Elders Handling Sermon Criticism

Discussion in 'Preaching' started by PaulCLawton, Feb 16, 2020.

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  1. PaulCLawton

    PaulCLawton Puritan Board Freshman

    Hello all,
    I would appreciate some general tips and things to keep in mind (especially from elders) for an elder who is to handle a meeting with a member who intends to share concerns or criticism on the minister's preaching.
  2. Poimen

    Poimen Puritan Board Post-Graduate

    Obviously pray with them first. Ensure that the criticisms are mainly scripture based. Gently challenge them to provide scripture (as a counterpoint) when applicable. Encourage them to be specific & (if possible) provide examples of their criticism. Too often my experience has been that people generalise in these matters. For example, it might be said that the pastor's preaching is not "practical enough." Okay, what do they mean by that? Do they want more sermons on the ten commandments? Is it not heart searching enough? How do they think it can be improved?

    Perhaps you will discover that they listen to other ministers or read other's sermons. Now this is a great practice to be sure but consider, if so, are they comparing their minister with another (not appointed to shepherd their soul)? Indeed, such comparisons are not options for Christians who have such a high view of the means of grace. Perhaps you could begin by reading HC, Q&A 65&67. Also, uphold the preaching of the word of God as God's chosen means of grace by the chosen minister but not by putting him above criticism. Listen well, and take their concerns to heart. Let them know that you are concerned about their spiritual well-being along with the pastor's.

    Finally, knowing something of the situation you are referring to, remind them that he is newly ordained and is still learning. I have been preaching for 15+ years but I must admit that, in the last few years, it is almost as if I have only begun to learn how to preach. Maybe that is an isolated incident, but I can only look back with heartache at the way I used to preach.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2020
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  3. Edward

    Edward Puritanboard Commissioner

    Suggested agenda:
    1 - Thank him for following process instead of engaging in divisive trouble making. Pray together.
    2 - Listen, don't debate.
    3 - Pin him (or her) to specifics. (see the Rev. Kok's more detailed discussion above.)
    4 - Advise that you want to review some sermons in light of the concerns.
    5 -Schedule a follow up meeting.

    Do what you said you would do in 4. Determine if the concerns are legitimate or not, and if so, are they fixable, and how. (If the pastor is fairly new, I would speculate that they might come down to 'the new guy isn't a clone of the old guy'.)

    Have the follow up meeting.

    And remember this could be a case of what I sometimes remind other leaders in our church. "Just because I'm the only one willing to openly say this to you doesn't mean I'm the only one thinking it".
  4. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Senior

    What he said. This is excellent advice.
  5. JollyGreenGavin

    JollyGreenGavin Puritan Board Freshman

    There is danger here. It would be easy for both of you to fall into gossip and slander when you engage in a meeting to “share concerns or criticism of the minister’s preaching.”

    Instead of focusing the attention of the meeting on the minister, it would be better to turn it to focus on the critical spirit of the congregant. Challenge this person to some serious self examination. There may be a log in his eye that needs to be removed prior to any attempt at the speck in the ministers.
  6. Romans922

    Romans922 Puritan Board Professor

    I'd say if one has issues with the minister's preaching that the meeting be with the minister, elder, and the member who has the concerns.

    Nothing needs to happen behind people's back. The minister needs to be humble, and probably encouraged to not respond defensively, the member needs to careful to seek clarity submissively, and the elder can act as a facilitator in the hopes of keeping peace.
  7. greenbaggins

    greenbaggins Administrator Staff Member

    Without knowing more specifics about this person, I could not know how to advise you for sure. I think Gavin's point is right on to start with. People are very quick to criticize pastors today because they play the comparison game with celebrity pastors, and they want their pastor to sound like someone he is not. Is this person a troublemaker? I do not agree with Andrew in this case. The elders need to protect their minister from bad criticism. If the criticism is valid, only then involve him. The issue I have with the situation is that if the problem lies with the parishioner, and not the pastor, then the pastor will not really be the best person to deal with it, because he will appear defensive no matter what he says to try to help the person, and the person won't receive it because they will think they are right and the pastor is blind. The ruling elder, on the other hand, can determine with relative ease whether the criticism is valid or not, and will be in the best position to see if anything further needs to happen. If it is not valid, he should be able to point out why to the parishioner, and the pastor doesn't even need to know. If something needs to change in the pastor's sermons, then the person and the elder can meet with the pastor.
  8. David Taylor

    David Taylor Puritan Board Freshman

    There is danger in this as well. If the concerns are indeed legitimate, this could come across as just dismissing the congregant allowing potential error to continue. It is a fine line.
  9. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    I know Andrew can speak for himself but he may have assumed that an elder(s) have already filtered the complainer for frivolity.
  10. JollyGreenGavin

    JollyGreenGavin Puritan Board Freshman

    If the concern is legitimate, then the ruling elders ought to have already discerned it and begun addressing it with the minister. However, it should not be a discussion that is carried outside of the session.

    This is not the case in most situations. Normally what we find is that the grumbling stems from the congregant’s preference rather than the minister’s heretical teaching...

    I am also not encouraging the OP to dismiss his congregant. I am encouraging him to fulfill his call to shepherd him.
  11. PaulCLawton

    PaulCLawton Puritan Board Freshman

    Thank you brothers for all the responses thus far, very helpful.
  12. Edward

    Edward Puritanboard Commissioner

    Stonewalling and attacking the member with the concerns without actually hearing those concerns would be a very poor course of action. At that point, the best outcome would be that the member leaves in anger. I would even go so far as to suggest that that response would be cult-like.

    A session that would take that attitude has probably already lost contact with the membership and is encouraging gossip and dissension. Here, the member has done the right thing by taking a concern to an elder. Do you really think the proper response is for the elder to say, in effect, "Shut up and mind your place around your betters"?

    I would submit the better approach is to hear the member out. If he or she is out of line, deal with that. If they are right, then deal with that issue. Arrogantly shut it down, and the session is opting to play the 'split the church' game.
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  13. SavedSinner

    SavedSinner Puritan Board Freshman

    Unless it is urgent, he should save it for family visitation next July or whatever. My guess is that most churches no longer have family visitation, or even know what it is. Unlike most other churches, reformed ministers and elders used to require feedback from everyone at least once a year. The elders (or even the pastor) would ask if we are being edified by the preaching of our pastor. They wanted to know the positive or negative effect the preaching was having on us; I think preaching and family worship were always the central questions. Feedback was a requirement then, so perhaps that is why nowadays people complain so much.

    And in the Dutch churches you also get the annual elder visitors from congregations in your classis. So in that case, you have two opportunities per year, at both the family and congregation level. But even after every worship service, immediately after the benediction in some continental churches, one of the elders will walk to the pastor and shake his hand in front of the congregation. If there was no public handshake, I was told that there would be a consistory meeting discussing the sermon.
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  14. JollyGreenGavin

    JollyGreenGavin Puritan Board Freshman

    Let me clarify again that I am not encouraging the congregant to be dismissed, attacked, stonewalled, or any other negative term that has been applied to this discussion. I am encouraging shepherding. I will try to further clarify my position in hopes that you will understand my previous posts are not encouraging this type of attitude toward the member, rather they are encouraging honor towards the minister.

    I like to prepare healthy meals for my family. My wife and I have three boys under the age of ten. After work, I may spend an hour in the kitchen on many nights preparing a meal that will nourish my boys and help them to grow. I try to be very cautious of the ingredients that I use. Sometimes the meal I prepare, in its entirety, is received with great joy, but most of the time that is not the case. In their grumbling over the parts of the meal that they do not like they might ask that I not prepare anything with broccoli in it again. However, I know that broccoli is good for them, so I will prepare later meals that include broccoli even though they have not acquired a taste for it yet. I will also require them to eat some of the broccoli at each meal. Now they can respond in many different ways to this. They can wail and plead with me, which is the norm. They can go to their mother and complain about how their dad does not listen to them, their mother could then either encourage them to continue complaining, reassure them that their dad loves them and is giving them good food that they might live, or instruct them to come and discuss the broccoli with me. Finally, they can come to me, engage me in a conversation as a son should a father, and we will have a discussion about the benefits of broccoli and how they will acquire a taste for it if they continue to consume it regularly.

    I think, most ministers would agree that what they work to prepare all week long is a spiritual meal for the benefit of the children of God in their local congregation, of which they are the father (little “F”). I would like for us to give each of our ministers the benefit of the doubt that they are diligently gathering the correct ingredients that will be prepared into a meal that is good for our spiritual health. So how should we respond when we bite into something that doesn’t please our taste buds? The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 127 is of help here:

    Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?
    A. The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

    Now, this also speaks to my comment about how the session should respond in the case of the pastor erring in his sermon. First off, the elders ought to be sitting under the same preaching and teaching as the member. These men also should be able to discern if there is poison mixed in with the meal, and address this issue with the minister privately, so that the minister himself can address any error with the congregation. Shem and Japheth are our example here:

    23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. – Genesis 9:23

    You are correct that some children will rebel against this. They thrive on their independence, and do not recognize that the minister is their superior. Many will argue that the opposite is actually true. They would see the minister as merely a paid employee that answers to their employer, the congregation. And no, I am not saying, “Shut up and mind your betters.” I am encouraging us all to walk as the Lord has called us to walk. I do not know all of the details of the OP’s situation, and I hope that he is able to lovingly shepherd his congregant as a father would a son.
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  15. Alan D. Strange

    Alan D. Strange Puritan Board Senior


    What you say, above, brother is fine, if the pastor under criticism responds correctly, i.e., can receive and benefit from criticism.

    As one who teaches pastors and interacts a lot with pastors, elders, and congregants out in the churches, some pastors do not respond well to criticism. It's much easier done in theory than in practice for us all. Many pastors, however, are not able to take legitimate criticism and let it help make them better, as we all need to be.

    Much good has been offered in this thread. I wish that I could say that it's as simple as you portray it: good preachers wanting to provide good spiritual food.

    If we are encouraged herein to think the best of pastors, and I think that members should seek to do so, then we ought also to think the best of parishioners and not assume that someone having some criticism for the pastor has no real warrant for it, or should be made to feel ashamed for thinking such is needed.

    Sermon criticism should be carefully, thoughtfully, and lovingly offered. It is most successful when the pastor himself seeks it and makes it clear that he really wants such so that he may improve in all the ways that he needs to improve.

    He should be honestly seeking this from his elders, who can, in turn, assure parishioners that the pastor welcomes it. Then criticism can come through them and be properly filtered. I don't mean that it should never come directly from parishioners but the best way is through the elders (through their visits to congregants or otherwise gaining such through talking with them).

    This is a difficult subject and it's good to talk about it here. My counsel is that we remain open around the board so that all may profit maximally.

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  16. richardnz

    richardnz Puritan Board Freshman

    Years ago I heard members question by what standard or guideline should sermons be evaluated. I point to the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship, the section "Of the Preaching of the Word". I have never heard a congregational member suggest a better alternative.
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  17. timfost

    timfost Puritan Board Senior

    In our church, the elders are assigned an annual member visit to an individual/family. We ask them about the preaching among other things and receive their feedback. We report at our monthly meetings with the pastor.

    I would not say our pastor is the best preacher I've ever heard. But, he is incredibly welcoming and receptive to hearing the members as they bring their concerns and asks for feedback at nearly every Consistory (session) meeting.

    I would rather have a pastor with this kind of humility then the best speaker who does not welcome such feedback.
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  18. mvdm

    mvdm Puritan Board Junior

    I think it is important for elders to have settled upon objective criteria to evaluate sermons, e.g. a sermon evaluation form. The benefits:

    1. Avoids subjective criticisms such as "I just didn't feel fed".
    2. Focuses the parishioner to express his criticism clearly in light of objective criteria.
    3. Protects the minister from unfair criticism.
    4. Provides the minister constructive feedback when used properly.

    Our church developed a Sermon Evaluation form some years ago and it proved useful to both our church and the minister.
  19. Edward

    Edward Puritanboard Commissioner

    It sounds like on the pastor - preacher - administrator chart, your man would be weighted toward the 'pastor' point. Hitting two out of the three is great, all three is extremely rare. It sounds like your pastor has self-awareness, and is working on building in his 'opportunities for growth'. Sounds like a keeper. Keep giving him positive encouragement when possible.
  20. gjensen

    gjensen Puritan Board Freshman

    Unfortunately, this is all too common.
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