Picture a group of clergy chatting in a church parking lot after a regional meeting. The conversation is laced with humor, pastoral “war stories,” and genuine accounts of spiritual vitality in the congregations they serve. Then one pastor mentions that she will meet this week with her personnel committee to work out the details of a clergy evaluation process. Suddenly the banter subsides, and an awkward silence ensues. “Why would you want to do that?” asks one colleague. “Why would you make yourself vulnerable to criticism by insensitive people who have an ax to grind?” adds another. Are these clergy overreacting?
Clergy, whether they acknowledge it or not, often believe that evaluation only opens the door to disaster. Indeed, many clergy have been wounded by careless or uninvited feedback.
Although evaluation can have a shadow side, its creative potential for improving the effectiveness of clergy leaders and strengthening a congregation’s ministry is significant. In fact, I would assert that a thoughtfully conducted evaluation is a sign of health and vitality and a key element in any process of congregational transformation.
When evaluation is part of a congregation’s culture, it is an indicator of strength and openness. Evaluation can offer an opportunity for learning and growth, for deepening communication and understanding, and for establishing new norms of ministry for both clergy leader and congregation. It can open a window on how we are perceived by others, as well as on how we perceive ourselves. It can help develop competence and expand capacity. Evaluation can spark dialogue about what is truly important in the life and ministry of the congregation and what members expect of leaders. It can lead to theological reflection about the congregation’s identity and purpose, and provide a time to revisit the values that have helped shape the congregation’s story.
When I served as a United Methodist district superintendent, I noticed that many congregations gave scant attention to conversations with their pastor about lay and clergy roles and responsibilities. Unclear, competing, and unresolved expectations coexisted about the pastor’s role. In time, this lack of attention became a lack of communication. Clergy found themselves isolated, and the laity had few channels through which to express concerns or raise questions. Issues without an outlet became grist for parking-lot conversations, and goodwill deteriorated. Unexamined assumptions about roles and expectations often precipitated conflict early in a clergy leader’s tenure. Faced with such stress, the pastor or pastor-parish relations committee would often suggest evaluation as a way to “sort things out,” usually compounding the problems. The lesson learned is that evaluation should not be used as a tool for resolving conflict.
Evaluation is Constant
In part because of their highly public role, clergy are being evaluated all the time, receiving and processing feedback almost constantly. Often this feedback is unsolicited, contradictory, and second-hand. The pastor is advised to ignore the unattributed “sound bites,” but in time they can take a significant spiritual toll. When this pattern becomes established in the congregational culture, it can result in dysfunction or a series of short-term pastorates.
The broad purpose of any evaluation is to improve ministry and to strengthen the community of faith—not to “fix” the clergy. At its best, evaluation serves to nurture that elusive, mysterious, wondrous collaboration between the Holy and the human, and between the people of God and the purpose of God, and to test ourselves against our best understanding of what it means to be faithful in a particular time and place. At its best, that is, the congregation reflects on its vision and mission with the clergy leader, and the leader reflects on his or her work with the congregation. In each case, the most helpful question is “What can be done to improve or advance our mission?” This focus is quite different from that expressed in the question “Is the clergy leader fulfilling his responsibilities?”
When the evaluation of the pastor, priest, or rabbi is detached from the congregation’s ministry, the result is often a collection of isolated perceptions and opinions, personal preferences, and criticisms of personality. Healthy evaluation is a dialogue that is conducted within the framework of covenant community. Healthy evaluation is also focused on learning and growth to fulfill shared values and a shared vision.
If evaluation is to achieve its potential for assisting the pastor and congregation in advancing the mission, the concept and process of evaluation must be initiated by the pastor. When evaluation is initiated as a function of pastoral leadership, it can be mutually owned and shaped; the sense that it is imposed on and weighted toward the minister can be avoided. It is he or she who can “teach” evaluation as a tool for strengthening the life and ministry of the congregation as well as the pastor’s own capacity for leadership.
Consider the Context
The larger context for thinking about evaluation includes not only congregational but also cultural and personal dimensions. The Alban Institute’s special report “The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations” asserts that we are in a time of crisis and ferment. Expectations for clergy leadership are changing and often unclear; growing cultural diversity has created stresses on traditional leadership patterns. The accelerated pace of change has aggravated the complexity of ministry and confused the standards by which we measure effectiveness.
The report states, “[T]he conversation about quality or competence of leadership oscillates between the exploration of the quality of the person, along with his or her preparation for the role of leader, and the lack of clarity or reasonableness of the role of leader itself.”1 It is not surprising that, amid shifting values and competing expectations, we may be skeptical of any call for evaluation, especially if we sense that this call may be born of frustration or the search for a quick remedy for congregational stress. Although the special report was crafted before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the events of that day have confirmed and extended our sense that we are living a new and more complex reality. In such an environment, structured and thoughtful evaluation is more important than ever.
Considering the context also engages us in thinking about the interior life of the clergy. In any highly public role, especially one entered out of a “sense of calling,” a strong connection will link that role and the personal identity of the leader. A close identification with one’s role can be an asset, but it can also be problematic. In this case feedback is often received as a deeply personal critique, even as a challenge to one’s sense of identity and well being. Such a reaction can result in the leader’s “shutting down” or the laity’s withholding important information. Clergy can find themselves balancing their sense of vulnerability with their own needs and others’ expectations for authenticity and intimacy.
Change and Resistance
Along with a heightened sense of vulnerability that can accompany evaluation, another powerful and often hidden factor is at play. Evaluation offers possibilities and creates expectations for change, sometimes dramatic change. It may have implications for subtle shifts in focus, or it may highlight the need for fundamental and profound reinvention or redirection of institutional life and resources over time. When we realize that a thoughtful evaluation may surface such outcomes, we may understandably resist even beginning the process. This resistance to change is often the hidden factor in evaluation of any kind. The hi
gher the possible degree of change, the higher the resistance may be. Resistance may come from congregation members asked to engage in self-assessment, or from the clergy leader. Or parish and pastor may practice mutual avoidance. When some congregants resist evaluation, strong voices may advocate that the evaluation be focused on the clergy leader alone. Resistance from the pastor may signal a desire to avoid examining long-established and comfortable leadership patterns. Faced with suggestions for change, both congregation and leader may hear those suggestions as devaluing past efforts and making an affront to the congregation’s traditions or a judgment on clergy integrity.
What can we say about the best-case scenario for clergy evaluation? In the accompanying box on page 21 are a few principles to help shape and guide an evaluation process.
In her book Evaluating Ministry, Jill Hudson, a presbytery executive in Indianapolis, notes that “evaluation is one of God’s ways of bringing the history of the past into dialogue with the hope for the future.”2 The congregation’s mission can be advanced when evaluation seeks to learn from the past and when that learning is applied to improving the future. Innovation, rather than being at odds with tradition, can be a natural outcome of a thoughtful evaluation process.
1. “The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations” (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 2001), 8; an Alban online publication (www.alban.org, “What’s New” section).
2. Jill Hudson, Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations (Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1998), 7.