Growth & Feedback Loops

September 1, 2021
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As many reading this may know, I've been in a season of life-change for the last number of months. For me, seasons of change often come with reflecting on what I believe, what my values are, and what I understand my life to be about. Some of the best lessons I've learned have come through times of transition and change, and in this article I wanted to share one of those lessons I've found critical to the journey of ministry.

One of my overriding values is growth. Personally, I find growth to be one of the most fulfilling experiences and one of the most powerful motivators. When I'm growing, I find that I can deal with almost any challenge, struggle, frustration, or pain and cheerfully keep moving forward. When I'm not growing, the wind gets knocked out of my sails and the parts of life that I enjoy feel somehow hollow and empty.

There is likely a degree in which my experience of growth in this way may be not identical to everyone else's, but I believe growth as an element of ministry and leadership is critically important. In fact, it seems to me that a fair bit of spiritual leadership can be summed up with this thought: there comes a point when our own growth is large enough, it can no longer be confined to our own life alone and it begins to spill over onto the others around us. I've rarely seen a leader who is deeply growing that doesn't have growth translate into spiritual momentum in what they lead.

But if growth is so important for our leadership, how can we be intentional to engage with our growth? What does it look like to be intentional to grow? We all go through periods of our life where we don't need to be very purposeful about our growth - perhaps while we are in school, or when we go through life change that forces us to grow into new skills (a new career, or marriage come to mind) - but outside of those times, it is easy to lose momentum in our growth. At some point, each of us have to learn to lead our own growth, or we will stop growing. These are the moments where we choose our own ceiling on life in some ways.

The Power of Feedback Loops

If we want to grow without the benefit of an external structure that facilitates it, the critical idea is to realize that growth is nearly always facilitated in feedback loops. (In fact, a good case could be made that the external structures which "teach" us are just structured feedback loops.) A feedback loop is an external source of feedback that brings information from outside the system in. Feedback is what exposes us to new ideas, what helps us see and understand reality as it exists separate from our own perceptions, and gives us what we need to adjust and potentially improve before we go again.

Growth in skill development nearly always happens through feedback loops. Anyone who has learned to play an instrument or speak a foreign language has experienced the value of someone more developed in that skill set reflecting to you what part you have done well or poorly (a feedback loop). Regardless of how good/bad we think we can do something, the feedback loop is what moves us from subjective to objective and identifies areas of potential improvement.

God has designed feedback loops to drive our growth. Consider this teaching Jesus gives:

And he said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under a basket, or under a bed, and not on a stand? For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Mark 4:21–25

What is Jesus saying here? Spiritual growth happens through a feedback loop that God engages: what gets used gets added back, what doesn't gets taken away. If that is the case, how much more should we want feedback loops in the natural so we can use the full extent of what has been given to us!

In fact, as I look back over the last eleven years of pastoral ministry, the places where I've seen the most significant growth have been the result of intentional feedback loops that helped me growing:

  • Nearly all of Holy Spirit training and equipping that I've done has happened through activations I've developed over the years. An activation is a structured experience that creates a feedback loop in a particular area of Holy Spirit ministry. This approach is what was behind the development of School of Kingdom Ministry.
  • I grew by leaps and bounds as a preacher through the pre-weekend preaching feedback process that we used at The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois.
  • The most valuable supervisory relationships I've had (on both sides) have happened when there has been an open and regular feedback loop that empowered self-reflection and self-growth.

Good & Poor Feedback Loops

Not every feedback loop is equally valuable. The ones that aren't usually aren't helpful as much as they are just uncomfortable. No one likes to hear that they aren't doing something well, and it can cut us all personally when we put our heart into something and then we hear it isn't as great as we wanted it to be. I think for this reason, feedback can feel like the enemy of most church leaders. Which preacher relishes that person coming up to you who offers their unsolicited feedback after every message? Or that person who almost always "knows how to fix the church" and wants to have a conversation about it? We probably aren't getting a lot of growth from feedback loops like these.

So what is the difference between a helpful feedback loop and a not-helpful one? In my experience, a helpful feedback loop is:

  • Intentional: A good feedback loop is nearly always put in place on purpose. An unhelpful one tends to come your way looking for you. Be proactive about your feedback loops. Put something in place that makes it happen, and happen the way you need it to.
  • Selective: Not everyone's feedback is equally valuable. There are people who I feel free to dismiss their feedback entirely, and others I listen to very carefully. Weigh the fruit in someone's life in this area when determining how seriously to take someone's feedback. Sometimes people who are eager to speak into things are the last ones who should be. Don't allocate too much thought to their feedback. Also be aware of what is and isn't outside feedback: feedback loops can set up echo chambers and reinforce areas of blindness just as powerfully as they can provide a tool to grow beyond them.
  • Well-timed: Feedback is far more valuable at some times than others. What made our preaching feedback process helpful in Urbana is that it happened before the weekend services, not after (giving us the opportunity to make adjustments and see the message come out better as a result). Feedback on a prophetic word is valuable shortly after giving it, but probably not so valuable six months later.
  • Repeated: On-and-off feedback doesn't really help us grow too much. A regular structure of feedback that ensures an ongoing focus on improvement will be far more effective.

In my opinion, any skill we want to take seriously in ministry, we would do well to create an intentional feedback loop to keep us grounded and growing. We probably don't need to set up too many of them at once (lest we get overwhelmed), but a well-devised loop helps us to grow by leaps and bounds. What would it look like to create a feedback loop in say, decision making? Or pastoral care? Preaching? Evangelism? Budgeting?

Growth is on the other side of setting up one simple feedback process.

(Note, Signal & Noise is a followup article to this one that continues to develop these ideas.)

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is now serving as a teaching pastor at The Chapel and preparing to church pioneer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Mundelein, IL.

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