Evaluating work is about as easy as getting a mosquito out of a bedroom at 3 a.m. in July. It is also as necessary. Without evaluation, we institutionalize performance uncertainty. The worker, the work, and the church suffer. Call it “fuzziness”—the fog of imprecise and abundant expectations that keep us awake at night. We who work lose as much sleep to that fog as we do to bugs. We don’t know how we’re being judged. We feel pulled by a thousand masters. Clarity about our work is as good as a sleeping pill, as useful as a flyswatter. When we are clear about what to do and whether we are doing it, then we can rest—and work.

Job Description as Flight Plan
Stephen Covey, in his books and tapes about purpose, uses the flight plan as a metaphor for a good family or individual mission statement. A job description is nothing but a mission statement: it states what we are to do. When we evaluate, we need a simple, clear job description in hand. No pilot would head for Seattle without a flight plan, or expect a long flight with no adjustments en route. Evaluations are adjustments to a flight plan. In churches, we often prefer “flying by the seat of the pants” to filing a flight plan. That keeps us free—and in some strange way makes us feel holier. Flight plans give us a clear intention. They feel more profane than sacred. But I daresay flight plans are holier than spur-of-the-moment take-offs. Flight plans get people where they’re going. God intends to get the world to justice and peace by way of love and mercy. Without a flight plan, we won’t get there. Not getting where God intends is sin in churches detoured by meetings, paperwork, internal fussiness, and confusion.

Fuzziness, or imprecision, is lack of clarity about which ten of today’s hundred chores take priority. The fog and clouds keep us free but bind us to chaos. Once we agree that the holy way is a defined way, we face the mosquito buzzing straight into our ear. How do we evaluate church professionals, each of them unique in personality, situation, community, and denomination; each differently trained and compensated? Some are church members, others not. Some are believers, some not. Diversity, not uniformity, is the stuff of congregations.

Custom-Designed Evaluations
There is no one way to evaluate staff. We must custom-design evaluations—design and redesign—catering to the local reality and experimenting to find our way. At Coral Gables (Florida) Congregational Church, we cut 54 paychecks a month. Fifteen people work full time; others are small and large contractors, singers, artists, babysitters, caterers, light board technicians, and nursery school teachers, part-time. Four are clergy. We have one evaluation design for clergy, another for lay professionals and support staff. These evaluations share a certain simplicity. They are a quick diagnostic tool, not a complete CT scan.

The senior pastor coordinates evaluations submitted by all full-time staff about each full-timer. Staff people are evaluated concretely by how many new volunteers they have recruited, equipped, and deployed for Christian mission. The criterion is not committee work but mission. This measurable aspect of the job description is a key to what we call 360-degree evaluation. We have standard face-to-face half-hour annual evaluations of “regular” job descriptions—and then evaluate for precision and clarity on volunteer recruitment, equipping, and involving. The evaluated employee is entitled to make a response to the senior pastor.

Our design would not work for every church. Not all churches have been bent in and out of shape as ours has by location and history. The boldness to custom-design our evaluations stems from our uniqueness. Cookie-cutter evaluations don’t work; custom-designed ones do.

From Every Angle
One member insists that we did not hire staff as the church grew rapidly in the 1990s. We “picked up stray cats.” He advocates a complete housecleaning and a rational reorganization of staff. Another member joins me in thinking that God has a sense of humor—because these cats have done a great job of running the church. The Christian education director had no training; she runs a program for nearly 100 children that is the rival of many. The wedding coordinator is agnostic and funny; we have 300 weddings a year. She has a minor degree in the taming of bridal mothers—“bridezillas,” she calls them. Our membership coordinator is an executive recruiter by day. At night she does the ministry of bringing in 90 new members a year.

To evaluate these cats, I rely on a custom design. The “360-degree assessment” is the latest buzz-word in personnel work—but we are just beginning to imagine it in the church. What it means is a “full” look, a view of the employee from every angle. Both the superior and the secretary make comments, and the person evaluated responds. Likewise, laypeople attached to the staff person’s work fill out a questionnaire. A 360-degree assessment looks at a person in motion (as church workers mostly are), rather than snapping a “still” photo. In corporations, such assessments may be quite thorough; in churches they are simple. We use only the criteria of lay involvement and recruitment, as observed by fellow staff workers.

For example, the Christian education worker hears from the calendar coordinator that she is clogging the calendar and how they might communicate better. The musicians and the pastors plan for major Sundays—and review how they failed to get the luminarias lit last Christmas Eve. Specific items are shared—but instead of one person sharing, nearly 14 people tell the worker how they see him or her.

The 360-degree assessment is useful precisely because it provides for diverse views. Because it is moving and changing, it is not problem-free. It can add its own chaos to the system—people viewing pastors or lay workers from various angles tend to disagree on what they see. Still, 360-degree assessment offers a common starting point. That advantage makes it suitable to church life, which is marked by changing, complex, energy-producing give-and-take.

A 360-degree assessment gives us starting and stopping points. Once everyone has “weighed in”—lay leaders and co-workers—the feedback is complete. Once the staff person responds, the evaluation is done. Thus we must begin with a clear sense of who needs to be involved in this employee’s circle.

Evaluating the evaluation is essential: How can we improve on this year’s process? Given what we learned, what steps should we take? Those steps will shape next year’s job description.

Often an employee has not done every task listed—and for good reason. It is hard for clergy or church staff to avoid getting involved in the “interruptions” of the job. Sometimes the interruptions are the job. Our lack of focus is not necessarily wrong: we may be doing the right thing when we cancel our well-planned day for an unexpected human need that walks in the door. Nevertheless, people who work in parishes need a focus, a home of clarity, to which they can return after interruptions.

Having a Stake
In 360-degree evaluation, we participate in a plan that makes the church purposeful. That is what we have needed—not a sense of being governed from above or of being undermined by other staff, but a sense of having a stake in the system. This process gives staff members that stake, a sense of investment and ownership—and that is its key benefit.

Staff members who have a stake in their work are valuable to a church. If we cannot claim a stake in the mission, we won’t give ourselves fully to our work. Having a stake is participation backed by investment: we own our work and our evaluations, and we come to own the system that employs us.

Missing from these evaluations is the one-on-one drama of personal criticism. We don’t need that. Nor
do we need the one-way performance review. What we need is the sense of having a stake, and that is what 360-degree assessment gives us.