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Measuring ministry

Churches and denominations struggle with the best way to evaluate clergy. Do numbers tell the story, or is pastors’ work too difficult to gauge?

Photo by Rob Friedman

January 23, 2009

United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon sat down recently with a congregation’s lay leaders to discuss a candidate they weren’t yet sure they wanted to call “pastor.” The meeting was part of the ordinary process of assigning clergy to churches, but what Willimon heard across the table was extraordinary.

“This layperson said, ‘I’ve been looking at his growth [records]. The attendance figures have increased, but I’m concerned that the giving figures have stayed about flat. How do you think he’ll do with stewardship leadership if he comes here to our church?’”

Willimon’s reaction? “I could just die happy now!” Willimon, who is responsible for the UMC’s North Alabama Annual Conference of some 800 congregations, was delighted to see a layperson evaluating a pastor’s performance with church growth in mind.

Corporate America has long measured and reviewed its leaders’ accomplishments and productivity. Yet some church and denominational leaders are uncomfortable with the notion of assessing or measuring “success,” whether it’s the evaluation of a person, congregation or program. How can evaluation practices from the corporate world work in a Christian context? How is the nature of accountability different?

The context forces those questions. Mainline denominations have been in decline since the mid-1960s, according to “Facts on Growth,” which reports statistical snapshots of American faith communities. Less than one quarter of Catholic and mainline Protestant congregations were deemed “growing.” And while growth is much more likely among evangelical and other Christian congregations, churches of all categories outside of the South or areas experiencing growth in households are less likely to be on the upswing in attendance and membership.

Against that backdrop, many church leaders argue that to understand the impact and effectiveness of ministry, evaluation is not just a practical tool: Theological imperatives, including stewardship and the Great Commission, compel the church to examine itself.

“There’s probably no more important issue right now in our church,” Willimon said.

 

Questions to consider:

  • When you engage in evaluation, what is your intent? Learning, improvement, encouragement, judgment or something else?
  • What questions will point the evaluation conversation towards its intended outcome?
  • Who do you know that has a spirit of encouraging reflection? What can you learn from that person about evaluation?

Serving Christ with excellence

Evaluation as a formal process can engender anxiety among those who are being held accountable. The concept connotes “testing, judging, failure -- all the words we all grew up with in school, the things that make us hide under the desk,” said Susan Weber, coordinator of the Evaluation Project for the Religion Division of Lilly Endowment Inc.

But, when embraced as a means of feedback used to assess ministry -- both on the clergy and the congregation sides of the equation -- evaluation can be used to strengthen individuals and institutions, said the Rev. Jill M. Hudson, author of “Evaluating Ministry: Principles and Processes for Clergy and Congregations.” “Christ deserves the very best from us. So, we are called to evaluation because first and foremost we are called to serve Christ with excellence,” she said.

Churches and clergy that avoid the issue do so at personal and institutional risk, said Hudson, who serves in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “God calls every person into ministry to fulfill their own potential. The first reason to do evaluation really is for the individual’s own personal, spiritual and professional growth.”

Secondly, assessing a leader’s growth in ministry will help determine if the person’s place of service is a good fit, Hudson said. “God doesn’t want us in the wrong place. God wants us to be where we can do our best and most effective work.”

Hudson stresses evaluation as a mutual assessment, done with clergy and laity in partnership. Sharing in the review process pays off in new insights, priorities and connections in the clergy-congregation relationship, she said.

“A pastor and congregation who are willing to prayerfully explore the effectiveness of ministry together can expect mutual growth,” Hudson wrote. She provides in her book models for mutual review as well as individual pastoral assessment.

The absence of a formal process doesn’t mean evaluation won’t happen – it just may not be as helpful.

“You can’t help doing it, in a way. Everybody does it in their gut,” said the Rev. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte.

“[Pastors] finish a sermon and then wonder, ‘Did I do well or not?’ Inevitably evaluation is going on all of the time. It happens informally. People [are] standing on the sidewalk talking, and you hear them saying, ‘That was the coolest thing ever.’”

Howell, who is pastor to a 5,000-member congregation that employs 50 staffers, said he intentionally raises “the God question” in the midst of worship and the work of ministry. When evaluations of church employees are done, “I will ask, ‘Are you finding fulfillment in your work? Are you sensing where God’s calling you to be?’” he said. “Somebody’s got to be the point person to be sure the right questions are asked. That’s my job.”

The practice of regularly asking questions – even as simple as, “What went well today?” or “What could we do differently next time?” – builds a culture of both appreciation and ongoing learning from experience.

By their fruits you shall know them

For many church leaders, then, the question is not whether to evaluate, but how?

Using numbers to evaluate clergy effectiveness makes many pastors hot under their turned-around collars. How can statistics tell the story of whether a pastor is living out God’s call?

“There are dimensions of clergy evaluation that make this process unique and distinct from techniques commonly found in the corporate world,” John Janka said in his essay “Spiritual Windsurfing: Exploring the Context for Evaluation.” Issues such as “calling, self-knowledge, and the clergy and faith community’s prophetic role are central to shaping identity,” Janka writes. “An exploration of these issues influences how the congregation and the clergy frame the evaluation process and even helps in the shaping of questions to be asked.”

Willimon, for one, is comfortable with using numbers. He said data play an important role in addressing the decline of the church, and clergy evaluation is at the core of this analysis. “Our definition of effectiveness is growth: You will know effective pastors by their fruits. By their fruits you shall know them,” he said, referring to Matthew 7:16.

With printed data on the level of financial giving at churches as well as the number of baptisms, new professions of faith and people in attendance, Willimon is challenging his districts to move beyond vague sentiments such as “he’s a nice guy” or “she’s a good person” that often determined pastoral appointments.

Since November, Willimon has required weekly reporting of the “fruit” harvested by clergy in his district. Such statistics are reported annually as part of the centuries-old tradition of Methodism, but Willimon is dusting off the data. He is convinced that 21st-century ministry demands more quantitative input in decision-making.

“One of Methodism’s core theological beliefs is that no pastor ever should be left alone. All pastors should be watched constantly,” he said. “Pastors run into trouble when they become lone rangers. I’m inquiring into the fruits of your ministry, and I’m a colleague, trying to help you grow.”

Willimon admits his move to publicly publish weekly data online is controversial. But faced with the continuing decline of membership, few church leaders would argue with his motivation, though they might take issue with his methodology.

“I’ve got about 300 churches that haven’t made a new Christian in three years,” he said. “You can put lipstick on it, but those churches are going to be dead in 10 years.”

A means of grace and growth

Others use a more qualitative approach. During his tenure as an active bishop in the same data-heavy UMC system, retired Bishop Kenneth L. Carder collected the required numbers, but explored evaluation in a qualitative sense as well.

“If we evaluated pastors purely on the basis of how many members they received, what their budgets were, the size of their attendance, we didn’t really get at the heart of ministry as a means of grace,” he said. “The real question I struggled with was: How do I make evaluations a means of grace and growth?”

Shifting from what he deemed a limited, numbers-only approach, Carder tried to diminish that hide-under-the-desk feeling.

“The challenge is to create as much as possible the kind of trust level with the persons doing the evaluation, raising the questions, so that there’s a level of trust that this person is really interested in my well-being rather than just trying to find some reason to move me or reprimand me,” said Carder, who is now the Williams Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School.

He developed a series of questions for formal evaluations, including:

 

  • Where have you experienced the presence and power of God at work in your ministry in the last year?
  • What in your ministry gives you life? Where do you feel most alive in your ministry and most energized? What do you find as life-depleting in your ministry? Where is your ministry drained?
  • How do you feel about ministry now versus 10 years ago?
  • What kinds of theological questions have you struggled with?

 

The critical question, Carder said, was, “How am I relating to God and participating to God’s mission in the world?” instead of “How am I running an institution?”

Pitfalls and temptations

No matter which approach a leader takes -- quantitative, qualitative or a combination of models -- Hudson warns against evaluation pitfalls.

First, beware of procrastination. It’s better to start somewhere, asking the simple question “How are we doing?” for instance, than put off evaluation all together. “It matters less where you start than that you start at all,” she said.

Evaluation should never be a weapon against the pastor, and it should not be tied to compensation issues, Hudson said. In the business world, strategies such as withholding raises, cutting salaries or offering bonuses might be accepted. But, she argues, they are inappropriate in the church.

And, no one technique is perfect, so it’s important to be aware of the potential shortcomings and limitations of any evaluation process. Even with regular and deliberate evaluation comes great temptation, Howell said. Just because a person or a project is a success by some measures doesn’t mean it’s achieving the ultimate aim of the church.

“You can do a lot of things and actually damage the body [of Christ] because you’re [acting] like a rock star,” he said.

“We fed people in Haiti,” he said, and it was an effort that touched tens of thousands of people in great need. “Is that ‘Yeah!’ for us? ‘Thank goodness they got food?’

“Or was God glorified because that happened?”

That’s where the “God question” must be engaged, he said. “The question we try to ask in all of that is a theological one: How does what you have achieved -- or failed to achieve -- how is that part of not only what God is calling you do to as a person, but what God is calling us to do as a church?”