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.
For better or worse, I don't teach in a vacuum. I cannot disregard how people perceive me, for they are my "customers." Even if professional rhetoricians and homileticians reviewed my every message approvingly, in the end my most important evaluators are still the people who receive my ministry. If they're not sensing the benefit, something has to change.
Third, some of us can fear the truth. We may not be ready to face up to the fact that our teaching has failings. We avoid evaluations like any bad news. But I have found that bad news catches up with me sooner or later, and much more painfully than if I had faced it while I could do something about it.
For example, in the past I have used illustrations from my family that they did not heartily appreciate. Also, in my early years I sometimes used big words in my teaching. Before long, some friends who were honest and secure enough confronted me head-on with my lack of judgment, and I corrected myself. I appreciate them for it.
Fourth, we can overspiritualize the issue: "It's not my job, or anybody else's, to grade my ministry. Only God can judge that. In teaching, unseen things happen that won't be known till judgment day."
As true as that is, I've still found that the Holy Spirit who helps me understand the Bible and prepare my messages also teaches me through others how to do it more effectively. He may be the source of wisdom for me, yet he helps communicate that wisdom through others. Perceptive listeners who ask questions are probably my best source for improvement. I know from them what I left out, what I skimmed over too quickly, perhaps even what I had not thought through well enough.
Finally, we recognize how difficult it is to evaluate the intangibles of ministry. Other vocations have objective ways of determining whether a person is getting the job done. If 60 percent of a surgeon's patients are dying, it's clear he's got a problem. A lawyer either wins the case or loses. We can see whether a carpenter has plumbed his building square.
But how do we quantify spirituality? When people sin and fail, can we take the blame for a fallen culture? What if we are doing the hard work of sowing while a more fortunate worker reaps? Lacking objective measures, people end up looking at the externals: buildings, money, baptisms, programs. Faced with such superficiality, we may say "No thanks" to evaluations.
This is a false dilemma, however. I've found valid criteria for determining whether my teaching is well communicated and well delivered, and whether people are finding helpful truth for their lives.
What I Evaluate
Though we can never be as exact as a scientist, we can realistically evaluate the effectiveness of teaching by asking two broad questions.
Am I reaching my ultimate goal? I have set a twofold goal: (1) to present believers perfect in Christ, and (2) to equip them for ministry. Therefore my objective as a teacher is definitely not the mere passing along of information; it is nothing less than change and maturation.
I can assess that by looking at the lives of those I teach. But the number one question I ask is not "Where are they?" but "In what direction are they moving?" I find that out by getting alongside people, talking with them, finding out how they're implementing these nuggets I'm handing out.
A pharmacist and his wife trusted Christ and enrolled in my course on the Christian home. After only a few sessions they came to me and said, "We never knew we had a problem until we started to study the Scripture. We thought all marriages were as troubled as ours." My wife and I stayed in touch with this couple as they began to deal with new insights. Not only did their marriage improve, they also saw radical changes in their children. Meanwhile I saw that the gospel I taught was clearly life-changing.
Often, however, the effects of our teaching won't be fully seen until a crisis. One of my students, for example, may not show a lot of outward change in her conduct, but when her father or mother dies suddenly, and she works through her grief with a strong trust in God, dedicating herself even more deeply to serve the Lord, I know that the seeds I planted have taken root. Nothing reveals what's growing under the soil like a spiritual test. So that's another time I can evaluate the effectiveness of my teaching.
I also try to note the class's immediate reaction to my teaching. I'm suspicious of my teaching if people just pack their belongings and walk out of the room when class ends. I know I've done something right when students "whoosh" to the front and besiege me with questions.
Effective teaching has to provoke something, unsettle some cherished notions, open people's eyes to things they've never realized. Effective truth is a catalyst in the minds and emotions, causing a spiritual reaction. If I'm doing my job—provoking people to think about things in a way they never have—I'll hear about it.
I also watch keenly for a change in values. Ultimately that's where all change begins. After a recent teaching series, a man in our church said to me, "I don't know where I've been all my life. I can't believe I could be that far removed from the real target."
"What do you think the real target is?" I asked.
"Well, I've suddenly realized my family is my greatest asset. I've been selling my soul for a mess of pottage."
Even if I can't follow that man around and see whether he's spending more time with his family, I know his values have shifted.
I also look for other key attitudes, especially an increasing hunger for God and his righteousness. Are people starting to fall in love with the Lord? Is there some evidence of the supernatural in their lives? Are people being delivered from self? Are they starting to care about others?
Does my teaching communicate? That's not hard to evaluate. For one thing, if I don't have enough illustrations to bring light into my material, it will fall short. So I can look at my notes and count the number of illustrations.
I can also look at the number of stories I tell. Narratives improve communication. Whether stories come from the Bible, my personal experience, the newspaper, or other people, I know that my people won't identify as well with my messages without them.
Dale Carnegie discovered this right from the start. When he began in New York, he had 27 or so people in his first class. The students were only required to pay him a week at a time, so if they didn't enjoy it, they wouldn't come back. He knew if he didn't connect, he was finished.
In his first class, he ran out of material before the hour was up. In a panic he called a fellow from the front row to come to the front of the class, and he started asking him questions about his life. The guy talked, and the class was interested. He learned that people are interested in people's stories.
I also evaluate the quantity of material I cover. My anthropology teacher at Wheaton College was one of the finest teachers I've had. One time I asked the teacher, "Doctor, how do you do it?"
"I take the material," he said, "boil it down to the irreducible minimum, and then spread it over the semester."
I think about that when I hear messages that have so much information in them that listeners can't possibly assimilate it all. That's like trying to give someone a drink with an open fire hydrant. When I do that, I may be dispensing information, but I'm not being effective.
I also evaluate my transitions. I don't want to fall into the trap of planning what to say but not how to say it: "Now, I want to illustrate this point, because it's a very important point, and I was reading in the Bible the other day, and I came across an illustration out of the life of Elijah, and it was a real grabber, and I want you to see it, 'cause it'll drive home the point."
In all that piffle I haven't said anything, but I've consumed a lot of time. So I objectively evaluate whether I've pinpointed my transitions: "One morning Elijah's servant awoke him early … "
How I Evaluate
A chef in pursuit of culinary perfection wants feedback from more than one gourmet or one customer. Likewise the more people who critique my teaching, the more evaluation methods used, the more likely I will gain an accurate and thorough picture of my effectiveness.
To begin with, then, I evaluate myself briefly after every teaching opportunity, and I ask three questions.
1. What did I do well? If I only highlight failings, my confidence suffers. I need to encourage myself with the positive, for by affirming the good I reinforce it.
2. What did I do poorly? During my teaching I will sense when I don't connect or communicate clearly. Often the best time to pinpoint the cause is immediately afterward.
3. What should I change? Sometimes, for instance, I will decide afterward to convert what I've just taught into handouts. Or I may have discovered a type of illustration or story that resonates, so I'll plan more of the same for the future. I also make specific, step-by-step plans to fill any gaps.
This only scratches the surface of the self-evaluation I do. Together with my wife I evaluate my life and ministry daily as well as doing periodic check-ups on a broader scale. For many years, especially when our young family tended to distract, Jeanne and I scheduled occasional weekends for planning and praying together. We tried to put the past, present, and future into perspective. Nothing in our marriage has been more effective for gaining a sense of direction.
I also invite others to evaluate my teaching both in writing and verbally. Since most people don't like saying anything negative to my face, I often use written evaluations. This also helps them give a careful assessment. Verbal feedback, though, is useful sometimes: it's immediate; comments can be clarified; I can read the person's body language and so "hear" more nuances in their remarks.
How I frame questions significantly affects the feedback. I ask open-ended questions ("What parts of this class helped you?") that harvest whatever is on the evaluator's mind, or directive questions ("Did my introduction get your attention?") to point them specifically to issues I'm curious about.
Periodically I debrief a class. I sit down with some students over refreshments and ask what spoke to them, what they understood me to be saying, what questions they have. I've found this one of the more productive means of feedback.
On occasion I will gather a focus group that represents various demographic slices in my church. It might include young singles, married couples with teens, or retirees. Not long ago my wife and I met with some senior citizens in a retirement center. We wanted to hear their thinking, their problems, their dreams in order to devise ministry that meets specific needs.
In addition, I've been helped by bringing in a professional—a college speech professor, for example. He will spot things that the untrained eye would overlook, offering a sophisticated critique of the finer points of teaching.
There is a cost to evaluation, as well as a payoff. It requires time, effort, and openness. On some days it encourages me; on others, it knocks the wind out. Frequently evaluation turns up nothing new. But then come those precious, few insights that advance my effectiveness by a quantum leap.
Finally, I keep one thought in mind as I consider my evaluations: I'm never quite as bad as I, or others, think. Nor am I quite as good. Because of evaluation, though, I am improving.
Copyright © 1991 by Christianity Today. Originally printed in MASTER TEACHING.