Many people flinch at the mention of evaluation, and with reason. Research shows that in many workplaces, the main effect of employee reviews is to hurt productivity by annually lowering morale. In congregations, staff evaluation too often is conducted as a popularity poll with anonymous respondents rating staff performance on the basis of subjective impressions. In effect, staff members are encouraged to feel that they report to dozens of semi-invisible bosses who can invent new things to blame them for at any time. This approach raises stress even for popular staff members and does little to improve performance.
A second reason to dislike staff evaluation is that people who are in conflict with a staff member often propose evaluation as a way to express unhappiness. For the staff, this ploy turns evaluation into a harbinger of doom, like the arrival of the priest in an old movie. Evaluation is a poor way to deal with conflict, whether the conflict is really about staff or (as is often the case when a staff member is criticized) the congregation itself is divided over an underlying issue.
A third reason to dislike evaluation is that supervisors often wait until they have decided to fire someone before engaging in evaluation seriously. As a consequence, evaluation becomes associated with the notion of “building up a file” to protect against lawsuits or other conflicts after discharging an employee.
Understandably, some clergy and staff erect rigid boundaries around themselves and refuse to be evaluated or (more often) simply never get around to it. Volunteers do the same thing, sometimes expressing surprise at the very suggestion that their performance ought to be evaluated. In frustration, boards sometimes insist on punitive or inappropriately quantitative systems of evaluation, in the hope of cracking down. Such rigid, unilateral approaches to the subject of evaluation often express underlying tensions needing to be addressed directly—perhaps with the help of a consultant—before evaluation can become healthy and constructive. Increased emphasis on evaluation is rarely a good first step in conflict management, though it can be helpful in stabilizing a relationship that is working reasonably well.
To be constructive, evaluation has to become a routine, non-threatening part of congregational culture. This can happen when leaders stick to a routine of serious, periodic evaluation, and set an example of openness to feedback and respond to it by learning and improving their performance.
Staff evaluation is a staff responsibility. Each staff member’s direct supervisor takes responsibility for the evaluation process and report. For hourly-wage staff, the evaluation process should be as private as possible, consistent with gathering appropriate input. For program staff leaders, the supervisor might enlist key ministry team leaders in an evaluation session. In every case, the individual staff member and his or her direct supervisor sit down for a conversation about how the work is going. This is a chance for the supervisor to express appreciation for the staff member’s contributions and to lay the groundwork for goal setting in the coming year.
Staff teams that have set team goals also evaluate the group’s progress toward achieving them. In these discussions, the focus is on group, not individual, performance. The question for a team evaluation is “How did we do?” not “Who gets the credit or the blame?”
The board, by policy, requires the staff to engage in evaluation, but the staff owns its own process. The “customer” for staff evaluations is not the board or a committee but each staff member’s own superiors, beginning with the direct supervisor and ending with the head of staff. Others can and should participate by giving input, and the board may appropriately require the head of staff to provide a summary of senior staff members’ evaluations. Raw data from surveys about staff performance should not be published; doing so empowers the least constructive respondents to have disproportionate and negative impact on morale.
Board–Head of Staff Evaluation
The senior clergy leader, in addition to participating in evaluation with the senior staff team, evaluates and is evaluated by the board. At the same time, board members evaluate themselves. The governance committee, if there is one, structures the board’s process each year. Each member might complete a written self-evaluation of his or her performance as a board member. The questionnaire might also ask about the member’s contribution to achieving board goals set the previous year. Some boards also ask each member to rate every other member. The committee tallies the results and gives each member both an individual report and a summary of all responses. On the day of the evaluation, board members meet in groups of three to talk about the performance of each as a board member during the year. The governance committee gathers the results of this discussion, including any items that might inform future adjustments to the board covenant or board goals for the coming year.
Having had this conversation, the board will be in a good frame of mind for its evaluation conversation with the head of staff. One way to start is with written input from each member and the head of staff responding to simple questions about what they need from one another, what they are grateful for, and where they would like something different. The governance committee summarizes the responses, leads a conversation, and writes a brief report of major comments and concerns. If others report directly to the board, the board engages in a similar process for each of them.
In addition to relating to the board and leading the staff, the clergy leader has a wider role that includes contributions as pastor, preacher, and public figure. Every three years or so, it is appropriate to evaluate the clergy leader’s efforts in this wider sphere. Unfortunately, “clergy evaluation” is much easier to do poorly than well. One important safeguard is to entrust the process to a small committee, whose members have the confidence of both the clergy leader and the board. In consultation with the clergy leader, this group decides how to gathers input and other data and writes a summary report of the results to the board. The report should not magnify complaints, sweep widespread concerns under the rug, or forget to pass along appreciation.
Despite the pitfalls, evaluation is important to effective partnership, from the board and head of staff on down. Accountability requires an atmosphere in which people give each other feedback. When evaluation is done well, it clears the air and motivates improvement. It can also sharpen awareness of differences between an individual’s sense of calling and the congregation’s emerging vision, leading to adjustment or even to separation. Regular evaluation helps to surface issues while the relationship is good enough to make it possible to work on them. Although a unilateral (or even mutual) decision to end a partnership is rarely easy, avoiding problems to postpone the pain makes it no easier.
Adhering to sound principles help make the evaluation process helpful. To be constructive, an evaluation process should include everyone who holds responsibility, and have the following characteristics:
- Scheduled: Evaluation takes place by the calendar, not in response to problems.
- Mutual: Everyone gives and receives feedback.
- Goal-centered: Previously established goals are the basis for evaluation.
- Individual: Evaluation asks, “Am I meeting the expected standard for my job?” “How am I contributing to our goals?”
- Collective: “What progress have we made toward our goals?” “How do we need to adjust course?” “How are we fulfilling our vision for this particular program area?”
- Backward looking: “What did I accomplish?” “How well did we do?”
- Forward looking: “How can I improve?” “What should we do differently next time?”
Nothing can make evaluation easy all the time; sometimes difficult words need to be said and heard. But with a healthy process, evaluation helps leaders and staff members pull together toward shared goals.
More to read:
A comprehensive guide to staffing and supervision—written for large churches but useful for anyone who wants to be a better supervisor—is When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations, by Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont.
Jill M. Hudson, When Better Isn’t Enough: Evaluation Tools for the 21st-Century Church is another useful resource on the special challenges of evaluation in our era.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.