To maintain competence, a parish pastor needs accurate feedback on how his or her ministry is perceived in the congregation. It matters little what I intend to do and be if members view the results of my ministry negatively—hence the importance of feedback. The trick is to get feedback without being beaten up from time to time. I offer three ways that pastors and congregations can evaluate their ministries together.
1. Total Ministry Evaluation
First, clergy can learn of their impact on a congregation by engaging the entire membership in a ministry evaluation once every four years. In this process everyone is evaluated, not only the clergy. Each congregant is invited to a small meeting in a member’s home and asked, with others, to reflect on the congregation as a spiritual community. What do we like about the way we conduct our ministry to members and outsiders? What gives cause for concern? Small meetings can be valuable as an aid to devising a four-year strategic congregational vision.1
For this type of evaluation I like to engage the group in a study of Revelation 1–3. In these biblical passages seven letters are written to seven congregations. The format of all seven is similar. God is saying:
“This I commend you for.”
“This I hold against you.”
After the seven letters are read aloud by group members, everyone is handed writing materials and invited to “write a letter to our congregation. What do you think God would commend us for? What do you think God would hold against us?” Give participants 15 to 20 minutes for writing. This approach seeks to move people beyond petty grievances so that they see the congregation as they imagine God might see it.
After each person reads his or her letter aloud, group members discuss the similarities and differences in how they view the congregation. Before the session ends, the leader collects the letters. Leaders of all small groups meet to collate the responses; a summary of results is sent to congregation members. This summary tends to get people talking and working to remedy the dysfunctional aspects of their congregational life. Goals can then be set to address the findings.
The advantage of such a ministry assessment is that all are evaluated, not just the clergy. In the process, pastors gain insight into their role and may as a result alter the way they conduct ministry.
But such a major intervention in congregational life should not be an annual rite. Once every four years suffices. Other methods can be used in intervening years to help gain feedback.
2. Annual Role Renegotiation
At least once a year, the pastor and the congregation’s chief decision-making body should spend a couple of hours reviewing the relationship between pastor and members. The pastor and vestry/session/council/board might begin the evening with prayers for guidance, followed by solitary time for board members to write their responses to three questions posed by the pastor:
1. What would you like more of from me?
2. What would you like less of from me?
3. What would you like me to keep the same?
Meanwhile, the pastor writes answers to similar questions asked by the board:
1. What would you like more of from us?
2. What would you like less of from us?
3. What would you like us to keep the same?
Once again, a public flogging must be avoided. The session may well turn into a free-for-all if the number of people involved exceeds nine to twelve.
The pastor should share first. She should expect that board members will be as candid with her as she is with them. Her candor elicits theirs. Do not expect to blow off the board with innocuous compliments about how wonderful its members are, and that nothing about them needs to change. Such comments are a cop-out, and the pastor can expect equally insipid remarks from the board. People should enter this serious pastor-parish relationship with the intent to keep it healthy or to restore it to health.
After the pastor speaks, all at the table should share their lists. Once these responses are on the table, the pastor and the group may renegotiate roles. Do the shared comments suggest that the pastor’s working relationship with the congregation needs work? The board can learn much about the complexity of the pastoral role. Should it want more from the pastor (such as more frequent home calling), she can explore what parts of her role may have to be given up to make time for home visits. In this case, the pastor doesn’t accept all requests at face value. Should the board urge her to make more home visits, she might share her experience of driving around town trying to find a member at home, mostly leaving her card in the mailbox. When she does find someone at home, they sit, drink coffee, and make small talk. The pastor may pronounce such visits an unproductive use of her time.
Yet the board may offer ideas for the pastor to shift priorities to meet at least some of its expectations, raised on behalf of the congregation. The board may modify the way it works with the pastor, its members having learned what she needs more or less of. Both may agree to change the way they carry out their roles for a stated period, later evaluating how well the alteration has worked.
Objectives at Odds
Any clergy evaluation has two long-term objectives, and they can be at odds with each other: administrative effectiveness and personal growth. Leaders charged with running an organization need accurate information on employees. Without it, running an effective system is difficult. Leaders may lack the knowledge to decide whether an employee should be given a pay raise, additional responsibility, a change in job description, or a termination notice. Thus an evaluation may be geared toward operating more effectively. Such a performance review is top-down; employees are subject to it whether they like it or not.
The other sort of appraisal seeks to assist the individual’s personal growth and job-related learning. Literature on performance appraisal generally advises that these two aims (administrative and growth-oriented) not be combined—a common error of those who conduct reviews. As we look closely at an employee’s experience of evaluation, we can understand why combining the two is a mistake. For one to learn to do a job better, she needs to explore her pain, her sense of vulnerability, and her confusion. If we want to learn to improve our performance, we need to identify where we hurt and where we are perplexed, and head in that direction. But if our future within a system depends on a good rating, we would be crazy to explore our pain and confusion. When an evaluation is top-down, we must give our most positive response to every question. We need to look good if we want a raise or a promotion. In a congregation, when the chief decision-making body evaluates the pastor, you can bet that she will do everything in her power to make a positive impression. Too much is at stake to do otherwise.
The difference between administrative and personal-growth reviews can be summarized using two basic questions: “Who owns the data?” and “Who controls the process?” If the answer to both questions is “Someone other than the pastor,” it is an administrative evaluation, and the group that evaluates needs to know that the pastor is not going to learn much. What pastors learn from administrative evaluations is how to protect themselves from humiliation in the presence of key congregational leaders.
3. Pastor-Initiated Evaluation
In a “personal-growth” evaluation the pastor can both control the process and own the data. It is collected for his eyes only. He may wish to identify one or two lay leaders he can trust implicitly, and ask them to assist. Those asked must be able to maintain confidentiality.
For example, sup
pose that the pastor is getting “negative vibes” about his sermons. Most people like and appreciate the sermons, but some have difficulty staying with them. The pastor may ask these trusted lay leaders to interview six people after one sermon a month. They will ask what people value about the pastor’s sermons and what gives them difficulty. After this data-gathering, the pastor meets with the lay leaders to receive and discuss the feedback from the interviews. Using what he has learned, the pastor may try preaching a sermon to address some of the issues raised by members. The same congregants interviewed previously are then asked whether they got more out of the new sermon.
In a similar pastor-initiated approach, the two chosen lay leaders work with him to develop a questionnaire to send out to a cross-section of the congregation. The two leaders collate the responses and assist the pastor in interpreting the results. At the next vestry or session meeting, some members of that body might ask the pastor, “Hey, we’d like to know what you’re learning from that questionnaire.” One possible response from the pastor could be: “I’m sorry. I initiated this process for my own learning, and therefore the results belong to me. I may choose to tell you about what I’m learning—in fact I probably will—but I’ll decide just what will be shared.”
The pastor-initiated process of getting feedback builds in enough safety that a pastor can explore aspects of ministry without defensiveness or risk of public humiliation. However, it does require that the pastor take the lead in finding out what impact he or she is having on members. Without such knowledge it is hard to gain competence in his complex pastoral role.
The Common Ingredient
None of the three methods of gaining feedback is easy, and all involve some degree of tension. Each requires that the pastor take some initiative, stating clearly that feedback is desirable; each demands the pastor’s candor. The process controlled and initiated by the pastor offers the advantage of enabling him or her to face tough feedback without suffering embarrassment in front of lay decision-makers. The one ingredient common to all three processes is a pastor motivated to make a greater impact on the congregation for the sake of the gospel.
1. For more information on developing a strategic vision, see Roy M. Oswald and Robert E. Friedrich, Jr., Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach(Bethesda, Md.: Alban Institute, 1996).