Some of us were dismayed and disappointed at the preaching we heard this weekend, which expounded on the Beatitudes without making even a veiled reference to the Muslim ban (aka executive order prohibiting entry to citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries, even refugees). I generally try to engage with clergy when something like this happens, privately after the service is over.
Glad you asked, Kevin! So here’s a little how-to guide.
(Note: This post is written from my Catholic perspective, but much of it will be applicable for readers of other traditions as well. In most cases, Catholics hear homilies/sermons at Mass from priests, who are male, although deacons (also male) may also preach and sometimes do.)
First of all, the standard guidelines for giving constructive criticism apply: do it in private, do it respectfully and calmly. (If you’re not calm enough immediately afterwards, maybe go home and write an email later instead.) Talk about the thing, not the person, and talk about this specific instance.
Good: I was troubled by the homily today
Bad: I can’t believe you didn’t even mention refugees – you never talk about what’s happening in the world when you preach!
Always lead with praise for what you can. Was there anything in the homily that you liked, or made you think? Was there anything else during the service that you can comment on appreciatively?
Then, especially if your feedback has to do with anything that is remotely political or controversial in your congregation, be sure to express sympathy for the difficult position that he’s in. It’s hard to preach to a large congregation of people that need or want different things from the preaching they hear, especially in parishes with diverse political views.
I think the best approach to the actual feedback is to frame it as a pastoral matter. Most clergy take pastoral care seriously, so share the spiritual needs you had that were not met by the homily that you got.
Good: With everything in the news and the Muslim ban this weekend, I’ve been very distressed and afraid about what is going on in the country. I came to church hoping for some clear guidance and encouragement to do the right thing [especially after I heard X in the readings], because it’s not always easy to put my faith into action. Even when I’m pretty sure what the right thing is, it helps to hear it from the pulpit, and to see others in the congregation nod in agreement — it helps me realize I’m not alone.
Bad: This text is so clearly applicable to the current situation, I can’t believe you didn’t preach on it. You should have said X, Y, Z, and tied in this element of the first reading, too.
Pro Tip: Do not, repeat, do not engage in exegetical or hermeneutical critique. Resist the urge to describe the sermon you would rather have heard. Go home and write it on your blog instead.
Regardless of how he responds to you, be sure to end by thanking him for his ministry and all his hard work. Priests work hard, and as the priest shortage worsens and parishes get larger, they work harder and harder. People are often quick to criticize and rarely praise, so this can go a long way.
For the same reason, make a point of always thanking the priest after mass for things that really helped you, or spoke to what you needed, or that you really liked. Do it every time – it only takes a minute. Not only is this worth doing for its own sake: it builds up evidence of good will over time and establishes a basically positive relationship, so when you do offer criticism, he’ll be more likely to be able to hear and consider it, instead of going instantly on the defensive, or immediately dismissing it on the grounds that you can’t please everyone.
In fact, if you’ve never given feedback to this priest before, don’t start by bringing up something negative. Wait until you’ve been able to say something positive a few times first — and then wait for the next negative thing, don’t rehash this one.
So, to recap:
- Be calm, respectful, and specific
- Lead with praise for what you can
- Sympathize with his difficulties
- Frame your concern in terms of your own spiritual needs
- Sincerely thank him for his ministry
- Take every opportunity to express appreciation and develop a basically positive relationship
And one last thing — don’t forget to pray for your priests. As we depend on them for pastoral and spiritual care, so they should be able to depend on us for intercessory prayer. Pray that God will strengthen and sustain them in their ministry, console them in their difficulties, enlighten them with wisdom to discern how best to care for their flock, and fortify them with whatever graces they may need.
Readers, do you have any additional advice to share, or stories about how giving feedback worked out well for you? Would any preachers among you like to weigh in? Please share!