This week, Barbara Blodgett takes on the subject of mentors and feedback in theological field education.  Reading it, however, we at Alban were struck by how much this subject could apply to all seasons of ministry, and we hope that you too can apply the secrets of feedback to your own evaluation processes. 

As the director of a divinity school internship program, I worked with pairs of student interns and their supervisors to create quality internship experiences where interns would grow in their pastoral skills and identity under the guidance and mentoring of experienced supervisors. Most internships were very rich, I began to suspect that one thing that might improve the experience for students would be if they received more and better feedback at their sites. Interns generally received a lot of praise for their work, which, not unsurprisingly, made them feel good. But their reports suggested that they were often left on their own to figure out a great deal about how to do ministry. Too many would arrive at their weekly reflection groups on campus still unsure about how and what they were doing. I decided that interns needed more time built into their internships for reflecting on their performance and gaining wisdom about what made their ministry go well.

Hoping therefore to help wean intern-supervisor pairs off of praise and onto feedback, I designed a process called the Observation Report. The Observation Report was to be accomplished in three parts. First, the intern was to write down what skill they would be working on in the activity being observed, add something about their personal and professional goals relative to the particular skill, and say what it was they wanted their supervisor to watch for. Then, the supervisor would show up for the activity and observe the intern doing ministry. Finally, the supervisor was to answer the intern’s questions and offer any additional feedback that was especially pertinent but for which the intern may not have asked.

I thought it would be so simple.

Instead, I noticed several kinds of resistance to the practice of feedback. One form of resistance seemed to come from the interns themselves. When asked to write about their goals going into the activity to be observed, some described such challenges as getting enough people to attend a program, having sufficient time for what they were hoping to do, or relying on volunteers to come through—in other words, things that, while important to a successful activity, would fall largely outside their control. It was as though they resisted hearing feedback on their part in the success of the ministry. Or perhaps they simply did not know how to identify their part and set their own goals.

Sometimes supervisors exacerbated this problem. They would respond to such requests for feedback by confirming the appropriateness of the concerns, saying things like “I never know myself who’s going to show up.” It was as if they were saying, “Yes, ministry is just really hard sometimes” and leaving it at that without identifying the nature of the difficulty or possible responses. Then, they would praise the intern with statements like “You were great, given the circumstances.”

I came to name this pattern on the part of interns and supervisors collusion, and I began to wonder: Do we like receiving praise for hard things as a substitute for analyzing what is hard about them? As praise givers, do we sometimes use praise to cover our own anxiety about the hard things we are asking others to do? Indeed, upon reflection, one supervisor admitted that praise was a way for him to mask the anxiety of “the intern inside him.”

Another pattern in the reports suggested a second kind of resistance to feedback and a preference for praise. I found it very common for supervisors to comment on how “natural” their intern seemed at ministry. Supervisors very rarely attributed their interns’ success to hard work or strategies of improvement. They praised their intern for being natural in performing an activity even and especially when interns had explicitly stated their discomfort or trepidation with it. Clearly, those interns had not yet attributed any excellent performance to their “nature,” yet supervisors seemed eager to do so. I suspect that supervisors and others talk about natural abilities when they mean excellent, because often when something is done very well it looks smooth and effortless. However, if you think closely about it, when we go out of our way to praise people for what they do naturally or effortlessly, we are specifically disvaluing any effort they put in. People say, “He’s good, but he had to work at it,” as though working at something is an embarrassment. But why should we applaud success that was not earned through work?

Overall, I found that supervisors’ initial attempts at the Observation Report process tended toward generalization and flattery. Some tried to stick to feedback but could not help themselves and amended a concluding praiseworthy comment. Almost without exception, supervisors used the space for further comments not to add further pertinent observations but rather to make a summary statement like “Aaron has the potential to become an extraordinary preacher!” I got the sense that many thought by not implicitly giving their intern a high score and producing a favorable comparison to other theoretical interns, they were responding inadequately. Or, perhaps, it was as though commenting on specific details as one does when giving feedback did not seem enough, so general comments (“good, solid preacher”) were thrown in to round out the assessment.

Finally, some supervisors could not help but express personal satisfaction with their intern. They would go well beyond the activity observed to write about how proud they were of the intern’s ministry or how grateful they were to get to work with that intern. To me, statements like these suggest that praise is often used to express two sentiments: pride and gratitude. Both pride and gratitude have their place, but they reflect more on the praise giver than the praised.

In the Observation Report process, supervisors were given the option of letting a layperson or a staff member do an occasional report. It was interesting to note during the first year that, without exception, such nonclergy individuals gave more straightforward assessments that avoided praise-laden language. For example, one parishioner wrote about listening to a sermon, “The message was quite clear to me; however, Chris does tend to rush a bit.” They also provided more detail. In a mental health setting where the intern was running a program, a staff member observed, “I saw people genuinely interested in her presentation. The room was quiet with almost all eyes on the podium, which doesn’t always happen here.” I came to conclude that laypeople were generally free of the need to express how proud and grateful they were for the intern’s performance—perhaps because they had less riding on the intern’s success—and could just get on with the business of feedback.

Interested in learning more? In partnership with the Alban Institute, Andover Newton Theological Seminary is offering LEARN online seminars. Barbara Blodgett will be teaching “Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry” October 17-November 11. Register by October 7 to reserve your spot! 


Comments welcome on the   Alban Roundtable blog     

Adapted from Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry by Barbara J. Blodgett, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   



AL411_SM Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be: Four Practices for Improving Ministry   
by Barbara J. Blodgett 

Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be unapologetically urges clergy readers to develop practices that will help them become more excellent ministers. A long-time field educator, now serving as a denominational staff person responsible for ministerial formation, Barbara Blodgett believes excellence is a matter of doing simple things with care and consistency. Ministers who commit themselves to excellence will grow and flourish, and even become happier in ministry. 

AL408_SM Starting with Spirit: Nurturing Your Call to Pastoral Leadership  
by Bruce G. Epperly

For more than thirty years, Bruce Epperly has followed the call of the spirit, moving through his vocations as a congregational pastor, university chaplain, seminary and university professor, and seminary administrator. Drawing on these experiences, he addresses the new pastor’s transition from seminary student to congregational leader; pastoral authority; the “honeymoon”; boundaries; death; the pastor’s spiritual life, health, and relationships; the role of the associate pastor; and continuing education. 

AL407_SM Welcome to Theological Field Education!    
by Matthew Floding

Field education is an opportunity for students to develop ministry skills, practice ministerial reflection, discern their call, experience professional collegiality, and undergo personal transformation. In Welcome to Theological Field Education! eleven directors of field education in seminaries and divinity schools across North America pass on their wisdom to both students and their supervisors.   

AL340_SM Shaping Spiritual Leaders: Supervision and Formation in Congregations  
by Abigail Johnson

Supervision—the shaping of spiritual leaders—occurs formally and informally in many aspects of congregational life. Johnson views supervision as a ministry and shows how leaders can use their own innate gifts to enhance their supervision skills. By shaping the supervision relationship based on the gifts of the people involved as well as the context in which the relationship occurs, supervision can become an opportunity for mutual growth and learning that strengthens all other areas of ministry.


Head south this fall for these Alban Learning events:  

Peers,Larry 120x

Resilient Power of Story to Transform your Leadership
Leader: Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant
November 1–3, 2011, Franciscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale, AZ


Nienaber,Susan 120x Denominational Executives and the Conflicted Church
Leader: Susan Nienaber, Alban Senior Consultant
December 6–8, 2011, Marywood Center for Spirituality, Jacksonville, FL


For a full list of learning events, check out
  Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar    


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