How many churches regularly evaluate their ministers? The answer, according to those who know churches, is “all of them.”

“There’s an awful lot of evaluation that goes on in parking lots,” said Jackson Carroll, Williams professor emeritus of religion and society at Duke Divinity School. “It’s informal and can be devastating,” he added.

“Roast preacher for lunch—that’s standard Sunday fare for many folks,” said the Rev. Lawrence Wohlrabe, synod minister for the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

A better question might be: How many churches are engaged in a thoughtful, formal, faithful, and fair feedback process with their ministers? That answer is more difficult to tease out.

Research on Pastoral Leadership
Carroll offers the beginning of an answer. He is directing a major four-year project on pastoral leadership that will result in a number of publications over the coming months. Pulpit & Pew: Research on Pastoral Leadership was funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment (see Carroll’s goal was to examine the current state of ordained ministry and to analyze what constitutes good ministry. The project included a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The statistically random sample of 900 clergy cuts across all denominations and faith groups (see box on page 6).

Carroll noted that congregation size, combined with the minister’s salary level, is a good predictor of whether regular evaluation is performed. “The larger the salary and the larger the congregation, the more likely it is to follow more managerial and professional norms,” he said. “[I]n the late 1960s . . . mainline Protestant denominations began using organizational development tools and techniques that included performance evaluations.” He explained the trend as part of a push to view ministers in professional terms.

But the survey did not measure the quality of the evaluation. It’s impossible to know how many churches are engaged in the sort of formal, fair, and positive process that Carroll, Wohlrabe, and other advisors encourage.

“Evaluation will take place one way or another,” Wohlrabe pointed out. “Do you want to help shape how it happens? It’s better to get it out in the open and work with it.”

But that’s easier said than done. The challenges are many to setting up an evaluation process that’s a positive experience for both minister and congregational lay leaders.

As part of a doctor of ministry project, Wohlrabe conducted a survey of almost 300 ELCA clergy and lay leaders in Minnesota in 1998–99. According to his findings, both groups identified “‘how formal evaluation of the minister takes place’ as one of the personnel issues that most concerned them.”

Avoiding Negative Outcomes
“Ministerial evaluation is . . . a critical area of church life with which congregations have struggled,” said Julieanne Hallman, director of field education and associate professor of supervised ministry at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. Hallman said she believes clergy and communities, because of their individual histories, often bring along old baggage, associating painful memories and negative emotions with the word evaluation.

“I have confessed to having a lot of debris about evaluation in my own psychic attic,” she said. “But I’ve discovered that painful memories are healed and injured relationships reconciled as we learn to engage in mutual evaluation with a different set of assumptions.”

“Evaluation has a negative connotation,” said Suzanne Stier, who consults with synagogues, their congregations, and their rabbis. “You’re looking over my shoulder to tell me if I’ve done a good job,” she said. She advises her client congregations to think about the process as a performance review and not connect the review with contract or salary negotiations. Performance reviews are designed to be reflective times, not times for negotiation, she said.

Also to be considered is the hurdle presented by the relationship between clergy and congregation. “Pastors have a different relationship to the congregation than, say, an employee to a company or a teacher to a school,” said Carroll, noting two venues where regular performance reviews are standard. “Pastors represent a sacred calling, and . . . people . . . feel reluctant to evaluate a pastor on that ground. Somehow they feel it’s inappropriate.”

“Congregations respect their ministers,” Wohlrabe said. “Ministers represent God, and you don’t go around evaluating God.”

Now add the tricky issue of training. Sometimes lay leaders just don’t feel up to the job. Stier said she often hears the comment, “I didn’t go to seminary. Who am I to evaluate you?”

Congregations don’t have departments of human resources. Laypeople may bring little experience to the process, and frequent turnover may occur in lay positions. If a new board president or personnel committee is elected every year, the discontinuity creates a lack of corporate memory.

Tools for Performance Review
“We’ve got to do a better job of documenting what we do both in terms of the procedures we choose to use and the results of the process,” Wohlrabe said. He suggested that congregations develop their own parish personnel handbook.

The idea of a handbook brings to mind the lack of tools readily available to congregations. Guidelines published by denominations seem to be nonexistent. “[G]ood resources [are not] available at this point, and much of what’s driving this [deficiency] is the question ‘Who’s in the position to evaluate the work of the pastor?’” said the Rev. Richard Bruesehoff, ELCA director for leadership support. He points out that the ELCA, the largest U.S. Lutheran denomination with more than 5 million members, does not have its own resources for clergy evaluations. “And this is the same conversation I have with my counterparts in half a dozen other mainline denominations,” he added.

But sound reasons are put forth for decisions not to publish a “how to” sheet or a sample evaluation process. “Some materials I’ve seen are simply modified corporate surveys, and that doesn’t always work for rural churches, like those in my synod,” said Wohlrabe. “It has to speak in the language the people speak in.”

Bruesehoff explained, “I resist the idea of putting together what many churches want—a one-page evaluation to be used without doing the hard work of setting goals and priorities for the pastor and congregation. Without that, evaluation is a prescription for disaster.” Bruesehoff said he believes that regular review is critical to ministerial growth, but he cautions that without having definite criteria from which to evaluate, the process can become subjective rather than aimed at improving a congregation’s ministry.

Bruesehoff suggested relying on peers or denominational staff for reviews. However, others believe that only the congregation to which a minister is accountable can offer the feedback needed.

“Lay leaders want quick answers,” Wohlrabe said. He’s reluctant to send prefabricated surveys to congregations. “I just think it becomes too easy for them not to do the hard work of identifying the work or ministry of the church,” he explained. “I really think the way to develop materials is to sit down together, define the mission of the congregation, and then define the leadership needed to accomplish that mission. Then design the processes [whereby] the two parties can have ongoing conversations about that.”

High Expectations
Without a clearly defined mission, lay leaders may make the mistake of looking only at numbers in e
valuating their minister. Churches in areas hard hit by tough economic times obviously need to look beyond attendance, membership, and budget, Carroll said. “It’s not likely the church will be growing. . . . [I]t may be doing an effective job of ministry to its members and the community but still showing decline in finances and membership. [Members] may not take into account that things have changed in the community around them—and then the pastor gets blamed.”

The prospect of hard work often meets with resistance from both sides. Getting the clergy on board poses an added challenge. Clergy know, in general, that most congregations’ expectations of a pastor can be summed up in three words: “Walks on water.” Stier observed: “What I say is, the last one we knew who walked on water got crucified. . . . Congregations really need to understand that one person can’t fulfill all the multiple roles they want filled.”

The Rev. Jerry Handspicker, professor of pastoral theology emeritus at Andover Newton and moderator of Second Congregational Church in Bennington, Vermont, works with churches as a conflict-management consultant. He says that most of the churches he knows use a formal process for regular ministerial evaluations. Handspicker used his own congregation as an example of one that gets explicit about its mission. “After the attacks of September 11 our church cabinet met, and we agreed we needed to do things differently. We met with our pastor and asked for leadership in social action and . . . [help in grappling] with our feelings.” The cabinet offered to fill the gaps created as the minister refocused her duties to meet the new expectations. The new goals were published so that the entire congregation knew what to expect from the minister.

Designin the Process
“The goals have to be made explicit, not just to the pastor but to the congregation as well,” Handspicker emphasized. The pastor will then participate in an evaluation based on these goals, developed by the lay leaders as they refocus the ministry in response to needs articulated by members.

To help clergy understand that a congregation is not “out to get them” through an evaluation process, many advocate involving the minister in designing the process from the outset. It is possible to begin evaluating a minister who’s been with a congregation for many years. “The only bad time to start it is when there’s already trouble brewing,” Wohlrabe cautioned. If there are already serious problems, then an evaluation can just be an excuse to fire a minister.

Stier helped create an evaluation process at Congregation B’Nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Connecticut, a congregation in which she served as president in the early 1990s. Having moved away, she wondered whether the congregation was still regularly evaluating the rabbi.

“I’m in my eighth year, and I’ve had one evaluation,” said Rabbi Rick Eisenberg. While Eisenberg admitted he’d like more feedback from lay leadership, he resisted the idea of regular evaluations or performance reviews. “In practical terms in the real world, evaluations are very often negative and people come out of [the process] feeling wounded, unappreciated, and not helped,” he explained. “The only way I could see it [happening] is if it’s done in a careful and supportive and positive way.” Eisenberg added that he’d like to see the process accompanied by plenty of dialogue and constructive discussion. “If they tell the rabbi that she needs growth in a particular area, the rabbi has to be able to say, ‘Look, I’m not as capable in this area as I’d like to be; I need your help.’ And [the lay leaders] have to be willing to follow through.”

This is precisely what those who advocate evaluation propose. Yet Eisenberg doesn’t see it happening in the real world. “I don’t have any suggestions,” he said. “There’s just something in me that resists evaluations.”

A Two-Track System
To foster ongoing positive feedback, many call for both a formal and an informal system that work in tandem. The formal evaluation would be conducted annually by lay leaders as they evaluate well-understood goals of the ministry. The informal communication could be handled by what United Methodists call the “pastor-parish relations committee.” This group can meet with the pastor quarterly, if not more often. The conversations are less evaluative and more feedback-oriented.

When the whole process works, growth is tangible. “Evaluation . . . is about learning and becoming,” Hallman said. “It is about hope, embracing possibilities that [lie] hidden in the present to improve ministerial leadership and to develop congregational life. This requires setting the stage by designing a plan with explicit assumptions, clearly defined goals, and agreed-upon procedures.”

In the churches that help form Andover Newton theological students for parish ministry, evaluation is key. As field education director, Hallman oversees that process. The group that defines church goals and how the student minister fits in with those goals is called the “teaching parish site committee.” Hallman reported that field-education churches have waiting lists of laypeople eager to serve on that committee. “They know it’s a chance to be on a reflective committee,” she said.

That student-committee relationship can serve as a model for the rest of the congregation. “The beauty is when you see the pastor begin to covet this relationship that the student has with the teaching committee,” Hallman said. “The pastor then has the opportunity to build [a] . . . covenant relationship that opens the door through trust-building to engage in mutual evaluation.”

“Just as the teaching parish site committee opens doors for seminarians to become gifted leaders in the church,” Hallman concluded, “churches and clergy can open doors to deeper, more meaningful relationships through practicing evaluation based on the foundations of our faith heritage. Such practice promises to strengthen the church’s ministry for our mission in the world.”