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Appraisal - a Methodist Experience 1

By John Simmonds.

Part II of this article follows here!


In 1991 the Methodist Church's annual Conference asked 'for appraisal systems for all ministers, deacons and deaconesses'. The group which was to prepare a scheme began its work by finding out why the request had been brought in the first place. It appeared that several issues were in the background:

a) Finding appointments for 'hard to appoint' ministers. There was a small, but significant, number of ministers who went from appointment to appointment, not staying for long anywhere. It was hard to know what to do about them and for them. Clearly things had gone wrong in their ministry. What could the church do to support such people before things got too difficult?

b) There was a considerable amount of 'distress' amongst ministers. Too many were ill, not performing well or very tired; some had relational problems. How could ministers be helped to cope better with their role and their work?

c) The church's appointment procedures were revealing many ministers who were taken completely by surprise when told that their current appointment would not be extended. They had thought that things were going well, a view not shared by their people. How could ministers be helped to gain a more objective view of how their ministry was being received?

It was felt that the church should follow a 'preventative care' approach to these issues. As well as addressing acute issues directly, it should also set up systems whereby ministers, deaconesses and deacons could review their working lives. It was hoped that in due course this would prevent some of the serious problems mentioned above, arising in the first place.

The 1992 Methodist Conference affirmed the principle of regular Accompanied Self-Appraisal and invited the wider church and the Diaconal Order to comment on outline proposals. After a large number of criticisms and suggestions had been considered, a final scheme was brought to the Conference in 1993. The scheme was approved.

Preparing the Scheme

The steering group appointed to develop the scheme took the view that, whilst it was intended to provide support for those in ordained ministry, the scheme should also acknowledge ways in which they were accountable. The group identified three accountabilities of ministers. Unless a scheme attended to these three, it would not fill the bill:

First, accountability to God and to one's call by God. In the Methodist tradition, everyone offering for service as a presbyter (minister) or for diaconal service has to give an account of his or her call. It is the church's responsibility to discern whether the call will be best fulfilled in ordained ministry in the Methodist church. Such a call gives ordained persons a certain autonomy, sometimes requiring them to stand over against church in a prophetic, priestly or pastoral role. It may require them to remind the church of the gospel, calling people back to discipleship. So there is a call from God to consider.

Secondly, accountability to the Methodist church, in which ministers are 'in full connexion', a relationship which means that they are acknowledged representatives of the whole church (the Connexion). The minister, then, embodies the whole Connexion in the local church - its values, its doctrines and its public commitments. In return, the church takes responsibility for ministers, assuring them of an appointment, a house and a stipend. In a similar way, deaconesses and deacons (members of a permanent ordained diaconate) are committed to and supported by both the Connexion and their Methodist Diaconal Order.

Thirdly, accountability to the people alongside whom a minister, deaconess or deacon exercises a ministry. The ordained person spends most of her/his life in a particular ministry context, engaging with the people of God in worship, mission, social action and pastoral care. Here s/he will be attentive to local people as s/he responds to their views on how ministry is being exercised.

In preparing the proposals it was important to check that the scheme of appraisal was consistent with Gospel values and attitudes; that it would affirm rather than undermine; praise rather than blame; trust rather than doubt; apply grace rather than law. it was also vital to act in the conviction that members of the Body of Christ are committed to support each other and to be accountable to each other, and that leaders depend greatly on the support and feedback of those amongst whom they operate.

The steering group then set itself to clarify the purpose and aims both of appraisal in general and of a particular scheme for the Methodist Church. These were set out as follows:

The purpose of appraisal is to help people, in the context of their work and vocation:

to affirm their gifts, achievements and personality

to step back and take stock (especially with reference to previous goals and unexpected happenings)

to reflect on

their personal aspirations and needs

their effectiveness in daily work

to check out their effectiveness

in their immediate work contexts

to improve skills, clarify insights and release gifts

to identify areas for professional and personal development

to recognise challenges, identify achievable goals and determine appropriate strategies for future action.

The aim of the scheme of Accompanied Self-Appraisal is to provide for ministers, deaconesses and deacons, as part of a life-long process of reflection and routine development:

private places of safety for them as public people to talk openly

opportunity for them to find, recover and maintain a sense of direction

a process whereby they can check out their goals and visions within the context of their daily work.

It was envisaged that the scheme would bring considerable benefits to ministers, deaconesses and deacons by:

providing a supportive environment where ministers, deaconesses and deacons can be listened to and heard (it is impossible to overestimate just how important this is)

seeking to create an opportunity to explore the relationship between support and accountability. The work of the ordained holds in tension accountability on the one hand and autonomy on the other. Whilst ministers, deaconesses and deacons are undoubtedly answerable for their life and conduct to the church, they also claim a considerable amount of freedom as those called by God. So, any appraisal process should take full account of both the vocational autonomy of the minister, deaconess or deacon and the accountability of those authorised and supported by the Methodist Church.

Once people are committed to an open and supportive exploration of their life and work in ministry, great benefits would flow; it would

promote well-being

reduce the sense of isolation

help identify aspirations, personal potential and training needs

promote a more measured and mature way of ascertaining just how ministers, deaconesses and deacons, as well as their churches, feel about their work

greatly improve the atmosphere in which decisions about appointments are made.

All in all, in the long run, a good scheme could have only a positive effect on the ordained, their families and the church.

Self appraisal or direct appraisal?

In the early stages of the development of the scheme a critical choice had to be made between 'appraisal by another' and 'self appraisal'. During the scheme's planning stage, the steering group considered appraisal schemes from about twenty five Anglican dioceses, two clergy schemes in the USA and schemes for teachers, social workers, police force civilian employees, RAF chaplains and civil servants. In most cases, it was assumed that each person would be appraised by her/his immediate supervisor. This was deemed to be crucial since any appraiser should already be in day-to-day contact with his/her appraisee. Then the appraisal should spring no surprises and would deal with data with which both were familiar. It was also assumed that appraisers would conduct relatively few appraisals simultaneously.

It was observed that, in the Church of England, most schemes were hierarchical with diocesan bishops, suffragans and archdeacons appraising their clergy. A few dioceses also involved rural deans or other senior clergy. However, some schemes were failing because firstly, appraisers were attempting to do too many appraisals and secondly, they were not closely enough in touch with their clergy's daily work to make effective judgements.

It soon became clear that it was not possible to find a system of direct appraisal which was readily adaptable to the Methodist presbyteral or diaconal ministry, for several reasons:

Ministers, deaconesses and deacons do not operate in a clearly defined hierarchical system. It is not clear who (if anyone) is their overseer. It might be argued that, in principle, superintendents, chairmen of districts, college principals, connexional secretaries, church stewards etc exercise oversight, but none manages employees in a way generally recognised in most other organisations.

As has already been said, so long as the ordained are accountable in different ways and in a variety of contexts, it is hard to know who might appraise them. For example, a local minister works in a local context, is invited by a circuit, is stationed and authorised by the connexion. S/he may be involved in local, circuit and connexional responsibilities, as well as ecumenical commitments. So even s/he were to appraised by an overseer, it is hard to say who that might be.

Already attention has been drawn to the delicate balance between autonomy and accountability; this dynamic is crucial. So far no scheme of appraisal has been discovered which fully addresses this dimension. However, one Anglican diocese had produced two schemes: one, an episcopal review to deal with accountability; the other, work consultancy to deal with autonomy. Surely a way could be found to blend the two.

Some were arguing that ministers, deaconesses and deacons should be directly appraised by their congregations (indeed this already happened, albeit somewhat haphazardly - eg when renewal of a minister's appointment was considered). It became clear that direct local appraisal would be inappropriate since it failed to take account of the ordained person's autonomy and other crucial areas of accountability. Also it would reinforce the unwelcome notion that s/he is in post only to serve and please a local constituency.

Bearing all this in mind, the steering group recommended and the church accepted that it was simply not possible to produce a satisfactory scheme of direct appraisal for ministers, deaconesses and deacons. The church has come to see that it does not want a system of direct appraisal, for what is coveted most for those in ordained ministry is self-motivated mature reflection upon their ministry and vocation - reflection which takes into account the opinions and feelings of others in each ministry context.

Therefore the proposal brought to the Methodist Conference was for a scheme which is fundamentally self appraisal, in which ministers, deaconesses and deacons are responsible for their own appraisal - each one is a self appraiser.

Accompanied Self-appraisal

In spite of recognising that the most appropriate form of appraisal was self-appraisal, the steering group realised that, left to themselves, many people would simply not engage in the process. This had been the experience of earlier schemes of ministerial development.

So it was agreed that each person should be supported in his or her sef-appraisal. The group thought hard and long in an attempt to describe such support, finally setttling on the concept of accompaniment, drawing on the analogy of the musical accompanist - a person of consummate skill and sensitivity who facilitates the performance of singers, instrumentalists or dancers. The accompanist's role is not to dominate or control but to support and assist. The group also discovered that, in many religious orders, the role of spiritual director was being refined and the word 'accompanist' was being substituted.

The programme was to be called Accompanied Self-appraisal, with ministers, deaconesses and deacons being called Self-appraisers and their companions, Accompanists. The accompanist's responsibility would not be to appraise, but to support and facilitate the self-appraisal process. This process would involve the ordained taking note of each area of accountability, not least the opinions of those with whom s/he works in her or his local ministry and mission context. In order to emphasise the point, it was important to repeat that the accompanist was there not to appraise but so support and oversee the process of Accompanied Self-appraisal.

Putting the scheme in place

It was soon realised that , whilst it was one thing to design a self-appraisal scheme, it was quite another to put it in place. How would such a scheme be administered? How would the principal participants in the scheme be briefed and trained? How would the scheme be introduced?

The Conference had asked for a scheme for all ministers, deaconesses and deacons. All 2,000! Most work in local churches and circuits, but a considerable minority work in other contexts, eg chaplaincies, colleges, administration. It was clearly not possible for one central body to intoduce the scheme, let alone service and monitor it.

The steering group also realised that professional support was needed, especially for the design of appropriate briefing and training materials. The first step was to invite each of the 33 Methodist districts in the UK to appoint a District Appraisal Officer, a District Appraisal Trainer and a District Appraisal Group to work alongside them. The Officers and Trainers were then gathered together to learn about the values, aims and features of the scheme and to explore the key roles and tasks. The districts produced remarkably gifted and experienced people to initiate the programme. Professionals from education, training, personnel and counselling offered their services enthusiastically.

The steering group then set about many months of preparation, supported by a paid consultant. Her prime responsibility was to prepare an induction and training programme for Self-appraisers and Accompanists. The programme was tested by the district trainers themselves (on each other) at national training events.

The training programme, besides introducing practitioners to the main features of the scheme, also provides sessions during which potential accompanists can practise their listening and facilitating skills, support the self-appraiser as s/he seeks, evaluates and integrates feedback from people in her/his ministry context, and assess whether the main aims of the self-appraisal process have been realised. Also, self-appraisers are offered tools to be used as they reflect on their ministries and seek and handle feedback.

Systems have also been put in place so that accompanists can be supported in their role and task in a way which encourages and supports without breaching confidentiality.

The scheme is now operating in its second year. At the outset, the church set itself the task of engaging every minister, deacon and deaconesss in self-appraisal within five years of the scheme's inception. In the first year, the scheme operated very well. Highly motivated people came forward to be accompanists and self-appraisers, ensuring the scheme's success. It is recognised that as the fifth year approaches, it may be harder to recruit accompanists and to engage reluctant self-appraisers (nb Self-appraisal is now required of all ordained people - it is not optional).

Continuing development

The steering group, once primarily engaged in designing and launching the scheme, has now changed its role to one of support and monitoring. Its intention is that the scheme should develop To this end, annual regional consultations of district officers and trainers are held. Examples of good practice are circulated. Training sessions are modified in the light of experience. New features are introduced when it is realised that there are gaps in the programme.

Some of the most significant features which have received considerable additional attention are:

a) Confidentiality. It has been a surprise to discover just how anxious ministers are about confidentiality. Indeed, in the early days of the scheme, some vocal ministers expressed the view that lay people could not be trusted with confidences. Again and again the group has been challenged to 'guarantee' confidentiality. In the end, most ministers have been reassured that their (normally lay) accompaninsts will respect confidences. This has been achieved by introducing additional sessions on confidentiality for those who are conducting briefing and training sessions.

b) Feedback. One of the essential mechanisms of the scheme is 'seeking feedback'. The steering group soon realised that it had underestimated the very great difficulty which self-appraisers would experience in both seeking feedback and coping with it when it came. Many ministers find it very hard to cope with mild, well-meant criticism, let alone feedback which is offered insensitively. Extra work had to be done to help them ask for feedback which could be handled, both practically and emotionally. It also became clear that many church folk were finding it very difficult to give feedback. They were accustomed to talking about the minister, but not too comfortable when asked to speak directly to her or him.

c) Saying 'no'. It is a common experience in the church that we find it very difficult to say 'no' to those who offer themselves for a given ministry. We find it even harder to say 'no' to someone who has been performing badly in a role. We are rightly concerned to be kind and supportive. So we put up with inefficient secretaries, poor preachers, lazy pastors etc. In the context of the Accompanied Self-appraisal scheme, it is hard to say 'no' to someone who offers their services as an Accompanist. So, a current task is to design a training exercise for those who select accompanists, giving them practice in saying 'no'. It is vital for the welfare of self-appraisers and the credibility of the scheme in general that only those with appropriate gifts and temperament are authorised.

A gift to the church

Accompanied Self-appraisal, introduced into the life of every minister, deaconess and deacon, is bringing about a significant change in the way the church understands and utilises ordained ministry, for it places the ordained firmly in the context of the ministry of the whole people of God, thereby helping to deliver the church from the outmoded idea that ordination takes a person into a separate professional caste, answerable only to itself.

The steering group believes that, as Accompanied Self-appraisal develops, it will become a sign to the whole church that those entrusted with leadership are prepared to check out their work, renew their vocation and take seriously the views and feelings of those amongst whom they minister. Also, that in the long run, the body of Christ will be strengthened, with lay and ordained alike gaining new insights and growing in wisdom and effectiveness.


Revd Dr John Simmonds is responsible for 'Continuing Development in Ministry' in the Methodist Church. Appraisal - a Methodist Experience II will appear in Issue 11.

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You are reading Appraisal - a Methodist Experience 1 by John Simmonds, part of Issue 10 of Ministry Today, published in June 1997.

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