On wintry Sunday evenings this year my wife and I settled down for an evening of TV from PBS and Great Britain. I am referring to “Downton Abbey”, of course. I know it is only a dressed-up soap opera, but an hour or so with the Earl of Grantham and his fun-loving family is usually at least interesting. And then “Grantchester,” featuring Father Sidney Chambers, Anglican cleric and crime-solver from the mid-twentieth century. Chambers even has a “curate”, the equivalent of an intern, working with him. (If you ever saw the program, you probably noticed that Sidney looks a lot like me.)
But I am far ahead of myself. We began the evening with the “Great British Baking Show”, which narrowed a field of 12 bakers down to one at the end. They did their baking in a tent set outside in a bucolic English field, an altogether beautiful setting. The bakers were charming people and very kind to each other. Now and then, even though they were competitors, the bakers would help each other. Two BBC stalwarts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, were the hosts, and they were hilarious. The baked items produced were amazing. I sat in front of the TV set and drooled. (My wife recently tried one of them, which was supposed to be a 20 layer cake. Pat only got 18.) And the judges, a lovely older English woman named Mary Berry and a famed bread baker named (I’m not making this up) Paul Hollywood, were excellent.
This is what made the judges good: they had high standards for the bakers. They knew what the baked items were supposed to be like, and if a baker fell short, Paul and Mary would tell them. They would point out what was good about the product, and also what was not so good. They did it gently. They did it with a smile. But they did it. They never called something that wasn’t good, good. But there was never any rancor in what they said. When they criticized the bakers, you never got the feeling that Paul and Mary were suggesting that the bakers were not good people nor even good bakers. They just said that this or that was wrong, and affirmed that the baker could do better.
At the end, all the bakers took this like adults. You never got the sense that their feelings were hurt. They talked about how the critiques had made them better bakers. They were all good bakers to begin with; otherwise they wouldn’t have been on the show. But the critiques made them better.
I hope our supervisors and lay committees are like those judges: always willing to both affirm what is good and point out what is less than it ought to be. They do not serve the church nor their interns well if they do not operate with that kind of honesty. Their critiques should be and usually are critiques of performance, not of person. If a supervisor says that an intern needs to work on this or that in her preaching, that doesn’t mean that she is a bad person and always gives terrible sermons. It just means that something needs to be worked on. The critique is constructive.
And I hope that our interns are like those bakers: always open to hearing critiques and growing from them, recognizing that this feedback is intended to help them become not just better interns, but competent pastors.
At its best, it is a beautiful process. And I am looking forward to returning to that British meadow next winter for a new season!