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Appraisal - an American Experience

By Roy Oswald.

There are several paradoxes about clergy evaluation. The first is that those clergy who most need to hear evaluative data are least able psychologically to hear it. Clergy who are open to candid feedback on their ministry are usually looking for it all the time. Those who can't take feedback habitually ignore that which is offered all the time. The second paradox is that when things are going swimmingly well, no one wants to evaluate, but when trouble begins to surface between pastor and people, that's when members decide to conduct an evaluation.

The truth of the matter is that we should engage in evaluation only when things are going well, and studiously avoid evaluation when things are going poorly. When there is tension between pastor and people, an entirely different process of conflict resolution or problem solving is needed.

What makes clergy evaluation so complicated? A surprising list of things.

Many clergy have been hurt by ill-conceived evaluation attempts. Each judicatory has its own horror stories of an evaluation process conducted by the wrong people, with hundreds of questionnaires being sent out to church members. When the results came in the pastor was roasted. The assumption behind an effort like this is that all you need to do is point out someone's shortcomings and they will be able to change. Instead there is a humiliation and demoralisation that can set in, where clergy are more motivated to find work elsewhere than to try to address the problems being raised. Then, too, members' expectations rise following an evaluation. They may not have wanted to participate in the evaluation, but now that they have contributed their two cents' worth they expect results. They are now angry 'because Father Billows is still doing what I told him annoys me'.

For many clergy, all the outward signs of parish life seem to be positive until the evaluation begins. Then all kinds of little problems creep out from under the furniture. Lyle Schaller makes the claim that 90% of what clergy do is invisible to 90% of the laity, 90% of the time. When simplistic images of the clergy role are brought to an evaluation session, an enormous collection of individual expectations can easily be laid on clergy. When good hearted clergy try to live into all those expectations, role overload can quickly occur. Here the annual review contributes to clergy burnout rather than working to alleviate it.

I believe that the call of clergy is more to a role than a series of functions. Functions are much more easily evaluated than a role. It's like being a parent. To be sure, there are some specific functions in parenting that can be evaluated, such as whether the kids are provided with clean clothes and nutritious meals. Some people consider those criteria first when they judge whether someone's a good parent or not. Most of us would agree that there are some vastly more important things that go into good parenting, such as the quality of presence the parent has with the child, the self-discipline and modelling of the parent, whether the parents' behaviour is congruent with the values they espouse, the spiritual depth of the parent, and how that gets communicated to the child. These issues of role are much harder to evaluate. It's much easier to run your finger along the china cabinet to see if you pick up any dust. Much clergy evaluation is like checking for dust. To be sure, the role of pastor involves preaching, teaching, administering a parish, visiting the sick etc, but there is a whole lot more to the role than the performance of those specific functions. It is functions that easily lend themselves to a 1 2 3 4 5 6 point rating scale. I don't believe role issues can be evaluated that way.

We seem determined to make evaluation a rational objective process. We persist in thinking we can measure the performance of religious authorities the way we measure a machine's output of widgets. Using the analogy of parents and kids, the way one learns to become a good parent is by being open and listening to one's kids. Yet no one would be foolish enough to develop a rating scale for kids to fill out: Mommy is a good disciplinarian: 1 2 3 4 5 6. Mommy is effective at giving me nurture: 1 2 3 4 5 6. We would be closer to the truth if we could only come to realise that clergy evaluation is going to be about as messy and non-rational as checking in with our kids about how things are going, about as non-objective as a married couple sitting down to talk about 'how we are doing'.

We also need to recognise that there are certain aspects to effective religious leadership that elude evaluation. Our minds can play with the things an evaluation committee of Israelites would have said to Moses at key points in his leadership. Or how about appointing a cross section of temple leaders, the Sanhedrin and some ordinary citizens to evaluate the ministry of Jesus? The informal evaluation committee at Corinth must have had a great time taking Paul apart during his absence. How about an appointed committee of whites and blacks to evaluate the ministry of Martin Luther King? These are extreme examples, to be sure, but I want to make the point that when religious leadership is working at its best, an evaluation process is an impediment rather than a help.

Noted author and consultant W Edwards Deming (Professor of Statistics, Graduate School of Business Administration, New York University), in an address entitled 'The Merit System: The Annual Appraisal - Destroyer of People', makes a strong case for the conclusion that American business and industry are continually being decimated by formal evaluation procedures. He claims that people need to feel a sense of pride about their work; they need to be affirmed for what they do - and the annual evaluation does just the opposite. 'The basic fault of the annual appraisal is that it penalises people for normal variation of a system. The merit rating nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics. It leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.' During clergy performance review, much of what is really being evaluated is people's frustration with the system, which gets laid at the feet of clergy. Deming claims that performance appraisal is a substitute for a primary function of organisational leadership - helping personnel function their best. In short, it's a way of copping out of an important and difficult piece of work.

A distinction needs to be made between career assessment and performance appraisal. For clergy, a career assessment would be a critique of their performance in all aspects of ministry such as preaching, teaching, administration, home visits. Performance appraisal is asking the question of how a specific clergyperson is functioning in a given situation, ie 'How does the pastor function with our staff, with our shutins, creating a worshipful atmosphere in our sanctuary?'. When a denomination produces evaluation forms for all its clergy, regardless of whether they serve in a large urban parish, or a small three-point rural charge, this is more like career assessment than performance appraisal. A clergyperson may rate well generally in all the functions of ministry, but become dysfunctional in situation X. The people in situation X will give this pastor a poor rating on all these pastoral functions. But does this process really get at the issue of what is not happening between them?

I no longer support clergy performance appraisal if this means setting up the ordained leader as the only one being evaluated. I support instead ministry evaluation - where the ministry of the entire parish is evaluated not just its full-time professionals. No matter how carefully the questions are phrased, when people start evaluating their clergy they automatically get into the mindset of thinking up things they don't like about their pastor. When they think about it for a while they can usually come up with quite a list. It's a perfect set-up for clergy to be kicked in the head. The tragedy sometimes is that clergy want to engage in an evaluation process because at some level they are not feeling appreciated for all their hard work. Yet when the process starts, just the opposite happens. It's a good way to derail an otherwise energetic ministry.

The exception to the dismal picture in the preceding paragraph is an evaluative process that clergy themselves initiate in order to get a better fix on their professional development needs. This process is quite different in that the areas to be evaluated are chosen by the clergy, the process is controlled by the clergy, the people asked to assist are all selected by the clergy. It is a process that allows clergy to be psychologically vulnerable enough to explore areas of ministry where they feel uncertain, fearful, or inadequate. I believe it is impossible to expect clergy to exhibit this degree of openness and vulnerability (which is the prelude to growth) in a process that is out of their control and engineered by others.

Ministry Evaluation

As a way of assisting congregations to ask the question, 'How are we doing?' we turned to those words developed by the early church leaders to describe the marks of the true church of Jesus Christ. They said that the church of Jesus Christ was present if three things were present: a) Kerygma (the proclamation of the Good News); b) Koinonia (a Christ-centred fellowship); c) Diakonia (a ministry to those in pain, need or difficulty). Some would add a fourth, 'Didache' (teachings about Jesus), but we could say that is a sub-category of Kerygma. I have used these categories in a half dozen parish evaluations and have found them quite workable. In outline form the categories are as follows:

Under the heading of Kerygma we ask about the quality of proclamation in the parish. To what extent is this a 'good news' place? When people come to the parish, are they consistently offered a message of faith, hope and love? To be sure, much of this depends upon the quality of sermons that are preached on a regular basis, but if that's the only place good news is shared, the congregation is in trouble. Members need to be sharing good news with each other. Are people helped to share openly the deeper dimensions of their life? Are people encouraged to try to articulate what the faith means to them? Does the parish have a vision for itself that is shared by the membership? Are children being taught well the basics of the faith? Are there adult opportunities for learning? These are all Kerygma issues.

When it comes to Koinonia we look at the quality of the fellowship in the parish. Are people feeling accepted? Are some valued more than others? Do newcomers experience warm caring immediately when they step inside the door? Is the parish leadership consciously teaching members how to be more compassionate and openly affectionate with one another? Are conflicts resolved with candour, yet in ways that allow persons to maintain integrity and self-respect? Does the parish have frequent opportunities to experience their oneness in Christ?

The Diakonia aspects of parish life have to do with caring for others - being a servant community. To what extent are people satisfied with the way the parish initiates community involvement on behalf of its members? Is the congregation involved in peacemaking, in being a reconciler in the community and world? Does the parish support its members in their daily ministry at home and place of work? Christians are busy at the work of transforming a broken world to wholeness. To what extent are members satisfied with their role in this regard?

In the churches where I have used this model, I was the outside consultant who came in to facilitate the process. Whenever congregations want to do a quality parish review (I would recommend doing this only every 3 to 5 years rather than annually) I would highly recommend hiring an outside consultant. It communicates to your members that you are serious about their input and the process. It ensures that you don't try to cut corners. Most importantly, it gives everyone, clergy and laity, a sense there is someone monitoring this process, and it if gets out of control there is someone here who is competent to manage it.

Adapted and reprinted from action information Jan/Feb 1988, a publication of the Alban Institute, Suite 433 North, 4550 Mongtgomery Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814Ð3341 USA.

Roy Oswald is senior consultant with the Alban Institute and a prolific author on matters relating to the practice of ministry.

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You are reading Appraisal - an American Experience by Roy Oswald, part of Issue 9 of Ministry Today, published in February 1997.

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