United Church of Christ

Don't evaluate your pastor as an employee

I have been having an e-mail exchange with a friend in another Conference, who is a few years into ministry in his first church. The congregation has just done a pastoral "evaluation" and he doesn't know what to do with some of the responses. They are anonymous and some of the comments, to him, seem to come out of the blue.

One of the most common calls to a Conference office has to do with clergy evaluations. I have been giving the whole issue some thought. Let me share some of those thoughts with you.

  Ministry is a dialogue between a pastor and congregation or, in the case of non-parish ministry, the setting for ministry. To evaluate only one part of that dialogue is always going to be insufficient.

  There is a need for regular constructive criticism of both clergy and the ministry setting.

  When evaluations are focused only on the pastor, or done very irregularly, they too often become tools of destructive criticism cloaked in anonymity. People who are happy are not as likely to respond as people who have "issues" with the pastor.

  Pastors cannot be evaluated as "employees" and that is very difficult for congregations to understand.

  Every congregation has basic expectations of its pastor. Some of these expectations can be evaluated with precision. Is there an expectation of regular office hours? Do services start on time, or is the pastor always late? Is the pastor available, with some regularity, to parishioners?

  Some expectations are very subjective. No one can please everyone. Many people will like sermons that others do not appreciate. Some people want pastoral visits and others do not. Pastors can only visit in the hospital if they are told that people are there. No single instrument can give the kind of helpful feedback that would come from regular and open conversation with the clergy.

  People may be drawn to a ministry by a pastor's reputation or presence in the community. People choose to stay and become part of a ministry only if the congregation is a welcoming and comfortable space that provides an opportunity for them or their children to find a place. Yet, if congregations do not grow numerically, the blame is most often directed towards the pastor.

  A coach cannot win games or score points if the team refuses to leave the bench or expects the same one or two people to play all the positions. It isn't fair then to blame the coach for an ineffective team.

  It is important for clergy to do some regular reflective and honest self-evaluation. This is one of the reasons that clergy clusters and ecumenical clergy support groups are important.

  While there are some, I know very few pastors who are still in effective and healthy ministries after having been in the same place for more than 15 years.

  It is just as essential that congregations or ministry settings evaluate their life and organization as it is that they evaluate their pastor.

  Spiritual health is as important for pastors as it is for congregations. It is hard for pastors to maintain spiritual health when destructive dynamics are in place.

Years ago a research team under the leadership of Kenneth Underwood did an evaluation of campus ministries. The report of this committee reflected that an effective ministry functioned well when there was a balance of four areas, pastoral, priestly, prophetic and governance. I have found that to be a helpful way to look at and evaluate the broad scope of ministry.

Is there pastoral work being done with regularity? Is the priestly role being fulfilled by presiding at funerals, weddings, baptisms, communion and public events calling for the presence of clergy? Is this a ministry that addresses the issues of life and the world in prophetic fashion? The prophets of the Old Testament took the issues of the world and lifted them to God in prayer and study of the scripture and then reflected to the people regarding justice, faithfulness and truth. Finally, governance. Does the ministry provide attention to the basic administrative details of the ministry and the institution?

An unevaluated ministry, of an individual or a congregation, easily becomes lopsided after a while. Congregations become spiritually drained when they spend most of their energy on governance issues and committee meetings.

Pastors who are deeply committed to prophetic issues often overlook pastoral presence or governance responsibilities. Pastors who spend all their time in pastoral care often neglect the issues around them that require a prophetic response.

Evaluation of clergy and ministry settings should be based on the common understanding that our call is to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit. To be effective, an evaluation must be done with openness and honesty and involve the desire for constructive and faithful growth of all parties involved.

The Rev. Lynne M. Simcox is Interim Conference Minister of the UCC's Rocky Mountain Conference and former chair of the Council of Conference Ministers Cabinet.

The UCC's Parish Life and Leadership team in Local Church Ministries is currently evaluating documents produced for clergy evaluation, in preparation for updating them and simplifying them for use in local churches. To join the discussion on this issue click here.

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