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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Pastor Evaluation

This week's question covers a topic that might make some pastors shudder: the pastor evaluation.

My question is about evaluations of pastors.On Ash Wednesday I had a visit from a member of the congregation (not council) who informed me that there would be a formal evaluation of my work beginning soon which would involve talking to the various groups and key members for feedback about how I am doing as a pastor and what their expectations for a pastor are. I was assured this would be conducted by the council but this whole idea comes not from the council but from a group of crabby people who all of a sudden have started to demand a formal evaluation of the pastor. I know they are a common practice in many congregations and can be a very helpful process balancing affirmation with redirection of time and energy but ...well I don't think that is what they had in mind. I have no problem with a fair and helpful evaluation but what I will not tolerate is an evaluation which is really just a game of pin all the troubles in the congregation on pastor. So I would like to hear about the kinds of evaluation tools, forms, resources you use. Who does the evaluation? Who doesn't? Who sees the finalized evaluation? How do you take a situation where the whole thing is a set up by crabby people and make it fruitful?

My (earthchick's) response:
Do you have a Pastor Relations Committee? I know - that is always my first response to questions like these! But I think they are so valuable. If you don't have one, this might be a good time to start talking to your council about forming one. If you don't have a PRC, then substitute "council" everywhere I have written "PRC" below.

Here would be my ideal: an annual evaluation of the pastor, done at the routine initiation of the Pastor Relations Committee, not triggered by any kind of event or dissatisfaction. The PRC should gather feedback in the form of some sort of written response form, sent to the entire congregation. The form needs to include all areas of the pastor's responsibilities, with questions about what the pastor is doing best, what the pastor might improve, and what the members think the priorities should be.

Members of the congregation must sign their name to any form they turn in. Members would be assured that the pastor would not know who has written what. Only members of the PRC would see the forms. The PRC would then compile the results to present to the pastor. If there are specific concerns brought up by an individual, the PRC has his/her name and can ask for further information. This can have the effect of forcing honest and clear feedback. Anything that turns out to be dishonest or malicious would be excluded from the actual review. The lack of anonymity makes it more difficult for members to make sweeping negative statements (or if they do so, there will be direct followup by the PRC and the PRC can filter such ugliness).

The PRC then offers feedback to the pastor, who is given opportunity to respond. All of this should be conducted in a nonconfrontational way, and you, the pastor, should approach the evaluation in a nonanxious way. Do not be defensive. Be open-minded. Talk through points of criticism in a way that shows you are open to learning and growing. Ask the PRC for advice on these areas. Then work with the PRC to set ministry priorities for the coming year. This part should be instructive for the PRC - they, and the wider congregation, need to know that not everything can be a priority. So if people indicate on their forms that preaching and worship should be your number one priority, but then they complain elsewhere that you aren't making 5 home visits a week, the PRC needs to help the congregation understand how priority-setting works.

You don't indicate your denomination, but most denominations ought to offer resources for the pastoral evaluation. If yours doesn't, then look at the websites for other denominations to see what forms and processes they use. Though you are the person being evaluated, you don't have to be passive in the process - if your congregation hasn't done this before, and especially if some seem to be agitating for it out of negativity, then you need to take some firm leadership in helping the council see how this needs to be done.

And Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, writes:
In my denomination we have something called ‘Ministerial Accompanied Self Appraisal’ (you could probably Google that to find out about it) but that is more of a one-to-one with a minister rather than involving the congregation.

Evaluation of our work is good – but as you rightly say there needs to be clarity of understanding about who does the review, how it is done, how it is reported and to whom, plus your own input into what’s said. Is there a job description, which would be an obvious starting point for reflection? Is there somewhere people can ‘park’ the concerns which are about the whole life of the church and NOT about you as the pastor?

If the process is handled well, then I think letting people in the church say what they have to say can be enormously helpful, but I would stress that who holds the rung is really important. Sounds like you need a wise person at the helm of this, to help steer the ‘crabbies’ through the process without mangling you. Is there someone on the council who can take on this chairing role – can you go to them & say ‘I want to be part of a helpful and positive process and I need your help to help make this happen?’; or is there someone outside the local church who can take on this role?, who has no axe to grind? I have found that people with a Human Resources background outside the church (if you have anyone like that in your membership) have such a lot of wisdom to share.

And St. Casserole adds: special to send the bulldog in ON ASH WEDNESDAY to alert you about an evaluation during LENT. If you have denominational leaders (presbytery executive, district supervisor, etc.), call them and ask how evaluation procedure works in your denomination. Ask for help as you've asked us for format, examples and stories of using the evaluation time as a good event. It may be that a non-Council member may not initiate the process nor even be involved. Before letting panic set in, corral your friends and talk this out with them. Again, the timing here makes me want to come in the Texas TownCar of Justice and slap church members.

What about the rest of you? What has been your experience? What resources or advice would you offer?

Thank you so much to those of you who have sent questions recently! We have a very full queue and will be responding to your questions in the coming weeks. As always, if you have a question for the matriarchs, send it to


  1. This looks like it could be a negative fishing expedition. The council should be informed. You need to head this off at the pass. An evaluation should only be through a formal process of the council and its personnel committee, or whatever you want to call it. This committee should be available for the pastor to bounce things off of and also for the people who have gripes to complain to, but if some people with an agenda get rolling, they will look only to like minded people.

  2. I would agree that the first step is to notify your council and then your denominational higher-ups. Don't wait and wonder if it will blow over. As someone who has been "nuked" by four people who had an agenda, I can promise that if there IS a hidden agenda, it will come out, one way or the other.

    If you keep this positive (i.e. you know you are not perfect and would like to be a better pastor and therefore better fulfill your calling) you can easily talk about what you see as the perks for this evaluation -- not only for you but for your congregation.

    The smaller the congregation, the harder these are to do. But you still have to love and serve your sheep.

  3. As a college professor I am evaluated by every student in every class, every semester. It is not always an enjoyable process but it is a very important one, so I am glad to hear that some denominations/congregations have the practice of pastor evaluations. (We have sadly never experienced this in the Catholic, Episcopal, or Presbyterian congregations where my family has worshipped, with detrimental results to best practices IMHO. Preaching suffers, in particular, when there is no evaluation after seminary and rare hearing of anyone else preach).

    Honest teaching evaluations are made safe for the students by always allowing anonymity and I believe it is very important to do the same thing in a pastor evaluation. If people want to identify themselves (students occasionally do) this is fine...But forcing people to sign their names and be subject to questioning by a committee who they may not be personally comfortable with, even if this is not seen by the pastor, is virtually guaranteed to make some people not participate and others give minimal and therefore unhelpful feedback.

    There may be the occasional hostile comment--even in a class where 90 percent of the comments are good to excellent there will generally be one or two who have an ax to grind. If they are limited in number they can be taken with a grain of salt--if more extensive they say something really important, perhaps substantive and but at least about perceptions which probably need to be addressed anyway. The sting isn't fun either way but is definitely worth it for the importance of the information gathered.

  4. I would suggest any 360 evaluation form. The ECUSA has a Mutual Ministry program that is pretty good. The ABC-USA recommends a 360 evaluation as well. The point is to focus on the congregations' self-understanding and everyone's role in moving forward as God's people. Pastoral evaluations then are a subset of this evaluation and are within the context of the overall expressed goals.

  5. We actually do have such a thing in the Episcopal Church-- an underused but very helpful tool called a Mutual Ministry Review. The key is that it is just what it sounds-- not simply a "performance evaluation" of the pastor, but a look at the function of the collective ministry of the church as a whole. It's a real opportunity for growth all around if the congregation and pastor participate together in such an effort. You can find a version of it here. Perhaps your denomination has something similar (another reason for contacting the powers-that-be)? Or maybe this could be adapted?

    Additionally, I would strongly argue against allowing full anonymity in the process. A church is an ongoing community in ways that are different from a classroom; at a minimum, parishioners (hopefully!) do not deliver their evaluation and then move on to the next church. I have seen real damage done by "axe-grinders" who have an opportunity to be ugly without having to accept responsibility. Names of individuals do not need to be included in the report to the pastor/parish board, but accountability for one's comments needs to be part of the system at some point.

  6. In the UCCan these are, in theory, done yearly everywhere by the Ministry & PErsonnel Committee of the PAstoral Charge. In practice, well....

    ALso of note, in the UCCan anonymous comments do not officially exist. THe M&P committee at least has to know where the comment is coming from. Otherwise it is to be discarded.

  7. I agree with Jane Ellen and Gord on the issue of anonymity. We have worked hard in our congregation to empower people to express disagreement and/or dissatisfaction in open, honest ways, and asking them to sign their names to confidential evaluation forms is in the same spirit.

    I would not characterize following up with criticisms as "subjecting them to questioning by a committee" as if they were being called on the carpet for something. It's not an interrogation. In our congregation, this process is intended to allow someone with a complaint a fuller hearing so that the committee might better understand the complaint and communicate it (without acrimony) to the pastor.

    If a person chooses not to participate in the evaluation because he/she does not want to sign his/her name to the form, I am fine with that. There is enough opportunity for anonymous criticism in congregational life without sanctioning it as a part of the formal evaluation process.

  8. A few years ago, the Worship Committee, of which I am part, undertook a short survey, because of a few negative comments. The responses showed that the congregation had a wide variety of expectations, many mutually exclusive, fortunately they love each other enough to put up with parts of worship they don’t appreciate because they know others do. Before the survey the implication was that anything a person didn’t like was my fault, and therefore would complain about it.

    The nearest thing we officially have is a Vitality of Call, it isn’t really an evaluation of the Minister, but seeing if the needs/expectations/mission goals of the Congregation and the skills/call of the Minister are still a good match. This is in the 4th and 7th year of a placement. The Church Council appoints 2 people from the congregation, the minister appoints 2, and the regional body leads the process. There is a meeting with the 4 lay people, with the Minister and then with Minister and Lay people. The Congregation knows who the 4 Lay people are, and people will often make comment to them prior to the day of the meeting.
    I have been involved as a member of the team leading the process, and have been pleased at how open congregations and ministers are willing to be, about their joys, hopes and disappointments with the placement. We specifically ask the lay people for any concerns or points of tension with the Minister – and we ask the Minister a similar question.
    The report is circulated to the people involved before it is sent to Pastoral Relations Committee [ a regional committee] and to the Church Council of the congregation. The report doesn’t include every minor issue, but tries to convey a sense of the conversations, is it generally a happy place with minister and congregaiton working together, or are there issues which need to be dealt with. Sometimes it means to is time for the Minister to consider looking for another call that is better suited to theri skils and calling.
    I think having the process led by people from outside the congregation [usually one lay and one ordained person] helps make it a safe process for both congregation and Minister.

  9. We have accompanied self appraisal, it is mandatory within Methodist structures, but the people who walk through this with us are dedicated by the church for the purpose and trained for the task. My concern about what is being described is that this may well be a vieled lynch mob with no proper or formal agenda!

  10. In my church's bylaws, there is a provision for annual evaluation "at the initiation of the pastor" or similar language. Not surprisingly, near the end of my first year it was one of my "gripers" who wanted to make sure that it was implemented.

    I have a big problem with the idea that these evaluations can be anonymous. I think that we as a faith community should be above the possibility of ripping the pastor to shreds and not claiming ownership. As a PK I've experienced the damage that this can do to a pastor and his family. As a result, the evaluation form states that the pastor reserves the right to contact people to clarify comments that they make. It isn't a committee thing...just an opportunity for me to follow up one on one. I think it's a good way to continue/enhance the pastoral relationship without being intimidating. It's probably still intimidating ("You mean I might actually have to be accountable for what I write?") but not in any way that'll cause me to lose sleep.

    Our Pastoral Relations committee heads all this up, and we process the comments as a group. It's a built-in source of support that helps me determine the best way to respond. I couldn't imagine a pastor going through this process alone, especially if you have a group trying to use it for their own purposes.

  11. one small, mean-spirited, pre-coffee question...wouldn't you like to have a reverse process? "The Pastor will submit an evaluation on the performance of the parish in the last year...". Oh boy.

  12. I agree with the idea that anonymous evaluations are unacceptable. People who consider themselves part of a faith community need to own their feelings and opinions within that community. Most of the pastors I know have a "talk to the hand" approach to anonymous or triangulated ("Pastor, some people are saying...") evaluations of their performance.

  13. My main problem with the scenario presented was that the member of the congregation who presented this to the pastor, was not a member of the council.

    This sounds like an end around move by the gripers to get this done without council.

    The council should immediately get involved, and properly conduct any such evaluation to insure that anything done is fair to all involved, especially the minister in question.

  14. I have a rather large hole in the middle of my forehead... from the anonymous comments added into my review. The last review... was the beginning of the end. Strictly subjective... with no attention to why the congregation "said" they called me... and the job description I was given.

    Bottom line... I thought I was supposed to help grow the church (community recognition)... the leadership thought I as supposed to be maintaining everything the way it was (even though they called me part-time)... the congregation really thought I was full-time and should be visiting them every 6-8 weeks because I had the time.

    Total snafu.

  15. Responding late, but I have to say--don't do this alone. I just went through a very unpleasant "review" where the folks who are dissatisfied "had their say" and it was ugly--and a good bit of it was untrue, but I was helpless to respond or "prove" my innocence.

    If you are able, have a member of the bishop's office present so that it doesn't turn into something none of you has in mind.

  16. Responding even later...

    If there are very many crabbies/whiners/whatever-you-want-to-call-them, then the review process is overdue. Just having it in place demonstrates to the congregation that you and the Council/Session/whatever-you-call-it are indeed accountable for your decisions and actions.

    I agree that within our faith community anonymity is not appropriate. Remember, however, that it goes both ways - if no one is allowed to criticize the leadership of the congregation without signing his/her name to the comment, then leadership crabbing/whining/etc. should also come with a name attached.

    I have always found "performance review" to be very helpful even if it's not always fun. It does help to define priorities. And, I must admit, sometimes the things I've put at the top of the list have NOT been those identified by the other leaders of the congregation. It's helpful to publish the priorities/objectives of the coming year to the entire congregation so they know what to expect. And wise evaluations have definitely helped me to see that there areas in which even I can improve...


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