In many churches, this is the time of year when annual reviews of staff take place. For some pastors, these conversations are the only times they hear what is and isn’t working from their congregants’ point of view. That makes reviews somewhat nerve-wracking for clergy. They wonder: What surprises await me when that conference room door closes?
Here’s the thing, though: Your pastors want feedback from you! I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how your perspectives can be shared in ways that are most useful for your ministers and, by extension, your church:
Consider your goal. Do you want to build up your pastor with genuine compliments? Do you hope to offer gentle challenges that benefit your congregation’s mission? Great! Proceed with your observations. But if your motivation is flattery or exerting power over your minister, reconsider sharing your notes.
Don’t wait. Annual reviews are not the only time a clergyperson should receive feedback. Offering your thoughts in real time makes it more likely that problematic issues will be rectified. And giving genuine compliments in the moment lets your pastor know exactly what happened that helped you feel cared for or connected to God so that the effort can be replicated.
Put your name to your comments. Anonymous remarks do not allow your pastor to get the full picture of the situation you’re referencing, to probe the concerns behind the presenting issue, to respond directly to the party with the issue, or to repair wounded relationships. Attaching your name to your thoughts, though, makes all of these things possible.
Go directly to your pastor. Certainly, there are occasions when you might need to bring a problem to the attention of a personnel committee or governing board (e.g., deacons), particularly if there is misconduct involved or if the situation is intractable. In most circumstances, though, it is most effective – and connection-building – to go directly to your clergyperson with your questions, concerns and fist bumps.
Pick the best time and medium. Five minutes before worship begins is not the best window in which to take the preacher or worship leader out of their spiritual, emotional and mental preparation for the task at hand. Instead, schedule a time to talk during the week, and give your pastor a heads-up on the topic you’re bringing to the conversation so that your leader is neither ambushed nor consumed by anxiety wondering what your meeting is about.
Consider what you are bringing – and with what energy. Are you perturbed because the pastor or church did something that went against your personal preferences, or is there harm to the relationship? If it’s the former, it might (or might not) be worth a brief mention. If it’s the latter, it’s important to have a timely conversation. Before you have it, think about how you want to show up and how you might get into that head- and heart-space.
Be specific. This goes for all kinds of feedback. What’s going well? What isn’t? Who said what? When? Point to recent instances rather than providing generalities such as, “people are saying…” or “you always…” Precise comments are easier to work with than a vague sense of either contentment or discontent.
Be constructive. Your pastor needs your feedback. Your pastor also needs you to remember that clergy are people who feel deeply. They are serving in the same places that they worship. They deeply love the parishioners for whom they provide care and who sign their paychecks. In the case of some pastors, they bring their families to work on the days when they carry out their most visible duties. This is a lot to deal with. Identify the nugget of your feedback that is most helpful to share before you give it.
Share both the good and the not-so-good. It’s a balance. You don’t need to use the “sandwich technique” (a negative sandwiched between two positives), but make sure you are looking for where your pastor is really living into gifts and call as much as you are noticing where your pastor might be slipping up on occasion.
Acknowledge that ministry is shared. Ministry is something that pastors and congregations do together. If something is not going well, what course-corrections does the church need to make in addition to any changes the clergyperson might consider? If there is a congregation-pastor covenant, it can offer some reminders about promises each party made to the other and provide the touchstone for a re-set.
Pay your pastor appropriately. If your pastor is faithfully attempting to lead well, that should be reflected in compensation. If you think your pastor is falling short, that’s also a time to look at the salary. Is your clergyperson having to earn money elsewhere to make ends meet? Does your leader feel underappreciated and (consciously or subconsciously) giving a commensurate effort?
Pray for your pastor. This might not be feedback that comes directly to your pastor, but it both supports your pastor and shapes the way you see your leader. Both have impact far beyond what we will ever know.
You and your pastor are on mission together to live into God’s invitations. Things won’t always go as planned. They might go better or worse. As long as you are able to communicate with transparency and out of love for one another, though, you will continue to grow in faithfulness and mutual ministry.
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama