Pastors can be in a tough spot—on the “losing” end of an evaluation process—whether they’re the evaluator or the employee. Unclear expectations and flawed accountability structures create stresses that can threaten any pastor’s ministry. Fortunately, the church can do better.
When pastors are evaluated, they often feel they are expected to fulfill every member’s idiosyncratic concept of their job. Even a governing board that has clearly articulated the pastor’s responsibilities and priorities can easily be swayed by individual members who complain that the pastor isn’t visiting enough or doesn’t come to coffee hour or is changing the beauty of the way we’ve always done worship. The result can be an evaluation process that feels unfair and a pastor caught between conflicting understandings of the job, none of which align with their own sense of the holy work to which they’ve been called.
When pastors evaluate others, they often find it difficult to hold professionals and volunteers accountable. Many congregations have no useful written process for evaluation, and pastors rarely receive the training needed to effectively implement those that do exist. Volunteers are often left out of the evaluation process altogether.
The potential consequence of this morass of unclear expectations and ineffective accountability structures was underscored for me Rob Cross and Karen Dillon in a recent Harvard Business Review Big Idea series, “Microstressed Out” (soon to be a book: The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems—and What To Do About It).
Microstresses, unlike “big” stresses such as pandemics or the decline of the former Protestant Mainline, are small moments of stress that seem manageable on their own—a worrying text from your spouse while you’re on the phone, having to improvise in a meeting because a colleague didn’t get their work done on time, having to miss yoga because a member needed to vent. Each of these smaller stresses would not trigger a “fight or flight” response on its own, but when we experience several every day and they build up over time, they can trigger emotional responses like guilt and physical responses like high blood pressure.
The authors identify 14 sources of microstress, all of which are worth exploring because they happen frequently (and could have been diary entries for my life in the church!). What really struck me recently was Microstress #6—”Managing and feeling responsible for the success and well-being of others”—which Cross and Dillon describe as taking care of family members or helping ensure that team members are successful.
Stress and Burnout
When a pastor’s job expectations are not (1) clear, (2) shared with the congregation, (3) adjusted to reflect current realities, and (4) defended from random member complaints, many pastors gradually begin to overfunction. Striving to ensure the congregation’s success, they wind up unclogging drains and holding a pre-meeting before every scheduled meeting. When pastors are not trained to hold staff accountable or given authority to hold volunteers accountable, that too often leads to overfunctioning. Pastors end up feeling responsible for the whole enterprise. Eventually they are burned out, frustrated, and ready to quit because they see no way to ease the strain.
Fortunately, leaders can take personal as well as institutional action to mitigate this kind of burnout by reducing pastoral microstress. Here are some of the most important actions:
- Be clear about the pastor’s direct responsibilities. These do not include the whole life and ministry of the church! Even in the smallest church, few pastors have the time or the gifts to do every aspect of a congregation’s work. Some of it (e.g., encouraging visitors) is better done by members.
- Provide training for pastors who supervise and evaluate team members. Effective evaluation is rarely a natural gift, and most pastors have not had the opportunity to learn.
- Hold volunteers accountable. As Dan Hotchkiss points out in Governance and Ministry, “congregations often give people—most often, volunteers—authority without holding them accountable.” This is not an effective strategy. Every person helping to achieve ministry goals, whether paid or volunteer, needs a clear description of their role and responsibilities, knowledge of what the congregation hopes to achieve as a result of their work, and clarity about how success will be measured. They need to consistently bring their best qualities to the work—energy, creativity, flexibility, reliability. And most importantly, they need to understand that routine, nonthreatening evaluation of their contributions is a necessary aspect of the congregation’s life together.
- Help everyone to learn to say “no.” Individuals need to be encouraged to say no to small tasks that belong to others. Whole congregations need to say no to extensions of their ministry when no one is available to do or support the extra work that good ideas require.
- Help individuals experiencing microstress to “rise above.” One reason microstressors affect us, Cross and Dillon say, is that we allow them to. Most of the happiest people belong to two or three groups—outside of their work—that are meaningful to them. The “dimensionality” that these relationships create allows people the perspective to rise above microstresses rather than continuing to swim in them.
Evaluation is a necessary component of any organization trying to achieve a goal. How churches structure the process can create untenable stress or can enable pastors and their teams to pursue the church’s vision with energy and imagination even amid chaos.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.