A Collegial Letter to Ministers on Feedback

Part of COM Guide

By Erica Baron

The following is written as guidance for ministers. Our article "Receiving and Giving Feedback" advises to lay people.

Dear Colleagues in Ministry,

Two larged rusted gears with teeth engaged

As we are working on new recommendations for Committees on (Shared) Ministry, one of the topics we’re tackling is systems of feedback from congregations to ministers. As we all know, there are a thousand ways for feedback practices and processes to go wrong. Many of those are due to unskillfulness on the part of congregants. But some of them are in our court.

Friends, I know critical feedback is hard to receive. I know that we swim in a sea of other people’s projections, and it can be hard to discern real information from the distortions. And I know that many of us have experienced congregational systems that have attacked us in some really harmful ways.

And I also see a resistance to receiving and accepting feedback that can contribute to distance and distrust between us and our people. That resistance can sometimes make it difficult or impossible for meaningful feedback to reach us. And can make us turn away from engaging in the work to become better ministers. I think we can collectively do better at being open to hearing and learning from our people when they are brave enough to tell us the truth about ways we can improve.

The most important thing I want to remind us is that we have power in the congregation. I know that the degree of power we have in any given congregation at any given time is variable. I know it often feels like we have no power at all. And yet, we still do. We have power by virtue of our place in the system, and because we represent religious authority to many in the congregation, even to some who are not aware of it. Many of us also have power because of social location to differing degrees.

When it comes to designing practices and structures of feedback and evaluation, it is vital that we remember this power. Telling an authority figure that they are doing something hurtful, or that you need something different from them is really scary to some people. Specifically approaching a religious authority figure with any need or desire for a change can be overwhelmingly intimidating for some of our people. That may have nothing at all to do with us or how easy we have made it to talk to us directly. As we know, our people carry all kinds of wounds from previous religious experiences, and no amount of openness or non-defensiveness on our part can completely erase the impact of those experiences.

Of course the impact of previous experiences is not one-sided. Many of us have also experienced real harm in the form of vicious and unfair criticism from individual congregants, and from whole congregational systems. That’s real, too, and of course it impacts the way we receive and respond to feedback. As the professionals in the system, we know that it is our job to seek healing for those wounds outside the congregation, so that we can - to the best of our ability - stay open and non-defensive in the congregation.

Which brings me to the specifics of our systems of feedback and evaluation. Let’s talk about informal feedback first. Many of us have asked that all feedback come to us directly - without any discussion between congregants before that happens. While I understand where this comes from, I think making it a hard and fast rule is problematic. It assumes that every individual person in the congregation has the ability to directly approach us without support or strategizing ahead of time. Given the power we hold in the congregation, this is too heavy a requirement. Many of our people cannot give us feedback at all if this is the only way.

A small rusted gear on a wheel hub with teeth engaged with a much larger gray gear

Sometimes we have committees on ministry whose job includes supporting people in bringing feedback to us. This is a great step! I think we should also expect and accept that people who have an issue that they want to raise may talk to their close friends in the congregation for thought-processing, checking if they are seeing things clearly, and emotional support before they talk to us. Not all discussions of concerns with our ministry are fomenting organized opposition. I also think that if we treat support and venting conversations as serious threats to our ministry, they are more likely to become so as people feel restricted in their ability to get the listening ears they need.

The other issue with expecting all feedback to come from one individual at a time is that it can make it really hard to notice when something is a wider issue. Let me illustrate this with an experience from my own parish ministry. The most helpful feedback I ever got came in the form of a conversation with a member of the Committee on Shared Ministry (CoSM) and a member of the Board. They asked to speak with me and told me that the Board and the CoSM had received 13 complaints about my sermon delivery. It was enough people that they felt they needed to bring it to my attention and ask me to address it. They offered to tell me who the 13 people were. (They had secured permission for that ahead of time.)

Obviously, this was not a fun moment! You will of course notice that those 13 people brought that concern to the Board and the CoSM rather than to me. Also, of course, at least a few members of the Board and the CoSM had discussed the issue with each other before they talked to me, and had decided who to send. So, this might be seen as a violation of direct communication to many of us.

However, this was actually the best way I could have received this feedback. The two people who approached me were people who appreciated my ministry and wanted to see it flourish. They were also people I respected, and so I took this feedback more seriously than I would have from some other folks. They had done a little work to discern and formulate the particular issues so that I wasn’t listening to a conversation about all the possible things that might be wrong with me as a preacher. I got the distilled version of the very specific concerns.

Although they offered to tell me who the people were, I asked them not to. That way, my relationships with those 13 people didn’t become needlessly awkward. It made all the difference, though, that the offer was on the table. Because if I had wanted to speak directly to those folks to ask follow up questions or learn more about what they needed, I could have.

Looking back on this story, I think it is quite possible that at least some of those 13 people tried to talk to me first, but because their feedback was coming from an individual, I didn’t take it to heart in the same way. Or it’s possible that they couldn’t approach me directly for any number of reasons. Having the pattern laid out for me by people who had given it some thought and who offered this feedback seriously but compassionately, I was able to hear it and act on it. I took steps to address the concern that made me a much better preacher, and that I would probably not have taken if I had gotten this feedback in another way.

Three rusted gears of approximately the same size. Two have teeth that are engaged with the third's teeth.

Some congregational systems do not center leaders with this much clarity and compassion, so this story is certainly not possible in every congregation. However, where we do have leaders who are self-differentiated, kind, and insightful, I think it can be of great benefit to trust them to find a good way to let us know when there is something that needs our attention - even if that means talking about it amongst themselves first.

When our people make the effort to tell us in good faith that there is something we need to work on, I also think we owe it to them to receive it as non-defensively as possible, and to take it seriously. This is different in a system that enables and encourages continuous exacting critique, or in which the leaders are not self-aware enough to give real feedback instead of wild projections. In those cases, we should not take on what is not ours! But wherever possible, I think we might move toward honoring the effort of bringing something to our attention, even if it comes packaged in an awkward, confusing, or roundabout way.

I also want to lift up the complexities of formal evaluation. One of the ways of thinking about evaluation of ministers is that congregations should never evaluate the minister separate from an evaluation of the congregation’s ministries - including the ways members contribute to thriving or faltering. Yes, for sure, we can only do so much to lean toward effectiveness in the congregation. The members have to lean with us and take up the tasks for that to bear fruit. And also there are some very specific tasks of ministry that can be evaluated directly, and there are ways to do that which don’t assume that every aspect of congregational functioning is solely up to the minister.

One of the challenges here is that our people generally have no idea how to do this well. A good evaluation is also a pretty big project, requiring some significant time from some thoughtful people. The most effective evaluation I ever had was done by that same Committee On Shared Ministry. Together, we went through the Fulfilling the Call resource, and chose a subset of the areas of ministry to evaluate. We did not do all 9 because it’s a lot, and because some of them were less relevant to our context. Next, the CoSM members chose several people in the congregation to interview about each chosen area. Then they compiled the things they learned from those conversations along with their own observations and wrote up a report which gave me a pretty clear picture of what I was doing well and where I needed work.

This worked because we were specific about what they were evaluating, they got good information from a variety of people, and they put significant time and care into the process. It was also a really big job. It took several months and lots of extra time for the CoSM members. Theoretically, the congregation was supposed to do an evaluation of me every other year, and of the congregation’s effectiveness in our ministries in the other years. Realistically, though, this level of evaluation is impossible to do that often. I would say that every 5-6 years is a more helpful timeline for something on this scale.

Good evaluations can be immensely helpful in knowing where to focus our professional development time, energy, and funding. And they can make us much better ministers. But poorly done evaluations (as many of us have probably experienced) are at best unhelpful and at worst undermine our relationships with the leaders in the congregation. So, I think it is a good idea to have an active hand in setting up quality evaluations. Ask for the evaluation to include the things you want to know. Ask that it not include things that don’t seem relevant. (Or which are not the purview of the congregation, such as many of the items in the personal renewal section of “Fulfilling the Call.”) Suggest methods. (Interviews are way better than surveys, as we know - but it might not occur to our folks!) If we teach our people how to do this well, we can get much more helpful information.

If you need help thinking through how to create better practices of evaluation and feedback in your congregation, please reach out to your regional staff. We want your ministries to flourish, so we will help in whatever way we can.

Blessings on your work.


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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