Feedback Strategies of an Emerging Young Preacher

This is Part 3 in the “Emerging Young Preacher” series. Click here (LINK) for Part 1 and here (LINK) for Part 2.

Emerging Young Preachers (EYPs) have unique needs and advantages in the feedback process. The early years of preaching development include a lot of adjustment and we change our approach to preparation and delivery, much more than those who have 15+ years of experience. EYPs should seek feedback with far more frequency and implementation than an old pro. If we don’t, we’re liable to get stuck in our own heads, abandoning our more promising approaches to preaching, or failing to avoid the approaches that might lead us to less effective preaching.

We’ve taken a look at the identity temptations (LINK) and also at the unique opportunities (LINK) of the early years of preaching development. Now let’s look at the feedback strategies we can use as EYPs:

FEEDBACK STRATEGIES

Smell the praise perfume but don’t drink it.

Jim Watkins once told me, “Praise is like perfume, you can smell it, but don’t drink it.” EYPs will get some encouraging words—often people are trying to “encourage us” beyond the impact they receive from the message. Because of this—we must be careful not to fully ingest the perfume. Sometimes we need the encouragement, yes, but we can’t let it get to our heads. One of the ways I do this is to store praise sent to me all in one box in my office. I don’t re-read these when I get them, but instead save them for that “blue Monday” when I feel horrible about my preaching—and I smell the perfume a bit and get back on the horse.

Ask for feedback

“We have not because we ask not.” No one will give you helpful feedback on your sermon unasked (and if they do then perhaps they aren’t the ones you want feedback from!). We get the feedback we ask for. Our potential “feedbackers” trust that we are getting advice somewhere else—but they notice we are not improving and begin to wonder. Here are two systemic ways to get feedback:

1) Routine – Some EYPs develop a weekly cycle of feedback from a few trusted individuals. Whether a spouse, a teaching team, or a wise advisor, the key to this kind of feedback is to ask people for a sustainable system of feedback.

2) Intense – Some EYPs sense that in certain seasons they need to work on one part of their preaching—or that they need to grow up quick in all areas intensely. This is a big ask, so you have to be clear on who you’re asking to give feedback.

Implement the feedback

We often get feedback without implementing it. I might get feedback that I jingled my keys in my pocket in a distracting way 21 times in a sermon, but then the next time I preach I end up doing it 22 times. I might hear that my altar call seems manipulative—but then I continue to use the same tricks every week. I could be told I’m mispronouncing Melchizedek and then I still mess it up for the entire series on Hebrews. This is emotionally defeating for the feedbacker. Asking for advice I won’t follow is like asking for a prescription from the doctor and never going to the pharmacy to get it filled.

Feedback on the feedback

We EYPs should point out what parts of the feedback were most instructive. This shows that we are not just “making a show” of our feedback process. Recruiting people to invest in our preaching does indeed influence them to take ownership of our development. However, it is manipulative to do that merely for political reasons. Feedbackers sense this. I know of a pastor who had an extensive system for routine and intense feedback, but they never changed as a result of the feedback. They were defensive on each point, and over time everyone just stopped saying much. This will happen to us as EYPs if we don’t take feedback to heart.

Self-corrective feedback

Over time we learn from our feeedbackers and we start to develop a self-corrective eye and ear, a more in-tune heart and mind for preaching. I know at 37 I don’t ask the same questions from feedbackers that I asked when I was 27. For instance, I used to have feedbackers count my “Um’s” in a message, and my other verbal pause distractions. Through many years of correction, I was able to eliminate them almost entirely—and when I hear one every once in a while in my videos it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me. At this point we can move on to other more intense and focused feedback to become better and better at communicating the holy word.

Getting a variety of feedback

It helps to get more than one kind of feedback. Each kind gives us a different angle and helps focus the feedback.

1) Live feedback – By giving someone a special feedback sheet of paper with certain questions we can get feedback right away. We did this in our teaching team at Spring Lake Wesleyan Church (www.slwc.org) and it was a great method of routine feedback.

2) Audio feedback – It’s easy for the feedbacker to listen on an iPod or in the car, and their feedback is more about the word choice and content than the delivery.

3) Video feedback – Many of us get weekly video recordings of our preaching, and at College Wesleyan Church (www.collegewes.com) it goes online every single week. Few things help your feedback better than “rolling the tape.” TV adds 10 pounds they say. I would say it also adds 10 minutes to how long a message feels, it add 10 nervous tics I don’t notice otherwise, and adds 10 mispronunciations and 10 odd gestures or repetitive actions I don’t remember doing. Video exposes so much. For the last seven years I’ve watched the video of every single sermon I’ve given at my church. What’s more, I recently sent video to some pastors who hadn’t seen me preach in more than 5 years, and to another that hadn’t for 10 years, so they might advise me on how I’ve improved or hadn’t improved over the years. I’ve even sat down with Pastor Steve DeNeff, a true master of the art of preaching, and analyzed video of one of my sermons with intense moment-by-moment feedback.

4) Delivery feedback – Sometimes we need an old pro to point all we are doing to distract from the message. My wife is helpful for this kind of feedback in particular. She notices the things I do repetitively, and helps me eliminate them. A good trigger question for this is: “What are the things I always do that could be distracting?”

5) Manuscript feedback – By working on delivery, we end up “saying things good,” but still don’t have “good things to say.” In manuscript feedback, without all the verbal and visual helps to communication, a feedbacker can incisively show us logical flaws, inherent contradictions, and push us to go deeper into the text and history behind the subject, pointing out our stream-of-consciousness gibberish and elevating us to poetic word choices and powerful truth.

These are many of the ways EYPs are ensuring they have feedback strategies to grow as preachers. How about you? How do you ensure you are getting feedback to develop your full potential as a preacher? What other ways you invent to get evaluated with more effectiveness as EYPs?


David Drury is the co-author of the books SoulShift and Ageless Faith and the author of The Fruitful Life. He serves as Executive Pastor of College Church in Marion, Indiana. Find him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/daviddrury

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27 thoughts on “Feedback Strategies of an Emerging Young Preacher

  1. Thanks for this helpful article Dave. One of the things that helped me most as a preacher was finding a preaching coach. During my days as an Asbury Seminary student, I served part time as pastor at a local church. Joe Dongell, Bible Professor at Asbury, attended the church I served and agreed to be my preaching coach. If you know Joe, you understand why I asked him to serve me in this capacity. He is analytical, insightful, steeped in scripture, aware of what’s going on in the world today, and he cares so much about the Church he is willing to speak the truth in love. So, we engaged in three coaching sessions. We would listen to my sermon together (awkward!!!) as Joe took copious notes (beyond awkward!!!). After the sermon, Joe would commend what he perceived to be the strengths of the sermon and he would critique the areas he felt needed improvement (really, really awkward!!!). His commendation helped me to realize some of the unique strengths of my preaching. Preaching is often so intuitive we don’t even realize what we are doing well. Joe also critiqued the weaknesses of my preaching, which exposed my homiletic Achilles heels. This stung, but it has made me a better preacher.

    If our best preaching days are going to be in front of us and not beyond us, then it would make sense for us to seek out a preaching coach. Perhaps your coach might be someone in your local church. Maybe, you can find a coach in another local church (perhaps another pastor in the community). Regardless of where and how you find one, just find one. To quote one of my favorite practical theologians, Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa, “Go for it!”

    Lenny Luchetti

  2. Hey Lenny… great stuff here.

    I think a key point I’m learning from your story here is that actually sitting down with someone while watching your sermon on tape is helpful.

    I know when I do that I find 20 things I don’t normally notice–as I’m looking “through their eyes” at the sermon.

    And if I’m not willing to sit down for an hour to do that–how can I expect someone else to do so?

    -Dave

  3. 1. Pulling out a thread from both Dave Drury and Lenny Luchetti – recorded messages. Both suggested having others listen/watch or doing it with others. One of my most helpful ongoing “feedback” practices is my own feedback. I am always my hardest and most forthright critic. So, every year I watch at least a couple sermons from start to finish on video taking specific notes on what to fix. If I can (web media is hard for this) I watch it in fast forward 4x or so to catch all the repetitive gestures and motions. This is PAINFUL but so frustratingly helpful.

    2. I rewrite my sermon style every seven years. Even people who know me may not know this, because I still preach old sermons as a traveling preacher. But all my new stuff is written in a completely different style and sermon form than I used seven years ago. I didn’t know how to do what I do now ten years ago. I didn’t even know it existed. I now am working on a new re-write that has taken me into not only new styles, but new roles in preaching. I do these rewrites in connection with a build up of feedback that overtime creates a problem or question in my mind that requires more than just gesture, working, and technique change. It requires a different way of thinking about preaching. It takes me usually about two years to get the new preaching “swing” down.

    3. I love the sermon-writing team idea. I am not the best at doing this, but I have friends who do this so well. Feedback does not always have to be post-sermon. Pre-sermon feedback can make sermons more creative, persuasive, clear, and life changing and a preaching group, or preaching team that writes the content together is a powerful way to get constant feedback. There are entire books out there on this sort of thing.

    • Love these thoughts, Dave…

      I’ve watched a sermon on mute before for the “see your repeated gestures” thing–never thought about 4x speed… that’s genius.

      I dig the rewrite your style thing. I’m one year into a new modus operandi on preaching (my third such major revision in style) and the middle season is difficult in transition, but I can definitely since it’s much better for who I am at this stage in ministry. I think early on I switched up my styles TOO much in preaching–copied others too much (as I’ve mentioned in this series on Emerging Young Preachers)… however, there’s the opposite risk of getting in a rut and losing freshness that you imply here.

    • Dave, I am intrigued by your comments on re-writing your preaching style. I have done this intuitively but not intentionally. My homiletic forms and preaching style have changed significantly. How have you changed? And, why do you think it’s important to intentionally re-write your style every seven years? What would you say to someone who pushes back with “If it’s not broke, why re-write your style?”

  4. By the way, I love the thoughts on this post. I answered the question at the end before giving my thoughts on the article itself, oops. I am going to print this and use it in future classes. This is good!

  5. Dave,

    Great stuff. Having had the opprotunity to share on a preaching team for 5 years with you, I can’t emphasize the value of creating a “team” for both preparation and evaluation. Some may be fortunate enough to be a part of this sort of team, most will have to create something like this. If you invite people into this game you will enhance your preaching and their listening and empower people for a unique gift of serving the local body. BTW – I loved that we met on Tuesdays for evaluation – not Monday and thank God, not Sunday after the message!

    Couple of thoughts for early stages of the process . . .
    1. Thank those who seem to intensely listen and give you feedback during the message itself – the persons who visualize “I’m with you” or give that look that says, “I didn’t get that, or explain that a bit further.” While this isn’t always accurate feedback, I found that when I thanked these people, I could then ask for specific feedback after the message. They also saw their value in cheering me on and helping me during the message if somehow things weren’t getting through. They might be the foundation of a preaching team for you. I looked for these people every Sunday for the in the moment feedback – hated when they missed!

    2. I have recently discovered three questions I wish would have been a format for evaluation earlier on in my speaking – if you could get a few people to give you this feedback . . . powerful stuff.
    1) I ask, “What are some things that you liked about the message delivery?”
    2) – They ask you – “How did you feel about what you shared – what might you do differently next time?” I like this question because it allows me to share openly what I almost always know I did wrong. I used to be afraid of this question – didn’t want to tell them what I knew but secretly hoped they didn’t . . . Ah, but they almost always knew these things. Through self-exposure, it illustrates a learning spirit on my part and empowers them to more easily share on the third question (which may well be shorter if I self-identify).
    3) I ask, “What suggestions do you have for me that I could do to improve next time?”

    I have watched these questions empower me and others in the adventure of speaking.

    • Hey Dennis! I sure miss those tuesday teaching team days. That was some of the most important preaching development for me.

      I love your questions… here’s how I’ll use them myself now:

      1) I ask YOU as a Feedbacker: “What are some things that you think I did well in this message?”
      2) You ask ME as a Feedbacker: “What are some things you think I didn’t do as well and that I would like to change in the future?”
      3) I ask YOU as a Feedbacker: “What suggestions do you have for me that I could do to improve next time?”

  6. Thanks for this, Dave, as well as fellow commenters. Just a few thoughts to add:

    Dave Ward said, ” One of my most helpful ongoing “feedback” practices is my own feedback. ” Yes! I’ve certainly found this to be true. Watching myself on tape can be brutal.

    When I write a sermon I continually ask myself, “What’s the one thing I want people to remember?” and I preach towards that sentence-goal. If there is someone I’ve asked to critique the sermon I normally ask them that one question: “If you were to guess what the main point of this sermon was what would you say?”

    The feedback that I find the most helpful is often from the person from whom it has not been solicited. If I ask someone to give me feedback there is a good chance he/she is listening intently to every word I see. Sometimes I find it more helpful to get feedback from the “average joe” simply to see what from the sermon managed to wiggle it’s way into the head of an unsuspecting lay person.

    Of course, it can be difficult to get feedback from an unsolicited lay person, and asking for it after the sermon runs the risk of putting them on the spot and making them feel very uncomfortable. So often times I have to wait and see if this kind of feedback is given unsolicited (though if I know a person well I might ask).

    Sometimes my 4-year-old sits through my sermons and even though most of his time in the service is spent doodling, I still ask him if he remembers something simply to see how my message came off to a child. I love trying to get feedback from people of various ages and background. What a teenager hears may be quite different from what an adult hears (think Andrew Walls’ “world auditorium”–we hear the gospel differently depending on which part of the auditorium we are sitting in).

    The church I currently attend has a lot of sermon discussion Sunday school classes. Another way of getting feedback at my home church is as simple as asking this Sunday school class to write up a few bullet points on their take of the sermon.

    Thanks again for this helpful article! I’ll be drawing from this in the future.

    • Amanda: your “average joe unsolicited feedback” thing is right on. One thing I remind myself is the “restaurant rule” when I get this kind of feedback. The restaurant rule is that if one customer complained about something or liked something, then 20 others noticed the same thing and never said anything. This helps me to not discount the feedback from a grumbler, or to dismiss the encouragement of a well-meaning kindly old man.

      And the “world auditorium” thought is so very true. As my messages at CWC are often times played on the television here locally in Marion, Indiana, I know Steve and I LOVE talking to someone at Wal-Mart, for instance, about a message they saw (and then stopped us because they recognized us). That just happened to me two weeks ago in fact. It’s a different part of the auditorium they are listening “FROM”

  7. I’m grateful for the challenging words offered here, and I am taking mental notes as I peruse through the buffet of truth presented.

    My deepest concern for the emerging church is our growing biblical incompetence, and I am glad that the Wesleyan Tribe is seeking to alter the current trajectory of discipleship & evangelism.

    By God’s grace I’ve been a part of a beautiful team of leaders who have launched Exodus Church in downtown Asheville, NC. One of our foundational values has been “Honest Biblical Preaching” and we are intentional to present sermon material that is deep and wide for both mature believers and seekers of Truth.

    My question remains: What is the best way to bridge the divide between contemporary culture and the Sacred Text, without compromising our mission of making disciples of Jesus? Topical sermons seem to start in the wrong place, and Expository sermons sometimes seem disconnected from life today… How can we remain relevant to the language of our culture, and faithful to the full exposition of God’s Story without compromising either?

    Any feedback would be much appreciated!

    Jay DePoy
    Lead Pastor, Exodus Church
    http://www.theliberationproject.com

    • Hi Jay. Great question. One of the ways I try to be faithful to both biblical text and contemporary context is to include the following practice in my sermon prep. After I prayerfully attend the text, noting observations and asking questions about the literary and historical contexts of the passage, I reflect on the context. In other words, after I get a handle on biblical exegesis I engage in contextual exegesis. I write a paragraph articulating the most important finds from my biblical exegesis. As you prayerfully reflect on this, I consider how it intersects with my life, the church, the community, the nation, and the world. Once I find some significant points of contact between the text and context, I am ready to determine the focus for this particular sermon. Many pastors say they do this contextual exgesis intuitively, but I have found that if I don’t slow down the exegetical process to prayerfully consider how the text intersects with me, the church, the community, the nation, and the world then the connection may not happen intuitively.

    • Hey J

      You’ve hit on the 64K question.

      I’d say two things in response:

      1) Perhaps one answer is that the tension you point out is just that–a tension that can’t be removed. We must always keep these two in tension, eh? Like Barth said, we keep the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

      2) Of course, I believe that’s a mis-quote. What Barth actually said was: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” So, my second answer here contradicts the first–and the ideal situation is a church that is hearing the word in such a way that it helps them read the newspaper and pray through it–to re-interpret world events, death, sickness, poverty, legislation, elections, war, parades = all through the lens of scripture.

      I don’t think #1 is wrong. I started there. It’s not a bad place to be.

      But I wonder if we need to grow toward #2 in the church over time… and end up there before our preaching work is done. Of course, the task is nearly impossible.

      Which is part of why I think it might be right.

  8. Good stuff! It is very cool to “eavesdrop” on the thought process of those who take the craft and responsibility of preaching and teaching God’s word very seriously!

    Thanks for the thoughts and commentary!

    I really resonate with Dave Ward’s thread on pre-sermon prep! This is something I have been really hitting on hard recently! I have moved into a position at a church where we do a lot of production in our services, for our video and online campuses, plus multiple back to back services, we have to stay on time and there are a lot of moving parts and because of that “other people” not in the listening audience need to “follow me” and the message, so if I’m jumping around from point to story and monologing on a whim it’s tough for them to do their job, so the more I can stick to “script” and allow them to follow the more effective the overall service is! Dave Drury probably knows how tough this probably is for me, but it’s really tightened up my delivery. One thing I have been doing is actually getting up on stage pre-service an preaching through as if people are in the seats already. I will record it as if someone were watching and then watch that video or listen to that audio even pre service! I haven’t gotten to this stage yet, but even allowing someone I trust to hear it pre-service I think could provide some pre-service feedback. I heard Steve DeNeff tell me this once, “you should never preach a sermon once that u haven’t already preached five times out loud”, that has stuck with me and has become a tool I use now more then before!

    BTW: I also love the coaching idea!

    I would love to hear ur responses to this idea both practically and philosophically!

    On a practical note: I love watching comedians on stage for their stage presence and timing purposes!

    Keep the wisdom coming I’m soaking it in!

    @hofdiggity
    Mike Hofer

    • Mike, I like to say “practice what you preach.” Of course, this means embodying the Gospel we preach but it is also an invitation to preachers to practice their sermon before they let it loose on the congregation. Some people suggest that practicing the sermon aloud is unspiritual and disingenuous. On the contrary, practicing what we preach may be the most spiritual discipline we can practice in homiletics. Practicing the sermon is not about preparing to show off our rhetorical abilities; it involves a prayerful reflection on the heart of God and the needs of listeners as we hear the words God has given us to proclaim. In other words, prayerfully practicing the sermon before the actual preaching event enables spiritual formation in and through the preacher. You dig?

      • Hey Hof –

        I do the outloud on-stage preaching run through… usually once on friday and once on saturday, or very early sunday.

        I don’t videotape it like u do–great idea. That could help. I think I’ll do that now… even a low-tech ipad or iphone video might help just to see it before hand.

        One thing I’ve done of late is to audio record my message on wednesday, then listen to it while exercising or whatever. It’s very ROUGH at that day of the week – – but it helps to hear my own voice try to convey what I’m saying. And it helps me get earlier to the real point I’m trying to make.

  9. The number one person impacting my preaching is my wife. She reads all of my sermons before I preach them (I write a manuscript) and critiques them. Umm…this has lead to some interesting discussions. :-) She’ll often say, “No one will understand this.” or “What point are you trying to make?” In addition she’ll add insights with a fresh eye to the text and to application. With brutal, but gracious honesty she makes me sharper and able to present messages with greater clarity. I don’t always like her thoughts…but I need them.

    • Hey Tom!

      Well, since Kathy’s a schoolteacher, I have to ask if she reads your manuscripts with a red pen in hand… and if she gives you a grade every Sunday afternoon! :-)

      How long have you done a full manuscript, Tom?

  10. Just a thought to add to preaching teams idea, though my preaching experience is rather limited comparatively speaking, one thing that helped me at my first church was to ensure that my preaching team represented the diversity of the congregation.

    Coming straight from college, and Ward’s homiletics class, getting a core group of evaluators was natural… but my conundrum was that there was no one my age, or with a similar academic experience, at the church I worked at. So I was forced to branch out, and realized my preaching became a lot more practical when my preaching group consisted of a similar demographic of the congregation. Which for me was one teenager (from the rougher part of the city), two 50 yr old men (one academically trained, one farm-trained), three 65 yr olds (two women: one administrative, the other a former teacher; one man: involved in the city), and two 80 yr olds (one a former business woman, the other an former rhetorician).

    Perhaps a no-brainer, but getting feedback from a diverse group in terms of generation and even culture, made an extreme difference in my preaching’s practicality!

    • Great thoughts and practices Daniel. So much of the homiletics literature focuses on biblical exegesis, preaching style, and delivery concerns. Very little has been written on listener-centered preaching that wrestles with the question you are raising- how do people in particular preaching context listen and how does their listening style necessitate modifications to my preaching style? The truth is that what maks good preaching good may have as much to do with contextual connection (relevance) than it does with solid exegesis or stellar rhetorical ability.

  11. David…I’ve been writing manuscripts since the late 70’s. All those messages you heard me preach at Lakeview were all manuscripted. Most would never know I write one or use one since I stopped using a pulpit in 1994. However…I still have it in my Bible as I’m speaking and I refer to it when my brain blanks…which is becoming a more common occurrence.