I admit it, I can be a little sensitive to criticism.
Whenever I’m finished giving a sermon or talk, you know what I really want to hear?
You crushed it.
That was world-class.
Best message ever.
That was spectacular. Show me the secret sauce.
Okay that’s over-the-top, but isn’t that kind of what you want to hear too?
Underneath that, of course, if you drill down a few levels, is a lot of insecurity. And some fear.
I’ve literally spent decades trying to figure out how to become more secure and how to receive honest feedback. It’s a learned behavior not be defensive and to welcome feedback.
So how do you do that? Well, that’s what I want to help you with today.
Because the truth is, leaders who only want praise never get better and they never grow.
Not only do you not hear what you need to hear, but people also stop telling you what they want to tell you because, well, you’re just not open.
Even if you protect your little feelings and solicit nothing or hear only praise, everybody actually has an opinion about your message. Trust me, they’re talking about it/not talking about it in the foyer, on the ride home or at lunch.
So even if you don’t evaluate your message, I promise you everyone else does.
As a result, every preacher should get an accurate assessment of how the sermon went. And that’s hard too.
Here are 5 tips that have helped me. (I saved the best for last.)
1. GET OVER YOUR NATURAL DEFENSIVENESS
Great sermon evaluation starts with you. More particularly, it starts with how open you truly are to the truth.
So here’s some truth. There’s a part of me that wants everyone to tell me that I knocked it out of the park every single time I talk. That I crushed it. That I’m the best preacher they’ve ever heard preaching the best message they’ve ever heard.
Except, of course, that’s not just not true. It can’t be true.
If I don’t check that part of my spirit, people will tell from a mile away. Because your sermon evaluation process will consist mostly of you fishing for compliments.
Preachers who fish for compliments usually only hook half-truths and lies. Nobody wants to burst your bubble or make you feel bad about yourself, so they won’t tell you the truth.
Which is why you need to get over your natural defensiveness and seek honest, real feedback.
Thank the messenger, don’t shoot them. If it hurts, grieve privately. Go for a ride and get it out of your system. But always thank people for whatever they have to tell you.
Growth-minded leaders know the truth is your friend, even when it hurts. Sometimes especially when it hurts.
2. DON’T SETTLE FOR WHAT. DISCOVER WHY.
Now that you’re working on your defensiveness, you’ll discover that you get all kinds of feedback casually.
Think about the foyer. Most people will tell you it was a good message if they liked it. And I usually go out after a service and find some core staff or volunteers and ask them what they thought. We also have a Monday evaluation meeting with staff where I try to get feedback. So I’m actively seeking feedback.
Here’s the problem with that though: most people will only tell you that they liked your message or didn’t like your message. They’ll say it was good or not so good.
And the conversation almost always stops there (even with staff and team members who are not preachers)—which makes it rather unhelpful.
When you get that kind of feedback (even through casual conversation or formal evaluation), go one step further and ask the person this simple question: why?
Why was it good? Why was it not my best? Tell me more….I’m open.
Do that, and you’ll learn a ton.
Maybe some of your ideas didn’t flow logically. Or your passion level was low. Or your delivery was too fast/too slow. Maybe one or two of your points weren’t clear.
That’s helpful feedback. And if you’re going into another service, it will help you do a mid-course correction.
When it comes to sermon feedback, don’t settle for what. Ask why. Why is helpful. It’s where the real learning comes.
3. WATCH YOURSELF. LISTEN TO YOURSELF.
I’m well aware that most non-narcissists hate the sound of their own voice. I have spent most of my life getting used to my voice and thinking “Do I really sound like that?”
Want to make it even worse? Watch yourself on video. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve thought I actually do that? Man, I look so awkward.
So I get the natural inclination most of us have to not listen to ourselves or watch our messages back. And that’s a mistake.
Preachers, as painful as it is, watch yourself preach. Everyone else has to. You should never expect hundreds or thousands of people to watch you if you won’t watch you.
You’ll learn so much. From verbal ticks (um, ah), to annoying habits (why do I always touch my glasses or put my hands in my pocket?) to moments in the message that just didn’t work, you’ll see yourself more accurately.
But it’s not all negative. You’ll see what worked too. You’ll see what connected and what didn’t.
I have learned so much listening back to my messages and watching myself on video, even though every time I have to make myself play the message back.
You may be your own worst critic, but if you’re not, everyone else will be.
So endure the pain, and watch and listen.
4. WATCH AND LISTEN WITH A FRIEND
I haven’t done this as much as I should, but whenever I have done this it’s so helpful.
Watch and listen to yourself with a friend you trust who will give you honest, accurate feedback. Someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth.
You might think you’re moving around awkwardly and they’ll say that actually, you’re not. That it’s fine or endearing. Conversely, you may think you’re as smooth as butter and they may tell you that all your slouching or weird arm movements take away from the message.
The combination of your own commitment to self-improvement by watching and listening back and doing the same with a friend from time to time will improve your preaching immensely.
5. GET A PEER WHO’S BETTER THAN YOU TO REVIEW IT
Saved my favorite and most valuable tip to last.
You know who the best evaluator your preaching will be? Another professional communicator who will tell you the truth.
The challenge with getting a non-communicator to evaluate your communication is that they will be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why something worked or didn’t work and how to get better. They don’t do what you do, so their ability to help is limited.
Imagine knowing nothing about race cars, heading to a track and trying to advise a pro racer on how to shave 2 seconds off his lap. I mean what would you say? Go faster? You just don’t have the expertise to give meaningful advice.
I just submitted the first draft for my fifth book to the publisher, and I had the opportunity to have a multiple New York Times Best Selling author read it as well. Her feedback was hands down some of the best feedback on my writing I ever got. Sure, she was very affirming, but she told me what was missing, told me what worked and didn’t work for her and told me specifically what she’d love to see more of.
Guess what? The second draft is going to address every single one of her points. She should know. She’s sold millions of books.
You may not get a world-class preacher to review your sermon, but you can find someone to do it. And when they do, listen.
A fellow preacher (who’s even a bit better than you) can be your best evaluator. He or she can tell you why something worked or why it didn’t, why your treatment of the text was solid or why you got lost in the first century and didn’t bridge things well for the 21st century. What you should deliver less of and what you could do more of. In the same way, another preacher can help you brainstorm on better application examples, better intros, better endings.
They’re practitioners. They have studied both theology and the craft of preaching.
Don’t have anyone on your staff who can fit that bill? Ask a colleague or preacher across town. Even doing that a couple times a year can immensely improve your speaking.
Your best sermon evaluation will always come from a colleague who understands the craft.