Performance evaluations are an essential part of our seasonal life at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago. This was not always so. Nine years ago, when I began my tenure as priest-in-charge, the church had $23,000 in pledge income, $78,000 in debt, and 30 people at an average Sunday morning service. Existence was the name of the game, and evaluation sounded as exotic as an island in the South Pacific. When the bishop extended my appointment and made me congregational development vicar, the covenant I entered into with the congregation and diocese stressed the importance of regular evaluations to ensure that all parties were on board with the redeveloping ministry and emerging vision.
An Olympian Evaluation
I invited the canon to the ordinary (the bishop’s assistant) to lead my first performance evaluation. I was unclear what process he would use—and when I inquired, he harrumphed and said, “Don’t worry about it—it’ll be fine.” When he arrived at the vestry meeting, he asked me to leave the room and then pulled out a copy of my job description, calling out the categories one at a time. Each vestry member was invited to rate my performance from 1 (bad) to 6 (excellent). The bishop’s assistant called out, “Preaching.” Each vestry member took time to consider my sermons, then wrote the number on a sheet of paper. Around the table, people lifted up scores—5.0, 5.5, 4.5, 4.0, and so on.
When vestry members recounted the meeting afterward, I felt sad not to have witnessed this Greg Louganis approach to performance evaluation. Emerging 30 minutes after the process began, the bishop’s assistant told me, “They like you—keep it up.” After this experience, vestry members took delight in reenacting their favorite moments of this “high-dive” evaluation. Overall, they agreed with the bishop’s assistant and said I was doing well, but . . . “Perhaps you could work on your entry into the water to reduce the splash.” One member remarked, “You consistently received low marks from the ‘Russian judge,’ but that was to be expected.” After this entertaining but unhelpful process, I decided to read up on the subject and design a better format.
The Value of a Consultant
For the past eight years the vestry, a consultant, and I have met at least yearly to reflect on my ministry and leadership in the congregation, the community, and the larger church. The evaluation system we use is based on The Performance Evaluation Kit, by Charles R. Wilson (Arvada, Colo.: Jethro Publications, 1978). Wilson views performance evaluations as an opportunity for individuals to articulate what they are doing well, to receive feedback from others familiar with their ministry, and for the group to determine what is needed to assist continued professional growth and development.
Wilson underlines the importance of inviting a consultant or process assistant to help conduct the evaluation. Ideally the consultant should be familiar with the ministry, yet outside the immediate circle of evaluation; someone respected and trusted by all participants; one able to pay attention to the process and keep it on target.
Wilson maintains that performance evaluations should not be used as compensation reviews, or to discipline an ineffective employee. Rather, they are occasions for self-reflection and guided conversation, directed toward helping the individual to enhance his or her professional performance.
Over the years, for better or worse, our evaluation process has evolved from Wilson’s practices. We once followed his blueprint verbatim; now we use a hybrid approach. Some facets, however, have not changed.
From my perspective, an outside consultant is essential. Nothing is more awkward and difficult than a pastor’s presiding over his or her own evaluation—one person is playing too many roles. It is equally awkward for the wardens (top vestry officers) to lead the process. I have found that bringing in a clergy colleague whom I trust enables me, the wardens, and the vestry members to focus solely on the evaluation. With such a consultant, all participants are relieved of having to monitor the dynamics at work when a vestry or other governing body evaluates the priest or pastor who is simultaneously an employee, a spiritual leader, and a close associate.
Finding the Ideal Facilitator
In eight years we have used two facilitators. One was a pastor at a neighboring United Church of Christ congregation, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Thornton, and the other, our current consultant, is the Very Rev. Linda Packard, rector of a nearby Episcopal parish. Each is someone with whom I have a close collegial relationship. I seek out people whom I trust, so that I will feel as comfortable as possible. Performance evaluations are anxiety-provoking. Anything I can do to decrease my stress level increases the effectiveness of the process. If I believe that a colleague respects my work and has my best interests in mind, I am more likely to hear and integrate compliments and less likely to bristle at criticisms.
Also integral to our approach is the conviction that this is a clergy self-evaluation. Neither wardens nor vestry members set the tone for the evaluation. I write a detailed reflection on the year’s events, highlighting what I perceive to be of particular importance. In some years I may focus more on our outreach ministries; in others on our staff, our stewardship, or our growth patterns. Or I may emphasize my preaching, administration, or pastoral care. Each year is slightly different, depending upon happenings in the church and aspects of ministry that have grabbed my interest. For the past three years, my self-evaluation has included questions inviting the vestry to consider what I regard as pressing issues for the coming year. Ideally the vestry members, the wardens, and the facilitator receive my self-evaluation several days before the meeting and thus have time to read it closely and to formulate comments or questions.
Three weeks before the evaluation, a notice appears in the Sunday bulletin and the church newsletter announcing the upcoming evaluation and inviting any who have thoughts about my preaching, pastoral care, and overall congregational leadership to submit their reflections in writing to either of the wardens. The wardens make the same announcement at worship services several weeks in advance of the evaluation and invite those interested to attend. This openness makes the evaluation process as inclusive as possible.
Key Elements of the Process
During a typical evaluation session Linda will invite me to lead the group through my self-evaluation, asking me to elaborate on key points and encouraging me to talk about areas where I have difficulties. She solicits comments from the wardens, then from the vestry members and others present. This conversation usually leads us into a more encompassing consideration of our congregation’s mission and possible goals for the coming year. At the end of two hours Linda sums up the discussion and reiterates steps that the vestry and I should take to ensure that my ministry continues to grow.
One key aspect of the process: I spend an hour or more with the facilitator before the vestry meeting. This is an invaluable step, one whose omission—experience has shown—can derail the entire venture. At this pre-evaluation meeting, the facilitator and I go over my self-evaluation. I offer my perspective on current vestry dynamics, voice my fears, and most important, discuss the tangible changes I hope will result from the evaluation.
Before my first facilitated review I talked to Sharon about how hard it was to do parish ministry without a photocopier on site. I was wasting countless hours at “Kinko’s: Your Home Office” and rapidly burning out. What I wanted more than anything was a functioning copier at the church. Somehow, during the myriad of vestry meetings, finance meeting
s, and budget-planning sessions, I had never articulated my desperate need to stop spending Saturday nights at the printer’s. At the end of the evaluation, with the help of Sharon’s thoughtful questions and skilled guidance, it was wildly apparent to all present that what we needed to further our ministry was an on-site copier.
The next year I told Sharon that I needed some secretarial help. The year after that, Linda made sure that our secretary’s hours were increased. The next year I hoped for some time during the week to finish writing my doctor of ministry thesis. And the following year, by the end of the evening everyone agreed that a four-month sabbatical would be immensely beneficial for both the congregation and me. Last year the vestry agreed to hire an additional priest. I cannot overemphasize the point that nothing is more powerful than a respected outsider lobbying for constructive change.
In the case of the sabbatical Linda graciously pointed out how much had happened in my eight years of ministry. She said she was exhausted just reading about all the accomplishments; then she wondered aloud whether some time away might be a helpful way of rewarding me as well as a way for the congregation to see how well they could cope without me. She gazed in my direction and remarked, “She’s not going to be here forever.” As looks of panic began to appear around the table, Linda added, “Of course, if she’s had a time to rest and recharge, she’s probably much more likely to stay.” Looking at me, she inquired, “Does that sound accurate?” What could I say? I just lowered my eyes and said, “Wow, that would be great—four months to read and think—wow.” Then Linda said to the vestry, “Four months would really give you all a chance to see what you can do with Bridget [our associate rector] and without Bonnie.” One by one, to my delight, the vestry members rose to the challenge and nodded in agreement.
Working with a trusted consultant has also enabled me to hear criticisms without becoming too defensive. Early in my tenure vestry members gently invited me to examine my tendency, in my passion and excitement, to blow past people who were less than enthusiastic about a new plan or direction I was advocating. As a vestry member began to offer this observation (or for that matter, any observation that I found threatening), I automatically shot back with my perspective and the rationale for my actions. Rather than sitting back, listening, and absorbing the content and the context from which the person spoke, I immediately mounted a defense of how hard I was working.
The morning after this evaluation, Sharon tactfully pointed out my habit of responding and defending before I’d really listened. To which I immediately sputtered, “Yes, but they didn’t know the whole story.”
“Bonnie, the story doesn’t matter—what matters is your ability to hear people. They want to know that you’re listening—they want to know that their opinion matters.”
“Well, of course it matters—why else would I work so hard? I love this place.”
“They all know how hard you work. They want to know that you know how hard they work and how much they love this place.” “Oh—you mean they don’t want to hear more about why I do what I do—they want to know that I’m listening to them?”
Nodding, Sharon said, “It not what they’re saying that’s really important—what’s important is that they know that you’ll slow down and listen.”
Without Sharon’s firsthand observations of my defensive behavior, I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to wise up, slow down, and listen. This insight has enabled me to be twice as effective as I was when I relied solely on my passion and enthusiasm to bring projects to fruition.
Annual clergy performance evaluations, led by insightful colleagues, can be the steam in the engine of creative, dynamic congregations. However, this past year’s evaluation taught us that even a well-oiled, smoothly running machine can jump the track if proper advance work is not done. This past year Linda and I failed to meet before the evaluation. Moreover, two new wardens had been elected since the last evaluation, and neither was particularly familiar with previous evaluations. On top of that, I mistakenly said to the wardens, “It’s OK—you don’t have to meet with Linda beforehand—she’s done this a lot. It’ll be fine.”
It was not fine. From my perspective, it was a belly flop. From Linda’s perspective it was rough going. The wardens left the meeting with a sense that what they had hoped for had not happened. Instead of reflecting on my ministry of the past year, the group became mired in the muck of our inadequate administrative infrastructure. The copier (when it works) is inadequate. We have no centralized data base. The church staff spends so much time on the phone that most people who call are automatically routed into voice mail. These were important concerns, but not the issues we had gathered to discuss.
By the end of the evening we had established a new office administration committee to wrestle with these topics, but we had spent little time on the items I had highlighted in my self-evaluation. I left the meeting feeling discouraged over the administrative morass and resentful that the gathered group had not participated in an effective performance evaluation. When Linda and I debriefed the next day, we realized, 24 hours late, just how important the pre-evaluation meetings can be. Next year we won’t make the same mistake.
Living into the Gospel
Annual clergy performance evaluations are a singular opportunity to reflect on individual and corporate ministry, to receive well-earned thanks from our parishioners, to listen to constructive critiques, to contemplate how we might deepen and enhance our ministerial gifts, and to invite interested outsiders into the workings of the congregation. It has been my experience that by means of this process year by year we live into the gospel in deeper and more profound ways—which is much more satisfying than jumping off the high dive.