, I learned to be really good about getting all of my facts straight.
In the last church I served, in Zürich, Switzerland, a Dutch couple came to see me in my office one day. They wanted to talk about my preaching. I suppose I should have been flattered to think that at my age they thought I was still capable of improvement. When they were finished, I promised to think carefully about what they had said.
Before they left, they gave me a book as a gift. It was a book about preaching by Timothy Keller. With something like preaching, I told then, there is always more to learn, and then I thanked them for their thoughtfulness.
I still get comments about my preaching. Most of those comments are kind and thoughtful and generous. But I still occasionally get the other kind too. Not everyone has liked my preaching over the years, but through all the incorrect dates, embarrassing mispronunciations, and stories that didn’t quite connect, I hope a few people have heard the good news, the gospel, which is what made me want to get up and preach in the first place.
I will wait till Tuesday with my comments:)
Yup. Stood at the door many times. Opened those notes and letters often. Got those emails. My favorite at-the-narthex-door comment came from a former Communications professor of mine who was given to being rather florid. With great drama one Sunday morning after I had been at my congregation about 3 years this professor declared to me in a purposefully dramatic and over slow cadence, “Finally . . . You have learned . . . The art . . . Of the pregnant pause.”
My fave after-worship-back-of-the-church comment a colleague (Whew!) was in Dutch, “Dominie, that was a lovely sermon text this morning.”
Thanks for this insight into the inner life of a pastor! Many of us who are not on the inside never learn what you have to go through.
Interesting Journal thoughts. It brought back a memory of a conversation I had with one of my former pastors years ago. He said that he had weeks when he thought he had prepared an outstanding sermon. Great thoughts and Biblical references He was surprised and disappointed to not receive many comments after the service. Then there were those weeks, that, due to a funeral service and maybe a classis meeting and other obligations he just didn’t put together what he thought was his best. Yet after that service, or the following days, he would receive comments with sincere thanks for a message that spoke to someone’s spiritual and emotional needs. He said, those times reminded him that it was not him or his abilities but the Spirit working thru him.
Happened to me often too. I loved a given sermon but the congregation . . . it was OK. I despised a certain sermon because all week long it was like pulling teeth, I never thought it came together, and was only too happy to be delivered of the thing. And the congregation . . . loved it. That Holy Spirit: he’s got a sense of humor and many’a mysterious way!
My husband and I found this article exceptionally funny. It’s amazing what people do. The human race never ceases to amaze us; the cheek demonstrated by this type of feedback is just astounding!
It’s strange, isn’t it? When you are in the middle of it, it never seems near as hilarious as it does several years on. One of the benefits of age and experience I guess. Please do keep these articles coming. We enjoy them no end.
I am uncertain whether I ever gave you feedback on the sermon that you gave that has stuck with me all these years. It was in the ’90’s in Wheaton when I was probably juggling our two children in high school, my two ill parents and a series of jobs as I resumed my career. At one point I had four jobs, very part-time but all at once. The message was about what we would do with the rest of our lives. The scripture is lost to me. But the message that we are never settled with a final plan until we are done with this earthly life. You described meeting with people in their 80’s who were still struggling with that question. When I get overwhelmed, I remember that decade and that with God’s grace and the support of First Pres. Wheaton, which is still there for me, I made it through and will continue to do so even if I do not know what I am doing with the rest of my life. Thanks for the message that has sustained me so long.
My best sermon feedback was always my wife. Most critical and most loving.
I’ve learned from one of our pastors that simply saying good sermon doesn’t quite help the pastor know specifically what was appreciated. What specifically to you mean when saying good sermon? What was good about it? Now I try to also offer the what touched me the most, or how a specific personal pastoral experience helped me understand my walk through the world for the coming week.