It’s Pastor Appreciation Month! To celebrate, I’m offering a few posts with suggestions about having a healthy and encouraging relationship with your pastor (or any church leader, really). You can read my first post about disagreeing with your pastor here.
Today’s topic: how to give sermon feedback or have a conversation about the sermon (or homily, meditation, message, etc).
I appreciate every kind comment that comes about my sermon that are of the “nice sermon” variety. And if that’s what you want to stay to your pastor at the door on Sunday morning, please do. It is encouraging to us to hear those kind words. But if you want to engage at a deeper level, or if you want to help your pastor understand how the sermon found you and how God is working in your life, I offer some suggestions:
Understand that preparing to preach is a whole process
I spend about fifteen hours each week working on my sermon. Here are some things I do during those fifteen hours:
- I choose the text. We typically stick to the RCL, but sometimes I preach sermons or series not based on the RCL.
- I read the text, pray about it, study it, read it in the original language, and diagram it.
- I have a conversation with another pastor, almost every Monday, to discuss and study the text together.
- I read commentaries and articles that have to do with the text. I listen to podcasts that have to do with the text (Sermon Brainwave, for example).
- I listen to other sermons about the text (usually a mainline preacher; an evangelical expository preacher; and a preacher of color). I like to understand how the text is handled and understood in different contexts.
- I pray about what God wants my congregation to hear on this particular Sunday.
- I outline my sermon, making sure I have a main point or a guiding question, as well as points from within the scripture that support the main point or help us consider the guiding question.
- I write and write and write some more, finally creating a draft of my sermon.
- I preach from the draft in the pulpit in an empty sanctuary. I edit best when I hear the words spoken out loud.
- I doubt everything about my ability to do this and hate my stupid sermon for about 30 minutes every Saturday.
- On Sunday morning, I edit the draft and produce a final manuscript. I will mostly preach from this manuscript with a few deviations as we go along and the Spirit speaks to me.
I mention that because although every pastor has his or her own process, it’s probably more involved than a lot of people assume. Pastors do not just step into the pulpit and start talking. Before we bring this word, we have spent hours preparing to do so. We hope you will hear what the Spirit speaks to you through our messages. We hope you take the time to consider the scripture more deeply and fully.
Prepare to hear the sermon
Especially now, most churches make their Sunday bulletins available in a digital format that can be accessed before Sunday. Some pastors send out information about texts to be preached ahead of time. Maybe it’s printed in the bulletin the week before. Maybe there’s a list of information for upcoming Sundays in the newsletter each month. Maybe it goes out mid-week in an email. Maybe your pastor does a teaser video about what’s coming up.
We do these things because we hope you won’t come into the sanctuary on Sunday morning “cold.” We hope you will warm up to hear the sermon by reading or considering the sermon scripture the week before. As you read, consider: what do you notice about the scripture? What questions does it cause you to have? What do you hope the preacher will explain? Interacting with the text ahead of time will prepare you to be a good participant in the sermon on Sunday.
Ask questions about what didn’t make sense
I have a member of my congregation who is not afraid to tell me when my sermon didn’t make sense to her. Every so often, she will ask me to summarize what I was hoping she would hear in my last sermon. She is willing to admit if she was distracted or got hung up on one particular point so much that she failed to hear anything else. She’s willing to speak specifically, “When you said ____________ what did you mean?”
I appreciate this so much because it helps me know if I have maybe said something that in general was confusing, like what happened here. It helps me consider how to preach more clearly. It also lets me know that here is someone who wants to understand what I have said so much that she took note of where specifically I lost her. She never just says, “Your sermons make no sense!” but she instead does the work to understand what I was trying to say, even if in that case I said it poorly.
Share how the sermon spoke to you
You don’t have to go on and on or offer back a theological dissertation, but a word about how something spoken was meaningful, taught you something, caught your attention, or even something that challenged you or with which you disagreed is a sign of the Holy Spirit at work. I have a member who often hears the sermon and sends an email with her reflection on Sunday afternoon. Sometimes this even allows me to respond with some of the things I didn’t fit in the sermon, but that I have been thinking about, or my own reflections on the sermon after it’s preached.
Know that we have learned that we are not in control
I can’t even number the times I’ve prepared a sermon and thought, “Boom! This will be the best sermon I’ve ever preached!” only to realize, while I am preaching, that it is most certainly not the best sermon I’ve ever preached and nobody knows what I’m talking about. Or the number of times I’ve thrown up my hands and pushed print on and preached a sermon that I wasn’t even sure I understood–only to have a flurry of emails and comments about how the sermon spoke to people and was maybe the best sermon I’ve ever preached.
I do not know what I am doing, is what I’m saying.
But the reality is, I’m not doing it anyway. I’m aiming to be faithful to my process, the scripture, and the call of God, but it’s the Holy Spirit that’s doing the work.
“The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher otherwise [men and women] would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it could consist of the wisdom of [men and women]. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of [men and women].” Charles Spurgeon
If you have a pastor, and if you prayerfully and attentively listen to their sermons, know that in itself is a blessing and encouragement. And not every pastor can engage with as much time and energy after a sermon is preached–some of us have larger congregations or have to be more disciplined with our schedules and have less time to reply to emails, etc. Even still, it can be rather uncommon to have our parishioners share with us about what they have learned or what God has done as they have listened to our sermons and I know your feedback or personal notes would be encouraging.
Shameless plug: if you are looking for sermons I’ve preached, you can always find them here.