Chapter I. Why Evaluate?

“Our pastor shouldn’t use so many illustrations from novels; I wish he’d just preach the Bible!”... “That was a terrific stewardship dinner. I wondered who planned the program?”... “I can’t believe only six people showed for the Lenten study—everyone said they wanted one. The vestry promised me if I prepared there would be fifty!” ... “If she’d just look me in the eye when we shake hands after church services I’d feel so much better. I don’t think she likes me at all. I thought women in ministry were supposed to be so caring and warm. What a disappointment!” ... “My parishioners expect me to do all the work. They think I’m the paid Christian around here!”

Sound familiar? Evaluation is a daily occurrence in the life of the parish. It happens in the parking lot, over the telephone, in the manse. Reflecting on how the pastor is doing, how the Sunday school teachers are doing, how the “church” is doing is part of what it means to be thoughtful, conscientious, caring people. Most of us take seriously our roles as members, leaders, or pastors of congregations. We are constantly struggling with whether or not we’re being faithful to God’s calling. Yet the idea of formal evaluation is often resisted—a scary and threatening idea for church professionals and lay leaders alike. We generally associate “evaluation” with “judgment,” and no one likes to be judged!

Often congregations don’t conduct evaluations, believing that “no news is good news.” Perhaps they are afraid of learning things that may demand change or open a Pandora's box. Evaluations take time—a valuable commodity in busy churches. Why not leave well enough alone? Pastors often fear that evaluations will reveal painful critiques of their leadership, or—even worse—be used to orchestrate their departure. These fears are, unfortunately, too often founded in reality. There are many cases when evaluation has been used as a weapon against a pastor or where review led to greater frustration for lay leaders instead of new energy for ministry. The purpose of this book is to explore ways of conducting ministry evaluation that can be healthy, life-enhancing, and supportive of the gifts and talents of all who are engaged in the mission of a particular congregation. But first we need to answer the question: If this produces so much anxiety, why do it at all?

The Purpose of Evaluation

“The purpose of evaluation is not to prove but to improve.” (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 39. This quote from the flyleaf of the Phi Delta Kappa book states positively the goal of evaluation. Evaluation can be considered an ongoing process that strengthens our ministry, giving us the opportunity to reflect periodically on how well we are fulfilling our commitments to Christ, the church, and one another. It helps both clergy and laity redefine their current sense of calling and identify where they are feeling good about their ministry, what may need more attention, and what can appropriately be “put to rest” as no longer needed. In his helpful pamphlet “Evaluation of, by, for and to the Clergy,” Loren Mead reminds us that the work of ministry is “that task in which pastors and laity collaborate to press each other and nurture each other into growth within their religious tradition, that task that produces people who go into their worlds to try to make a difference for others and for that world.” (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1977), 15. Surely this task is worthy of review and conversation!

The Importance of Mutual Evaluation

Excellence in ministry is not a one-person show. Even with vigorous and dynamic pastoral leadership, long-term excellence in faithfully carrying out the mission of the Gospel occurs only where the laity are committed to the vision of what their congregation’s ministry can be. In the excellent churches, the laity own, take responsibility for, and are trusted with carrying out the work of the people of God. (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1988), 9.

This quote from Pursuing Excellence in Ministry points to the essential partnership of clergy and laity in executing the ministry of a congregation. Central to this book is the belief that evaluating only the pastor’s performance results in denying the laity the growth and empowerment that can come from meaningful review.

Richard Ullman, Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio, makes this point in his article “Taking Stock of Our Ministry” when he states, “Paul wrote that 'we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another' (Romans 12:5). Ministry is and must be mutual. Therefore, no individual’s performance in ministry can be reviewed with fairness apart from the whole. To look at the pastor’s performance in isolation from that of the other key ministers in the congregation (e.g. the members) encourages defensive, win-lose behavior and feelings.” Vol. X: No. 2, May-June 1984 (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute). To separate the ministry of one Christian, namely the pastor, for evaluation without considering the ministry of those with whom he or she shares the work of a particular congregation is not only unjust but theologically unsound! There are particular times when a pastor may request a comprehensive review of his or her own ministry for growth or personal assessment. The models in Chapter Four will consider both a mutual review and those times when a pastor, on his or her own initiative, makes the request to evaluate his or her ministry alone.

Anticipated Outcomes of Evaluation

There are three large payoffs for congregations and pastors willing to engage in mutual assessment.

  1. New realizations will emerge. Whatever methods are used in the review process, surprises will surely occur. Areas of ministry that have felt troubled or uncertain may yield the key to the puzzle. Dynamics of parish life that were thought to be going well may reveal areas of concern. What are we doing better than we thought? Where do we need improvement? There will be unexpected success and honest feedback. Even the long standing successes may help us discover new insights.
  2. New goals and directions can be established. The process of examining current ministry can lead us to the development of new priorities. Where are the emerging needs of our congregation, potential outreach, and service in our community? This also involves weighing what needs to be lovingly brought to conclusion in order to make room for the unfolding areas of future ministry.
  3. The mysterious relationship between pastor and members will be explored. It is impossible for a congregation to review ministry without looking at how they are living together as pastor and people. The deep psychological dimensions of religious identity surface in traditional imagery of the minister as shepherd, of members as the fold, of both as the community of faith. Such metaphors weave themselves in and out of the review process. Don Hagerty, a Presbyterian pastor in Chicago, wrote of this in an article for The Christian Century several years ago when he suggested that a review gets into the subtle nuances of the pastor- church relationship that go beyond whether a particular pastor is liked or viewed as effective. He says, “The issue is more of relativities, adjustments, emphases and gentle shifts.” (January, 1983). Although we often try to legislate changes around these areas, a thoughtful review process may simply allow the recognition that few relationships are without room to grow. Being able to talk about these in the context of mutual love and respect can be a liberating and healing occurrence.

In Summary

A pastor and congregation who are willing to prayerfully explore the effectiveness of ministry together can expect mutual growth. Mutually reviewing ministry can result in revitalizing mission and re-energizing pastors and people. Everyone wants to believe that what they are doing is worthwhile and makes a difference. Regular review gives the feedback necessary to continue moving forward in confidence that what everyone is striving for is a shared vision of the mission of the congregation in question.