By Ervin Stutzman
Not long ago, I sat with a pastor who had been forced to leave a congregation after a negative pastoral review. My heart throbbed with empathy as I listened to several members of this influential congregation tell the story of the dismissal. As I listened, I kept thinking to myself, “Something is wrong with this picture; this would not need to have happened this way.” It is clear that the pastor got caught between opposing groups in the congregation. Some were strong supporters; others were vocal detractors.
Pastors are particularly vulnerable to these kinds of dynamics since their accountability partners, their source of remuneration, and their “clientele” are made up largely of the same people. In other words, the same group of people (a congregation or designated committee) receives the pastor’s ministry, pays the pastor’s salary, and evaluates the pastor’s effectiveness.
In most professions, these factors are separated. For example, hospital chaplains minister to patients, answer to hospital administration or a professional association, and are paid by the hospital or a charitable organization. Public high school teachers are paid by the general public through taxation, answer to a board of directors through a principal, and teach students. Imagine the stress for teachers if students (at any level) also conducted evaluations and voted on teachers’ salaries!
A pastor’s sense of call from God further complicates the factors explained above. A genuine sense of call from God may enable a pastor to make financial sacrifices, live with added stress, and keep going through times of tension or conflict. Congregations may unwittingly exploit this sense of call without being aware of the unique vulnerabilities that come with the pastoral role.
Because of these dynamics, many pastors dread performance reviews. They worry that the evaluation process will include elements of judgment, control, or even punishment. Particularly when reviews are initiated in the midst of congregational conflict, pastoral reviews can be unfairly critical. Judgments that are made in the midst of performance appraisals may sever the tender thread of trust that connects pastor and congregation, as it did in the example I mentioned above. It’s like setting to sail with storm clouds on the horizon.
Yet I believe that regular pastoral reviews are important. I have observed that good review processes can strengthen the bond of trust between pastor and people. Trust can develop most readily when the pastor and the congregation share the following core commitments to undergird the process of pastoral reviews. These commitments make it possible for designated groups in congregations to evaluate the role of a pastor while being sensitive to the vulnerability created by the pastor’s unique role.
A commitment to clarity of purpose and vision.
Differing expectations lie at the root of much distrust and dissatisfaction between a pastor and members of the congregation. Particularly during times of rapid change in society and church, pastors may be faced with implicit and unrealistic expectations from church members. With the rapid rise of mobility, a congregation’s demographic and doctrinal profile may change quickly, introducing changing expectations for ministry. A commitment to clarify the purpose and vision of the church can help pastors to set clear priorities for their work.
A commitment to clarity regarding the pastoral role.
Any pastoral review should be conducted on the basis of the pastor’s job description. In order to serve as a basis for evaluating work performance, the job description should carefully define the most important elements of a pastor’s work. To be most effective, job descriptions themselves should be reviewed regularly. It is unfair to blame a pastor for not meeting congregational expectations if they have not been clearly agreed upon through discussion and writing. (I will discuss this further in my next article).
A commitment to partnership in ministry.
Pastoral reviews should take into account the gifting and calling of the pastor in relation to other members of the leadership team and the total church body.
Although a pastor may be financially reimbursed for the work of ministry, much significant work is done by other members of the church. Through the distribution of spiritual gifts, God intends that every committed member of the body be involved in significant ministry. The pastor’s spiritual gift mix will present both advantages and limitations for pastoral ministry. A congregation must be prepared to support the pastor with a team of persons that provide the gifting and ability to lead the congregation in meaningful ministry. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect pastors to function effectively in all dimensions of ministry in the church.
A commitment to mutual accountability.
Pastoral reviews represent one form of accountability. Congregational reviews (assessing congregational life based on vision and priorities) represent yet another. Because pastors readily get blamed for a congregation’s problems, it seems best to separate these two processes. The pastor has unique accountability before God on behalf of the people (Hebrews 13:17). Nevertheless, all members function best when they find ways to employ regular sharing and mutual accountability. Small groups, mentoring relationships, and prayer partnerships all function to remind members that they are accountable before God and each other for their spiritual walk. When this perspective is kept clearly in mind, congregational feedback in the process of pastoral reviews is likely to be more balanced and fair.
A commitment to learning and growth.
Pastoral reviews are most helpful when they are perceived as feedback for the purpose of learning and growth in ministry. Healthy congregations provide a safe place to “try one’s wings,” to discover new spiritual gifts, and to take risks by testing new ideas for ministry. Along with other members of the church, the pastor has much to learn in ministry. Honest feedback concerning ministry tasks can help the pastor as well as others gain new perspectives and make adjustments in ministry.
A commitment to openness and honesty.
Pastoral reviews function best when they implement open communication between the pastor and members of the congregation. Therefore, any process of gathering feedback from members of the church should require persons to identify themselves with their concerns. The church should not solicit, grant credibility to, or act upon anonymous information. It may be appropriate at times for a supervisor to provide summaries of gathered congregational feedback to pastors without identifying specific persons with specific concerns. But it is inappropriate to use information from confidential sources or to indicate that such information exists. Anonymity can too easily be used as a cover for unfair criticism without accountability for the havoc and heartache it can cause. Anonymous criticism can destroy pastoral confidence, undermine mutual accountability, and spread anxiety throughout a congregation. A commitment to mutual accountability implies a commitment to openness and honesty, especially in the face of disagreement.
It is my hope and prayer that every pastor and congregation can cultivate these six commitments.