Recently, I have been asked about pastoral evaluations. It is an interesting moment in the life of the pastor. Most often when I have experienced evaluations the elders are also scrambling. The only evaluation they have done is over the coffee table. Never written. Never formal. The first question is usually: how do we do this and what is available to help me do this? There is no doubt that the process of evaluation can be helpful in the growth of a pastor and in the mutual ministry of pastors and elders.
(You can check out the resources of the Pastor Church Relations Office and Walt Brouwer’s Mutual Accountability Process in Classis Alberta North.)
At this point it gets tricky for a whole lot of reasons. Let me pick up on two aspects of the dilemma.
First, what happens to the relationship between pastor and elder when the task of evaluation is put on the shoulders of the elder? This is no small matter. At best, the elders and pastors are a team/ support group/ partners working together for the sake of Christ and his church. But what happens when one person gets evaluated and the others do not? At best, an evaluation helps the pastor discern how to better serve the congregation in its mission for the gospel. But in the process, we sit in judgment on one person. How does this power of judging effect us? In schools, we know that grading can sometimes distort the learning process. Receiving an "A" boosts our ego and receiving a "C" tells us we are barely making the grade. Our emotional life is affected. If we wish to please our teacher and receive top marks we adjust our performance to meet expectations. Don't pastoral evaluations engage some of the very same emotional processes? As helpful as these processes and conversations can be, they are tricky.
Second, the standards for evaluation can easily become problematic for the gospel. As I was entering the ministry more than one person said to me that I was to “seek the approval of God” and not “of men” (yes, they said men). Remember, they remarked, prophets would not have done well on evaluations. The prophets said annoying things. They certainly were not giving people what their ears “were itching to hear.” This tension is one of the first things that many elders notice. Over the coffee table, they were quite willing to react freely and say what they like or dislike – especially if they felt it was a safe environment. But in council they recognize that they are called to more “objectivity”, applying tools of measurement appropriate for the gospel ministry. So what is fair to say? By what measure do we measure (remember Matthew 7:1-5)? When we evaluate, what are the standards? Are we evaluating the pastor or the pastoral relationship? Who is responsible for what? As important as these conversations around evaluation are, they do get tricky. Humility and sound judgment are vital and easily lost.
As a pastor, I have been through many of these conversations. Some wonderfully helpful, some unhelpful. When I was more insecure in my own sense of ministry, I would become defensive and/or unnecessarily down on myself. When I thought misunderstanding of the pastoral ministry was taking place, I would really want to help to make people understand. Often I felt as if this conversation also needed another one that talked about the work of elders and the mission of the church. Over the years, I have heard pastors and elders say that congregations can make or break a pastor. At its best the pastor-church relationship makes a pastor excel. The shared ministry and willing partnership allows for growth and development.
The bottom line is this: We need to serve Christ better. The question is how are we doing on that journey, in our lives and in our neighbourhoods? Accountability is part of the process. Accountability should include more people than the pastor.