Feedback from the Flock
It is important to know how the congregation receives preaching
Every congregation is different. And certainly, every congregation’s response to a given priest’s homily is going to be different. In order to have the most effective communication with the congregation, priests benefit in knowing how their homilies are being received.
In this way, it is important for priests to be able to receive feedback on their preaching. But how can this be done? Is it inherently disrespectful to give such feedback? Should priests simply give the congregation what they feel they need to hear, without consideration of their preferences?
Preach the Gospel
An important part of seminary formation is homiletics, when future priests learn the art of preaching. Benedictine Father Guerric DeBona, a frequent contributor to The Priest, is a professor of homiletics at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana.
“If it is the priest’s first duty to preach the Gospel,” he said, “then how will we know this evangelization has been effective unless we check with those who have heard the word?” Feedback is the way that priests can see just how that word was received and under what conditions, he said.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis discusses the homily as a gold mine for concrete images and stories. And when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released its document on the homily, “Preaching the Mystery of Faith,” it used the story of Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke to call the preacher’s attention to the necessity of the liturgical homily igniting the fire in the hearts of those who hear the word, Father DeBona said.
Opening the Word
“Like Jesus, the preacher must strive to allow the incarnate Word to be fulfilled in their hearing at the celebration of the liturgy and call forth a faith-filled response,” Father DeBona said. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus presented himself to the disciples in a sort of homily, opening the Scriptures.
“Jesus opened up the Scriptures and broke bread for the discouraged disciples, and in so doing he was present to them in a new and astonishing way,” he said. “Recalling God’s wonderful works in our lives and in salvation history becomes the locus of the Eucharist, where the assembly is repositioned from a conflicted and discouraged society to remember the risen Lord until he comes again.”
These examples make it obvious, Father DeBona said, that the congregation should give feedback regarding the homily.
“Feedback from the Sunday homily is not a time to receive approval ratings or check to see if people like you or not,” Father DeBona said. “Greeting the congregation with the hopes that everyone will say, ‘Nice homily, Father!’ is sad as much as it is useless.”
Preachers need to approach feedback dispassionately, he said. One concrete suggestion he has is to distribute cards that the faithful can fill out at the end of Mass. “We make time for announcements of all sorts, so why not a minute or two in order to answer the following question: ‘Can you say in one sentence what you heard at the homily?’”
People often report that homilies have too many ideas going on, and there is a general lack of focus. If the congregation cannot follow the homily, they certainly will not get the point.
Father DeBona said that if preachers decide on a focus sentence to guide the homily and then figure out specific tactics to make that focus sentence land, there is a good chance everyone will walk away with the point made.
In response to those who may not feel comfortable giving feedback to the priest about his preaching, Father DeBona explains that it is important for everyone to offer constructive criticism when it’s warranted.
“They are listeners of the word of God, members of the baptized assembly,” he said. “The People of God have a right to hear the word as members of the faithful.”
Preaching and Evangelization
Father DeBona sees a link between preaching and evangelization.
“We partner with the assembly as we proclaim the word for the sake of the Church’s mission as mandated by the risen Lord,” he said. “Frankly, it stands to reason that if the people demand more from preaching, they will ramp up expectations for better evangelization.”
He hopes that, if expectations for the homily are high, priests “will also evolve a crucial personal theology of preaching, based on the pastoral growth in the hearts of those who are waiting for the word to be fulfilled in their hearing.”
What Is Heard
“Preaching, like any kind of communication, is not only about what is said but also what is heard,” said Father Dan Folwaczny, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, currently serving as associate pastor at St. Norbert and Our Lady of the Brook Parish in Northbrook, Illinois. “Feedback is crucial so I can learn if my preaching is having the effect I am hoping for.”
|Code of Canon Law|
”Preaching is nothing less than a
participation in the dynamic power of the
apostolic witness to the very Word that
created the world, the Word that was given
to the prophets and teachers of Israel, and
the Word that became flesh.”
— Code of Canon Law, Paragraph 767
The most common feedback priests receive is a quick “Good sermon, Father” on the way out the door, he said. “Leaving it at that might be good for my ego, but it probably won’t help me grow in my preaching.”
Father Folwaczny said that priests need to seek out constructive feedback, particularly from parishioners with whom they feel comfortable and whose opinion they value. “If you’re nervous about giving a priest feedback and criticism, first of all, pray for him and his preaching,” Father Folwaczny said. It is important to pray for and support our priests, and to let them know that they are supported.
“Preaching is a moment of vulnerability,” he said, “so if we already know that you have our best interests at heart, it will be easier for us to hear if we are not being as effective as we may have thought.”
Feedback Can Spur Growth
At the University of Notre Dame, the John M. Marten Program in Homiletics and Liturgics helps to train future priests in the art of preaching. One of the crucial features that the program seeks to emphasize is the connection between “pulpit and pew,” between preacher and congregation.
“From coaching almost a hundred diocesan priests, I have found that very few preachers have an accurate idea of how they are doing with their preaching,” said Karla Bellinger, associate director of the Marten Program.
Many priests only hear themselves preach Sunday after Sunday, she said. It can be daunting to be creative and engaging, not to mention theologically inspiring, week after week.
“Yet from my research,” she said, “the homily plays a significant role in forming the faith of the people in the pews. An incremental improvement in the quality of Catholic homilies could spark an exponential renewal in our people. Feedback can spur growth.”
Bellinger referred to one parish where the priest led a Bible study each Tuesday following Mass, which gave attendees the opportunity to give feedback on the previous Sunday’s homily and to give thoughts on future homilies. But she does caution that not all congregational feedback can be helpful.
“Many of those who listen do not have a strong grasp of what goes into crafting an effective homily,” she said. “Many will tell the preacher, ‘Good homily, Father!’ because they don’t know what else to say; that is not particularly helpful. Coming back later in the week to say, ‘I remember that you said [blank], and as a result I did [blank] differently’ — that is more accurate and helpful.”
Bellinger is the author of “Connecting Pulpit and Pew” (Liturgical Press, $19.95), which offers suggestions for how to open the conversation between pastor and congregant. The book has yielded many responses, including a woman who gives the preacher each Sunday a statement about what she found helpful in the homily.
“As a result,” Bellinger said, “the preachers in her parish look forward to hearing what she has to say.”
Much of the time, Bellinger’s comments include admonitions for the homily being too long.
“Most preachers put a lot of effort into their homilies,” she said. “They would like to know that their words are touching someone. And not just ‘I liked your joke.’ To touch people’s hearts is serious business, and most clergy would like to do it well.”
Bellinger laments that far too many preachers have given up and have resigned themselves to an attitude that says, “It’s good enough,” or “The people aren’t listening anyway.”
“But somebody’s life may depend on that homily this Sunday,” she said. Preachers need to “take the time to learn to communicate well.”
“Preaching is an act of love,” Bellinger said. “To lift the weary, to encourage the brokenhearted, to fire up the lackadaisical — that is the opportunity available when a preacher speaks to so many people so constantly.”
PAUL SENZ holds a master of arts in pastoral ministry from the University of Portland and lives in Oregon with his family.