Five Pitfalls to Avoid When Evaluating the Senior Minister

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There is no one right way to evaluate the performance of a senior minister. However, there are many ways to do it that can harm the relationship between minister and the congregation and impair, rather than enhance, the minister’s performance.

The annual evaluation of the senior minister is an important annual task, yet congregations struggle to do it well. Here are five of the main pitfalls:

1.    Leaving the Board out of the Assessment Process

The governing board should review the work of the senior minister. The board may delegate parts of the task to a small subset of the board or to a personnel committee. However, the evaluation of the pastor is the board’s responsibility—no subgroup or committee should conduct it without the full engagement of all members of the board.

The board must be involved in setting performance expectations and providing feedback to keep everyone pulling in the same direction. Role confusion emerges for the pastor when a review committee emphasizes performance objectives different from those set by the full board.

Also, it is important that the pastor’s evaluation coincide with the board’s evaluation of its own work. The board needs to hold itself accountable while it holds the pastor accountable. A helpful process for doing this is outlined in Jill Hudson’s When Better Isn’t Enough.

2.    Giving Feedback before Stating Expectations

One of the best ways to demoralize an employee is to critique her on something she was never told she was supposed to do. Often, a minister doesn’t know about an expectation until she fails to satisfy it.

The expectations placed on senior ministers are often too numerous to faithfully execute. For example, the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church outlines more than thirty “essential functions” of the role. Other denominations operate with similarly excessive criteria for success.

Most people cannot attend to more than twelve essential functions in their role. The governing body of the congregation should work with the senior minister to shape a job description that reflects the specific needs in the context. What are the expectations of our senior pastor in this time and space? Should the senior minister give priority to the supervision of the staff team, the development of the board, the pastoral care of congregants, the worship life of the congregation, the preaching task—or something else?

Additionally, the senior pastor should be asked to focus on two to three performance goals for the year. The goals of the pastor are not the same as the goals of the congregation. For example, the church may establish a goal of increasing worship attendance by 10 percent. The senior pastor cannot be held solely accountable for attaining that goal. Together, the board and pastor must come to agreement about the aspects of that goal the pastor is expected to fulfill. Perhaps church leaders have concluded that adding an additional worship service is the best approach to increasing worship attendance. They may decide to write a performance goal holding the senior pastor accountable for bringing that new service to fruition.

3.    Passing Along Random Complaints

The most damaging form of performance evaluation is “Some people are saying…” The purpose of feedback is to improve performance, but passing along random complaints from congregants undermines performance. A minister can do nothing productive with such feedback. If I don’t know who said it, I don’t know how to evaluate the significance of the concern. How many people feel this way? Is there a demographic in the church that I have alienated? Is there someone with whom I need to make amends? Is the complaint coming from a committed church leader or a disgruntled naysayer?

Passing along random complaints produces generalized anxiety in the person who receives it—and anxious people don’t perform well in their role.

4.    Conducting Surveys in the Congregation

Some congregations evaluate the senior minister by surveying the congregation—asking congregants how they feel about the pastor’s performance. Then the pastor is provided with the details or summary of the survey.

Problematically, the average congregant doesn’t understand the role of the senior minister and is not in a position to observe how well or poorly the senior pastor has satisfied the essential functions of the role.

Furthermore, this type of evaluation is subject to the “halo” effect—the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinions in another area. Someone who is upset that the pastor didn’t make it to visit his mother in the hospital ends up ranking the minister poorly on worship leadership.

A better approach is to carefully select a group of leaders to contribute to the evaluation—people who understand the expectations and can observe the pastor in the fullness of the role. This group might consist of board members, committee chairpersons, and staff. Input can be gathered through interviews or by having the evaluators complete an evaluation form that mirrors the job description. Evaluators should be instructed to abstain from providing feedback in any category that they have not directly observed.

5.    Sharing a Data Dump

It is never helpful for the minister to receive all the data collected. There will be unnecessarily hurtful comments and outlying opinions in the data. The minister should not be subjected to this unhelpful feedback.

Instead, a small group of designated board leaders (or the personnel committee on behalf of the board) should sort through the data that is gathered and develop a shared perspective about the strengths of the pastor and areas of needed improvement. This group should prepare a summary of their observations and use examples from the data, as needed, to illustrate their points. This group can meet face to face with the minister to share their observations. At the end of the review process, the minister should have clarity about whether he is meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet expectations in each area of performance.

Performance evaluation is challenging for all of us. It is never easy to share difficult feedback and no one technique can make the process easy. But healthy practices can strengthen relationships and help staff and lay leaders work more effectively together.

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation. She is co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.

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