Most people think experience is the name of the game—that the longer a person teaches, the better he or she gets. Nonsense. Just as ripping through wood dulls the teeth of a carpenter's saw, so experience tends to wear away my edge. I have found only evaluated experience sharpens my skills. Evaluation hones the edge.
Teaching without evaluation can erode my effectiveness in many ways. Poor methods become ingrained habits. I can assume I'm doing better than I really am and become complacent. I can conclude something works when it actually doesn't. I can lose touch with my audience, teaching in a vacuum. Also, time exaggerates my idiosyncrasies rather than lessening them. And without anything to keep me on my toes, I can get sloppy.
That's why, like the carpenter who painstakingly files each tooth on his crosscut saw, I evaluate every session I teach. And I invite others to critique me in various ways. The longer I go, the more I feel the need. But I find that many pastors and teachers have serious reservations about evaluation.
Overcoming Our Hesitancy
Some may fear evaluation undermines their authority: "If I encourage people to take a critical look at me, they will take it on as their role in life. I'm opening Pandora's box. They will assume I'm more interested in their opinions and preferences than God's. It may suggest that I'm merely giving a performance. Would Jeremiah ask the Jews to evaluate his prophecy?"
I have found, however, that inviting evaluation has precisely the opposite effect. A teacher who is vulnerable, realistic, and committed to excellence wins the respect of others. It shows personal security and strength. Especially in our society, pedestals diminish credibility, while leaders who are open with others gain respect.
Inviting evaluation also helps people identify with me and become more supportive of my ministry; in a sense I'm recruiting them on my team. I will often ask the conference director of the event I'm speaking at to evaluate my messages, both before and after giving them. That not only helps me hone my skills, it reinforces the idea that together we're trying to make for an effective conference.
Second, some may hesitate to invite evaluation because of other people's biases. One person wants us to exegete the Bible verse by verse. Another wants a string of stories. One wants us to shout; another wants us to quiet down. One says we're too emotional, another that we need more urgency. One wants us to speak more to human needs, while another decries our lack of doctrinal content.
Each one wants us to imitate his or her favorite preacher. Although people think it is a matter of right or wrong, we know it is a matter of preference, style, or gifts, and so we don't think they are qualified to comment.
People may indeed be biased, but I still don't want to jettison evaluation. I have found that I simply must evaluate the evaluations. I have to recognize where people are coming from and read their comments with that perspective.
On one occasion I received a cryptic note from a woman who felt my sense of humor was unspiritual. In fact, she threatened to get up and walk out, with her companions, if I continued to "indulge in levity." I double-checked with the coordinator of the event at which I was speaking and with his full support went on as usual. Nobody got up and walked out, but I was better informed about my audience.
The greater the number of evaluators, though, the more I will get a balanced profile of my own ministry. I will recognize the extremes on both ends. Even the extremes can help me see that, yes, I could use a little humor, for example, or more stories. Even fierce critics can be my best friends.