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Judgment Free Awareness: The Inner Game of Ministry


How many of us have heard comments like this:

  • That retreat was a disaster! You have no place in youth ministry!
  • That sermon was so bad…why do you even try to preach God’s Word?
  • You made that family angry when you called on them. You can never be trusted to go and meet with hurting families!

While many (all) of us have heard criticisms, the level of criticism leveled above is such that few of us have heard or would ever give to another co-worker in ministry.

But I suspect that many of us have received an evaluation that somehow resembled the ones I have just given. Was it given by a contrary elder? Not necessarily. Was it given by a disgruntled family over their shoulder as they walked out the door for good? Again, not necessarily.

In most cases the evaluation was the evaluation we gave to ourselves in looking back on our performance in one role or another.

And what good came of that evaluation?

  • Did it help us to objectively identify the things that we could do to improve our level of leadership give in the future? No.
  • Did it prompt us to reach to a higher level next time? Not likely.
  • It simply judged us. It simply held us down. It simply made us LESS confident in our next undertakings in ministry.

Judgment is defined as “the act of assigning a negative or positive value to an event.” While critical judgment, may, on a few occasions may have a short-term motivating effect, its long-term effects are always debilitating.

What does self-judgment do?

  1. It distracts us
  2. Our focus becomes on the failures of the past instead of the potential of the future.
  3. Instead of propelling us toward improvement, self-judgment stops us.

A principle that I am working to develop in myself is the concept of “Judgment-free awareness.”

The concept of Judgment Free Awareness (JFA) was developed in the mid 1970s by a tennis coach, Timothy Gallwey. He published his ideas in a little book entitled, “The Inner Game of Tennis.” The book has become a classic, but not just for tennis.

In 1974 when the book came out there were not a lot of books on the mental aspects of sports. Most presumed that physical strength, relentless practice and sheer determination was what made the best players.

But from observing what helped his clients improve, Tennis Pro Timothy Gallwey realized that just as important (even more so in some cases) was the inner game: the self-talk. He advocated what he called “judgment-free awareness”, a technique that allows you to notice what you are doing and how you are doing it without judgmental criticism of yourself.

I believe that the concept of judgment-free awareness can help us not only improve in sports, but have growing, more effective ministry and live more productive and fulfilling lives.

Gallwey notes that there are two selves within each of us: the teller and the doer. The doer “does” and the teller makes note upon the action. Our doer, then, almost always follows the evaluation given by the teller.

But the teller is not always an accurate guide. Gallwey (p. 35) “First the mind (the teller) judges the event, then groups events, then identifies with the combined event and finally judges itself.”

  • “You mispronounced that word.”
  • “You mispronounced another word.”
  • “You even mispronounced THAT simple word.”


  • “You do not know how to pronounce technical terms correctly.”
  • “You must be uneducated or stupid.”
  • “You are no good.”

And amazingly the body responds: it seems unable to pronounce any word that at first appears difficult.

Our Christian faith affirms the importance of “the inner game”:

  • Prov. 23:7: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”
  • Matt 15:19: Jesus: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Judgment-free awareness is the process of noticing what you are doing and how you are doing it without harsh criticism. Instead the focus is on observation so that improvement can be made.

JFA shifts the person from reacting to responding resourcefully in the moment. This allows you to stay fully engaged in what you are doing and focused on your picture of excellence – rather than the “mistakes” you are making right now.

  • Not- I wasn’t successful at this, I am such a loser.
  • But- I wasn’t successful at this, that’s interesting. What can I do differently next time?

Judgment-free awareness frees me up to come up with options. JFA allows me to move into the future, not just be stuck in the past.

I can either be a loser or a learner.

Whether I succeeded or I failed, what did I learn? Can I learn…

  • Something about myself?
  • Something about how to improve my skill?
  • Something about life?
  • Something about the way I played or handled the situation?

Galway uses what I consider to be a profound illustration: “When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we don’t criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped, nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process is taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.

“Similarly, the errors we make can be seen as an important part of the developing process. In its process of developing, our tennis game learns a great deal from errors. Even slumps are part of the process. They are not ‘bad” events, but they seem to endure endlessly as long as we call them bad & identify with them. Like a good gardener who knows when the soil needs alkaline and when acid, the competent tennis pro should be able to help the development of your game.” (p. 37)

“There is always an inner game being played in your mind, no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure.” (Gallwey)—website

The inner game of ministry is no different.

Attitude, Burnout, Coaching, Conflict, Criticism, Evaluation, The Preacher

2 Comments to “Judgment Free Awareness: The Inner Game of Ministry”

  1. Great article Cal. I like: “Judgment-free awareness.”

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