3 Steps to Generating Honest Feedback from Church Staff and Attenders

3 Steps to Generating Honest Feedback from Church Staff and Attenders

Aaron Buer

Digital giving apps and tools

A few years ago, our senior leadership sensed that something was a bit off with our staff team. Turnover was high. Morale seemed to be low and talented, young staff members kept leaving. Thankfully, our leaders did the smartest thing they could do. They asked “why?”.

Great leaders, in any context, ask why. They ask why when they succeed and especially when they fail. Not only did our leaders ask why, they asked the right people why.

They could have gathered the senior leadership team and asked each other why. Instead, they asked the people who were frustrated. They invited every staff member to take a survey. The results were alarming. But, I’m happy to say, our leadership was wise enough to take action.

Fast-forward a few years and our staff is healthier than ever before. The moral of this story is that seeking honest feedback and taking action on that feedback is crucial to successful leadership.

The question I want to tackle in this post is how exactly do you generate honest feedback? I think there's three important steps to this process.

Step 1: Demonstrate Humility

Honest feedback requires a high degree of trust, both from the giver and the receiver. Let me give you a scenario.

Let’s say I work for you and you are the teaching pastor of a church. After preaching a sermon, you step off the stage and ask me, “How was the sermon?” What I say next depends on how much I trust you and what I perceive to be your level of humility.

If I trust you, I’ll tell you the truth. I’ll tell you that your introduction and conclusion were captivating but your second point was a little unclear. If you’re humble, you’ll listen and although it doesn’t feel great to be critiqued, you’ll learn something and deliver a better sermon next week.

However, if you lack humility, you’ll listen but shift your posture backward, cross your arms, and give me a look that says, “I’ve been preaching for 20 years you punk!”

The next time you ask me, “How was the sermon?” I’ll simply smile and say, “It was great!” No honest feedback. No improvement.

That’s a little over the top but I think you get my point. What’s the point of honest feedback if you lack the humility to receive it? And trust me, the people you are asking for feedback already know if you are humble or not.

If you want to generate honest feedback, you have to do the hard work of developing the humble attitude of a learner. If digging deeper into this topic would be helpful, I'd encourage you to check out the book "Thanks for the Feedback" by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.

Step 2: Build a Feedback Rich Culture

Once you are personally moving in the direction of humility, it’s time to begin building a feedback rich culture with your staff team. You know you have a feedback rich culture when every person on your staff, not just managers, feel comfortable giving and receiving helpful feedback. All this feedback leads to growth and positive movement.

How do you build a culture like this? It requires authentic relationships. As you know, without quality relationships, feedback only leads to mistrust and unhealthy competition.

Here are three practical ways we build relationships on my team:

1. Fun

We regularly go out after work for no other reason than having fun together and sharing life. The purpose is deeper relationships and shared memories. If we honestly like each other, we’ll feel much freer to accept and give honest feedback.

2. Questions

We begin every staff meeting with a ridiculous or thoughtful question. Again the purpose is to deepen relationships. Here are some recent examples:

  • Best or worst spring break trip of your life.
  • (St. Patrick’s Day week) Give a 1 minute presentation on an obscure saint.
  • (Valentines week) Worst date you’ve ever been on.
  • Most impactful mission trip you’ve ever been a part of

3. Retreats

We do several off-site meetings during the year and one of them is an overnight. The overnight retreat is a highlight of the year because we do a golf scramble, cook dinner together, debrief the ministry year, strategize what’s next, and mostly importantly deepen relationships through meaningful conversation.

In my experience, it’s important to structure meaningful conversation. Here’s how we structured it on our last retreat:

  • What was the most important moment/event from your childhood?
  • What was the most important moment/event from your teenage years?
  • What was the most important moment/event from your adult life?

The end result of all this fun, shenanigans, and deep questions is a staff team that feels more like family than co-workers. It’s on this foundation that we have built a feedback rich culture.

Once you’re moving in the direction of trusting relationships, you're ready to include feedback in every conversation possible. Feedback always. Don’t wait until the annual review. Tell the person now. We do this in every one-on-one between a manager and a staff member. We do it after every weekend service.

“Here’s what went well and here’s what we can improve.”

I know it sounds insane but it is truly possible to build this sort of culture. And, it is so worth it!

If you're interested in digging deeper, you may find these previous posts helpful:

Step 3: Go Get That Feedback

Lastly, it's critical to regularly seek feedback from important sources. Here are a few ways we do this at our church:

Staff & Congregational Surveys

We continue to participate in yearly staff and congregational surveys. We ask about all kinds of stuff. Are we accomplishing what we think we are accomplishing? Are we communicating as clearly as we think we are? Are people actually using our resources? Ask! A great and affordable tool for surveys is Survey Monkey.

Focus Groups

We also use focus groups. When we are considering a change or have a specific concerns, we’ll pull together a group of people who are, or will be affected, and we listen to what they have to say. Focus groups can be an incredibly effective form of feedback.

Exit Interviews

Exit interviews are awkward but also very helpful. Maybe you don’t have a large staff, but what if you took the time to interview people who step away from a volunteering role or even families who leave your church? Sure, what they say might hurt but it also might be vital feedback that needs to be heard.

Secret Shopper

Recently, we invited millennials to participate in a type of secret shopper program. We want more millennials coming to our church than we currently have and instead of complaining about millennials we decided to offer them a gift card in exchange for attending our church and telling us about what they experienced. While this project isn’t yet complete, we have high hopes that we’ll uncover important feedback.

There are many effective ways to invite feedback. What’s most important is that you pursue it.

Wrap Up

Let me wrap this up with one final challenge.

If we’re going to go to all this trouble, we might want to actually do something about the feedback we encounter. We have to act! We have to move. The work of the Church is far too important for us to grow stale. Let’s work hard to stay humble, listen well, and move forward.

Do you have a feedback-rich culture in your church? Are there any strategies or techniques that have worked well for you that I haven't mentioned here? If so, I'd love to hear about them in the comments below.

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