Q: Our church is experiencing conflict between the pastor and several lay members. Should we conduct a congregation-wide survey to evaluate the pastor?

A: Now is probably not a good time for a congregation-wide survey to evaluate the pastor. Let me offer several comments to suggest why not. A survey conducted at this time probably would include many loaded questions designed to highlight the minister’s faults, rather than focusing on questions that could provide constructive feedback and suggestions for how the pastor might improve his or her quality of ministry in this congregation.

Surveys also are often limited to objective yes/no or multiple-choice questions, or questions calling for one- or two-word answers. Such instruments severely restrict the possible responses of those surveyed. A survey does not invite a healthy conversation in which there is give-and-take and the possibility that people may change their understanding and perspectives on an issue.

Further, a survey tends to solidify views and opinions, rather than opening up the possibility of genuine dialogue in which interests and concerns can be freely expressed without hardening into virtually unchangeable positions.

A Better Way
A better course of action might be to structure open conversations between the pastor and those laypeople engaged in the conflict. If there is a pastor-parish relations committee, that group might well set up and manage the conversations. If there is no such committee, the conversations might be conducted by the personnel committee or perhaps the executive committee of the congregation’s policy-setting board.

This also may be a good time to call on an objective third party, such as a denominational staff member or a church consultant, to help structure the situation for objectivity and neutral listening to the principals and the issues of the conflict. Such a consultant can be effective only if fully trusted by all of the principals, and must be a person who understands how church volunteer systems work. For example, one dynamic often at work in conflict between pastors and lay leaders is the pastor’s dual role as a church employee “supervised” by the volunteer lay leaders, and at the same time the “CEO” of the church organization. Complicating this mix is the belief that pastors are “called by God” to specific ministry opportunities with their primary loyalty to this “higher calling.”

Evaluation is best done on a regular schedule, with specific objectives identified and verifiable criteria negotiated as to what the evaluation will provide to the pastor and the lay leaders of the church. To be most effective, evaluation of ministry should be done with the recognition that ministry is a partnership between the pastor and the laity, with the respective responsibilities of the clergy leader and the lay members clearly delineated. Evaluation can then provide feedback on the effectiveness of the partnership and not just on the pastor.

Surveys are useful tools for a variety of situations, but they are seldom helpful as a way to find healthy solutions to conflict between a congregation’s pastors and its lay leaders.

Suggested Alban Resources
I would like to suggest four Alban resources that may be helpful as you seek to do a constructive evaluation of your situation:

  • Jill M. Hudson, Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations (1992).
  • Erwin Berry, The Alban Personnel Handbook for Congregations (1999).
  • William Chris Hobgood, Welcoming Resistance: A Path to Faithful Ministry (2001).
  • Gilbert R. Rendle, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences (1999).

Rev. Terry Foland has been a consultant for the Alban Institute since 1992. He is an experienced trainer and administrator who advises congregations and religious organizations in the areas of conflict management, clergy transition, and congregational revitalization. Prior to joining Alban, he served as an area minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).