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