Receiving and Giving Feedback

Part of COM Guide

By Erica Baron

The following is written as guidance for lay people. Our article "A Collegial Letter to Ministers on Feedback" advises to ministers.

A weathered stone statue of one Asian monk talking while another listens.

What To Do With Critical Feedback

Someone has just reached out to you with some critical feedback about the minister. What should you do next?

First, triage who in the congregation should receive this feedback. If that is not you, your role is to help this person connect with the right person to take this feedback.

The feedback most likely should go to one of these three people or teams:

  • Board Chair or President: If someone is coming to you credibly alleging serious misconduct such as embezzlement, abuse of a child, elder, or disabled person, or sexual relationships with congregants, take it directly to the president or chair of the Board. The Board President should reach out to the Regional Staff for assistance in discerning next steps which may include notifying your safe congregations team (if you have one), reporting alleged misconduct within UUA channels, and notifying appropriate state authorities (for abuse of children, elders, or disabled people).
  • Right Relationship Team: Some congregations have a committee on ministry and a right relationship team, which are separate. If that is the case in your congregation, try to assess whether this is an interpersonal conflict or a matter of feedback on the practice of ministry. Interpersonal conflicts should go to the right relationship team, if there is one.
  • Committee on Ministry: In other congregations, both professional feedback and interpersonal conflict are handled by the same committee on ministry (or other body). If that’s true for you, and this is an interpersonal conflict rather than a practice of ministry issue, see the section of this packet that addresses Conflict Engagement for CoMs.

If you are the right person to handle this feedback and this is not a concern about the practice of ministry that includes serious misconduct, read on!

Next, ask the person bringing the feedback how they want you to handle their concern:

  • Ask if they are willing to talk directly to the minister about this. Offer to go with them if they want or need some support in this conversation. Help with any connection and scheduling if they agree to this.
  • If they are not willing to bring this to the minister directly, ask if you can share the feedback with the minister with the name of the person who brought it. (See below for how to do that well.)
  • If they are not willing for you to use their name, thank them very much for bringing it to your attention, and tell them that you can’t bring it into the feedback process because feedback has to come with context and a name.

Why Anonymous Feedback Is Rarely Useful

What?! I can’t pass feedback anonymously to the minister?! Why not???

Because here’s what happens if you do:

You: Rev, I talked to someone last week who said that the services aren’t spiritual enough for them. They would like you to work on that.

Your Minister: Okay, can I talk to that person?

You: No, they didn’t want me to use their name.

Your Minister: Okay, well did they say what they meant by spiritual? That means dramatically different things to different people.

You: No, they didn’t say. But I know this person really loves classical music, so maybe they don’t like the wider variety of styles for the musical interludes?

Your Minister: Okay. Well, we expanded the variety of music styles in response to feedback from a number of different people. I’d really like to be able to have a deeper conversation with this person.

(Inside your minister’s mind: Is this the person who hates everything anyone does and has some complaint no matter what? Or is this a person who is generally pretty open to ideas who has a need that’s not being addressed? Is this even really about the music?)

So, the chances that the minister can take any action at all in response to this feedback are pretty small, because there isn’t enough context for the minister to know what the real issue is and what might help. And there’s no way for the minister to get the context.

If this happens just occasionally, the minister will likely just shrug it off. But if this is a common pattern, it will often affect the minister’s ability to work effectively with the congregation. The minister has no way of knowing if this is 1 person with 20 complaints or 20 people with 1 complaint. Without a way to address it effectively, this will lead to anxiety, and to a feeling of being constantly watched for failures to pounce on.

By the way, if a person says to you, “A number of people in the congregation feel the same way.” Or “I have heard others who agree with me.” Or any variation on that theme, ask them to tell those other people to also talk to you. Because they are all additional examples of anonymous feedback, and have the same effect as other forms of anonymous feedback.

Over time frequent anonymous feedback can erode the trust between the minister and the congregation, as well as the minister’s confidence. At that point, the partnership between the minister and the congregation begins to weaken, and if unaddressed, this can eventually lead to the end of the ministry.

But do not fear! There is a better way! Don’t pass along anonymous feedback. Instead…

Passing Along Specific Feedback With A Name Attached

If the person bringing feedback to you agrees to have you pass it along with their name, ask some follow up questions. Like the things the minister was asking in our example above. “What do you mean by more spiritual?” “I hear that you feel like something is missing from the service. Can you say more about what that might be?” “Do you have ideas about how you would like this to be addressed?” “In what circumstances have you noticed that particular response from the minister that is troubling you?” Etc.

If they have only very vague answers to these questions, offer to sit down sometime when you can have a longer conversation to help them get more clarity on what they really need and are asking for. Or offer to let them think about it themselves and get back to you when they have a clearer sense of what would help. The more specific the person can be, the more the minister will be able to understand and address the concern.

Once you have some clarity about the actual concern being expressed, you have two jobs. One is to bring this to the minister in a helpful way. The other is to add this to a continual practice of looking for patterns in feedback.

Effectively Bringing Individual Feedback To The Minister

Ideally, you will decide in advance a regular check in time when you can bring any concerns to your minister. This can help, because like all humans ministers are not super excited to get critical feedback. Like all of us, ministers usually don’t respond their best if they are approached right after doing a big task like preaching, on a particularly bad day, on their day off, etc. Knowing when to expect critical feedback can help the minister receive it graciously.

Then you want to tell the minister the content of the feedback with some specifics, but not all the details, along with the name of the person who approached you. Then decide together if you will have a deeper conversation about all the details right then or at some other time.

It is important to bring feedback even if you personally disagree with it. It’s tempting to minimize critique of the minister that you disagree with, especially if you feel close to the minister and want to support them. But if you dismiss critical feedback, the minister might not have all the information they need to be effective in serving the whole congregation. In the long run, it’s more helpful and supportive of your minister to give them all the information that can help them.

Watching For Patterns And Bringing Those To The Minister’s Attention

Let’s suppose that instead of hearing a particular critique from only one person, three people approach you with the same critique in the space of a month. Or someone raises a concern about something you have also noticed and become concerned about. Or you’re hearing lots of comments about a particular area of the ministry that don’t rise to the level of someone asking you to pass along feedback. Any of these could indicate that there is a pattern at work.

By pattern here, we mean something that requires more than minor changes or working through an isolated instance of miscommunication, hurt feelings, etc. There is some mismatch or unease between the minister’s work and at least a portion of the congregation. Patterns often require bigger work - either professional development by the minister, larger conversations in the congregation, or both.

If you think you see a pattern, here are some things to ask yourself:

  • Do the different people who are raising this concern agree in their description of the problem and possible solutions? If 12 people tell you that they find the minister’s sermon delivery emotionally flat, that’s probably a pattern. If 12 people complain about the music, but 4 want more music, 2 want less music, 3 want more jazz, and 3 want only classical, that’s not a pattern so much as individual preferences being expressed.
  • Are the people raising this generally people whose opinion you trust? Or are they folks who are perpetually unsatisfied or upset about something that was a careful and thoughtful decision? If people who are generally trustworthy and even-keeled tell you there’s a problem, that probably means more than if the 5 people who are always complaining about something.
  • Can you describe the issue with specificity and clarity? If not, if you just have a vague sense that there’s an emerging pattern, keep observing, being on the lookout for details.
  • Are you either able to describe in detail your own observations of the pattern or give the minister the names of the multiple people who have raised it or both?

When you have identified that there really is a pattern to address, bring that to the minister in the same way as individual feedback, but make sure to frame it as a pattern that has come up repeatedly and which calls for some significant attention. Help the minister as much as you can to understand all the details of the pattern you are seeing, and any remedies you believe would help. Let them know that you can tell them the specific people who have raised the concern, if that would be useful.

What Does the Minister Do With the Feedback?

As the religious professional, the minister is ultimately responsible for receiving feedback and acting on it appropriately. For individual concerns, they may ask you to be part of replying to the person who raised the concern, and they may not.

For bigger patterns, the minister may ask for help creating a professional development plan, in which case you can certainly offer suggestions. They may ask you to check-in on this concern again after some time has passed, to see if they are addressing it adequately or not. If so, give the minister as much information as you can when asked.

If the minister does not act on feedback about a larger pattern, you may wish to wait a few months and then raise it again, asking how they have started to address it. If you do this more than once or twice and still see no response, this should become part of the formal evaluation of the minister’s work, either by you putting it in directly, or by you sharing this with the evaluators if it’s a different group.

About the Author

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...

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