squeak screech howl (i.e. feedback)

About 6 months ago I joined the Mid Essex Magical Society (or MEMS for short). They have been very welcoming and I have really enjoyed the evenings I have been able to attend. (if you are looking to do a fundraising event in Essex they can provide a good evening’s magical entertainment for you at a reasonable rate. See here for more details.)

Last night I attended a session where we had four different performers offer routines for the rest of the society to watch and then offer feedback. I was one of the four performers and offered a stage routine that I’ve never done in public before. I decided that that would probably be safest so that it was not something I was particularly attached to, but also so that it could be developed and enhanced by the feedback from the rest of the group. I was pleasantly surprised by the response from the rest of the MEMS and helped by the feedback: not only the content but also the manner in which was offered. I have some new ideas to add to and hopefully enhance the routine.

Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS
Stew the Rabbit has not yet been introduced to the MEMS

Feedback is vital if we are to be able to grow. If we don’t know how people are receiving what we are doing it is very difficult for us to know how best to address any deficiencies (and indeed we may not be aware of any deficiencies) or enhance our strengths. But receiving feedback, or at least the thought of it, can be very frightening because we place ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We have probably all experienced feedback that was poorly delivered, was unhelpfully negative or even destructive.

I think giving good feedback is an artform that requires trust on both sides, honesty, tact, humility (and perhaps humour) and a genuine desire to improve and be improved. Good feedback is not personal in its nature; seeks to enhance and build up; is thought through and reflective; and is offered as opinion not fact. That was certainly the nature of the feedback that we received last night. In one of his letters Paul wrote to a church (1 Thessalonians 5:11) that they should:

Encourage one another and build each other up…

That is a foundation for good feedback. This does not mean that we do not offer advice and comments that will identify possible weaknesses but it is not possible to say “that was rubbish” if you are seeking to encourage one another and build each other up. Instead you could say, “Do you think that it would be better if you [insert suggestion]?”

Next time I am tempted to open my mouth and offer some advice I pray that I will remember that I should encourage and build up.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

These astute visionaries (from Clean Jokes) may need to improve their feedback techniques and expand their vision somewhat.

“But what … is it good for?”
–Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
–Western Union internal memo, 1876.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
–David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the1920s.

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
–Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.”
–Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
–Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

So, what did you think?

How do you give constructive feedback on something that you found unhelpful? Or, to be more specific, what do partners of preachers say to their orating half if / when they ‘preach a stinker’ and ask you what you think?

That was a question that was discussed at a group for the partners of trainee Baptist Ministers when I was at College. Sally came back from that group with the mischievous twinkle in her eye and joyfully told me of the answer that the group came up with: “It was a good text.”

I was left wondering when she was planning to bring that one out of the cupboard – perhaps on the way home after preaching at one of the many churches where we cut our preaching teeth while at College; or maybe over lunch…

I am glad that she did not know of that phrase when I preached my first ever sermon. Although, to be honest, I am not sure she would have found a text in there anyway! It was technically deficient in many ways. It was long, it was rambling and (I am ashamed to admit, even today) I managed to preach about the crucifixion of Jesus without once mentioning the reason why he died! I never explained God’s love! I did not set out to preach a naff sermon, I wanted to preach God’s word. I just preached it badly.

I still have the handwritten manuscript from that sermon, but cannot bring myself to read it again. It serves as a reminder of God’s grace and the incredible ability of the Holy Spirit to speak through even abysmal sermons. You see, the thing that makes me smile (and sometimes even LOL) about that is that at the end of the sermon I had the nerve to invite people to give their lives to Jesus. That’s not the funny bit. The funny bit is that at least four people DID give their lives to Jesus at that moment!

I can honestly say, hand on heart (although that does make typing more diciffult) that it was not because I am a good preacher. It is not because the sermon was powerful. It is not because of me at all. It is entirely down to God who, despite the flaws and faults in the sermon, spoke to people that night. People came to faith in Jesus almost despite me! Trust me, this is not false humility. This is not humility at all. It is simply the truth.

The view from the gallery at our church

And that is how I answer the question I began this blog with. I try to be truthful. I try to be tactful, balanced, encouraging, helpful, supportive, but primarily tell the truth. It does nobody any favours if I am less than honest.

And the astonishing thing about the first sermon I preached is that it still speaks to me today. It reminds me that God chooses to use flawed human beings to communicate his truth. Not just through sermons, but through our lives, our conversations, our attitudes, our words, our strengths and our weaknesses. Our responsibility is to be as well-prepared as we can be, to represent Jesus to the best of our ability, to be and tell the truth using the gifts he has given us and revealing the character he is uncovering within us. God’s Spirit does the rest.

And I give you permission to tell me when it was a good text!
Things you never hear at church:
Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!
Personally, I find services much more enjoyable than golf.
I volunteer to be a permanent teacher for the Sunday School.
I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!
Pastor, we’d like to send you to this Bible seminar in the Bahamas.
I wish you had not stopped preaching after only 40 minutes.

A visiting preacher was greeting people at the church door after the service when a bloke came up to him and said, “You went on far too long,” and then strode off. The preacher was a little taken aback at the honesty but regained his composure and carried on greeting people.

A few minutes later the same bloke was back. “I didn’t understand anything you said.” Off he strode.

The preacher was deflated but persevered in his greeting duty.

A short while later the bloke approached him again. “I hated the songs you chose.” Off he went before the preacher could respond.

The next person to arrive at the door was the church secretary and the preacher nervously told him what had happened.

“Oh, you shouldn’t pay any attention to him,” said the secretary. “He doesn’t have a clue about anything so he goes around repeating what he hears everyone else saying.”