Assessment is often viewed as a dirty word, but it is a necessity and even a positive tool. Without it we don’t know how to measure what has happened to us, through us, or around us.
Assessment, or evaluation, is nothing more or less than mutual accountability: we agree to be and do certain things and to allow others to help us see whether or not we did so. With this simple tool of accountability we can enter a place of comfort, safety, and personal growth. We can open the door to knowing what others really think of us rather than guessing at their points of view.
But let’s face it; there are many things wrong with assessment. The call from the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education for “commonly used tests or other assessments” of student learning is a prime example. In response to these urgings, faculty members complained that higher education is far too diverse to be measured by standardized tests, that common learning measures would lead to costly and unnecessary federal intervention, and that if assessment was used as a consumer information tool it would oversimplify a complex higher education system and lead to comparisons among unlike institutions.1
In congregations, all the issues about assessment that concern higher education come to an even sharper focus. The clergyperson is seen as set apart and accountable to God first and people second. God, we believe, uses grace as assessment—for all human beings—and many people therefore resist evaluating others, wishing to remain outside each other’s critical embrace. But being critical, in the sense of examining something from all sides, can provide a positive moment of recognition. It can be a vehicle for grace, the grace that understands that nobody is perfect, that we all have flaws, that we are all partial, and that we need each other’s gifts to complete ourselves.
We clergy are not perfect and we are also much less important to church than churches think. A rabbi friend of mine understands this. When I left my Miami congregation he gave them a message: “The only way we will know how good Donna was here is in what you do now.” He got it: the goodness of a parish is in the relationship between the leaders and the congregation, not in the quality of any one leader. A leader is only as good as the fruit of his or her relationships. If the consequences of a person’s leadership are that the soil has been prepared for the next leader to enjoy even more trust and mutual accountability, then the leader has succeeded.
Even though some measurements don’t apply until long after we are gone, clergy—and congregations—need to periodically be informed as to how they and their performance are perceived. If done right, the evaluation process can have positive results for both clergy and congregations. It can lead congregations and their leadership to focus on what really matters. It can show that church boards are really teams of spiritual leaders and that leadership is the interaction of the system with itself, not just what the minister does—nor, for that matter, just what the congregation does. It is the healthy, mutually reinforcing, mutually evaluating action of the relationship between the leader and the system, the board and the leader, and each with the wider world in which the system is located.
Good evaluations and legitimate assessments help the congregational system go from fuzzy to focus. They address such questions as: What is it we are doing? Are we doing what we should be? Good assessments also offer the system a way to improve. Through effective evaluation the system is held accountable both to God and to its own constituents. We make mutual the accountability and give each other the grace that God has already given us. But, in order to conduct an evaluation that fulfills this promise, some guidance may be in order. In the following sections are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.
What Not to Do
- Don’t poll the entire congregation about the pastor’s performance. General information can be very harmful. However, particular information can be very useful. To obtain such information, have a conversation with five percent of the congregation (for instance, 10 members of a 200-member parish). What is wrong with most evaluations is they are too complicated, too general, and provide information that no one takes responsibility for implementing. Complicated evaluations abuse precious lay and clergy time, and they don’t meet the goal of mutual accountability being the vehicle for grace. Simplifying the process by limiting the number of “assessors” can therefore be valuable.
- When asking people for their assessments, do not use a written form. Instead, have a conversation with them, asking what they appreciate about the pastor and what they would like to see more of. Let this question be the place where people can register any of their disappointments.
- Do not make the results public. Consider the assessment a treasured conversation between trusted friends (in both directions).
- Do not link the evaluation itself to the raise. Instead, link the pastor’s response to the evaluation to the raise. In other words, evaluate in one season, do the budget in another season. Some congregations annualize the review; others do it early and often by means of as pastor-parish relations committee (PPRC) or similar mechanism. Ongoing evaluation has real strengths and creates the “muscles” we need to do it well. At the same time, annual evaluations have a formality to them that can help support positive, open, and diverse communication; they provide opportunities for multiple and divergent viewpoints, make space for difference, and allow for expressions of appreciation for the pastor and all those involved in the evaluation process. A combination of an annual formal evaluation and a regular mechanism for mutual feedback is the best set-up for evaluation. In either case, we need to allow the evaluation’s message time to sink in. For example, if it has been suggested that the minister spend more time editing his or her sermons, allow six months for this to occur. During that time, certain appointed people should provide regular and specific feedback. If the pastor responds appropriately to the feedback, reward him or her with a raise. If not, withhold the raise. Likewise, if you are asking the pastor to spend more time on an activity, be clear where the pastor should spend less time. Should he or she do less parish visitation instead? Make the issue of improvement a collective responsibility, not an individual accusation.
- Do not let the temperature rise in the organization around evaluation time. Instead, quietly announce that an evaluation will be taking place and that anyone who has comments may send them to the PPRC or the personnel committee. Evaluation between congregations and pastors should become normal. Ordinary. The way we expect a very good friend of ours to invade our personal space—early and often.
What to Do
- Do have two units, a personnel committee and a PPRC (or some other group of diverse, appointed people who hold genuine conversations with the minister regularly about what is happening in the parish). The members of the PPRC should serve at least three-year terms and should become known in the parish as the people to whom parishioners can talk if they have a complaint about the minister. The PPRC member should then determine how to deliver the message to the minister, whether one-on-one or in a meeting. The style and feel of these meetings should be one of intimacy, trust, and friendship. The second unit, the personnel committee, should then receive the evaluation of the PPRC and make decisions about raises and the like. There is nothing wrong with formal procedures! For
mal procedures would surely avoid some of the crises that accompany organizations today: pedophilia, clergy burnout, misuse of information, e-mail abuse, confidentiality violations, and worries about affirmative action, to name a few. The fact that no one watches clergy is terrible. Formal procedures matter; they just are at odds with the highly emotional, intimate, preciously fragile system that parishes usually are.
- Do have a formal but simple job description for the clergyperson and have all members of both the PPRC and the personnel committee privately complete an evaluation of each part (based on a one-to-five scale) and hand it to the minister. In other words, do use numbers.
- Do anticipate a three- to five-year “break-in” period for this method to work. Becoming “normal,” or ordinary, takes time.
- Do allow the minister to also evaluate the congregation, using its bylaws and/or another device. If there is a “job description” for the congregation, it should be one developed by the congregation. If no such job description exists, ask the minister to do a simple one-to-five evaluation of how the congregation is measuring up to its bylaws. This creates mutual accountability, further strengthening the congregational system. The best pastor in the world can’t minister to a parish that is not focused on its work in the world.
- Finally, submit both numerical evaluations to the PPRC and the personnel committee, who should then name future directions: What do we want to improve this year? In the name of improving these things, what will we eliminate?
- Annually, the pastor’s job description should be weighted and changed, with extraordinary attention to the dilemma of trying to do everything versus doing some things well and others not at all, and compensating for weaknesses through the intelligent use of staff, lay leaders, and consultants or other external resources. This annual reassessment of the job description can be based on the conversations that have been occurring throughout the year.
When assessment is done graciously, normally, and in an orderly way, wonderful things can result. One is appreciation, another is trust, a third is clarity, and the final one is grace. At ordination we clergy give ourselves to God. The same is true for the baptism of the nonordained person, who is also given to God. Reminders of the sacred nature of our relationship to congregation, God, and each other are terribly important. They keep us alive. How we manage our relationships is a sacred activity. Evaluation, as part of that management process, is also therefore a sacred activity. The mutual accountability of assessment makes real our ordination vows and the membership promises of baptism—and is a vehicle to experiencing the deep pleasure of grace.
1. Margaret A. Miller, “The Legitimacy of Assessment,” The Chronical Review, September 22, 2006.