The Not-So-Annual Annual Evaluation
In our work with churches we often find that pastors are not experiencing the kind of supervision and evaluation that helps them pursue their calling well. Sometimes people assume that someone else is supervising the minister, but then no one actually does. Sometimes “annual” evaluations take place only when congregational complaints are particularly loud or council-pastor relations are strained. And sometimes a helpful elder designs a thorough process of evaluation and runs with it for a year. But the many details exhaust everyone, and people silently decide not to go through that again. Consequently, pastors often lack regular and reliable feedback. Encouragement is infrequent. Constructive criticism is also fairly sparse and sometimes not very constructive.
Part of what makes the supervision of pastors difficult is that pastors are like the rest of us: They can be sensitive (too sensitive) to criticism. Plus, it takes real work to discern and communicate feedback that is both clear and constructive. For most churches, then, it’s easier just to hope that pastors figure out on their own what they need to change or maintain in order to improve.
Clearing Up Ambiguity in the System
Something else that makes oversight difficult is a general uncertainty about who, exactly, is responsible for supervising the pastor’s work. It’s here that the Church Order (CO) might surprise (and help) you. In many churches people assume that the elders are solely responsible for supervising the pastor, to the exclusion of the deacons. However, a closer reading of the church order reveals that deacons are, in fact, expected to join elders in this important work.
To begin with, our church order appoints the full council (both elders and deacons) as the assembly that calls the minister to his or her work (CO Articles 4, 9, 35). The language of "call" that appears in subsequent articles never changes to imply that it is only the elders whose work engages the call of the minister. It is the full council that extends the call, whether the office to which a person is being called is the office of minister, elder, or deacon. That means, among other things, that it is the council (elders and deacons together) that continues to supervise the call that it originally extended, and it is the council that supervises the person who is fulfilling that call.
That arrangement is confirmed in CO Article 13a where it points out that the minister is directly accountable to the calling church, which is under the leadership of the council. The minister will be supervised by the calling church, which is, again, led by council. There is no mention of the pastor being supervised only by the elders.
This arrangement is then applied in CO Article 13b as it addresses the work of ministers who serve ministries other than their calling churches. While the ministry for which a minister may work exercises supervision over the minister’s job performance, in the same way that a council would exercise supervision over a congregational minister, the council of the calling church continues to supervise that minister's doctrine and life.
Not only does the council call and then supervise the work of the minister but a minister cannot leave a congregation without the consent of the council (CO Article 14a). In other words, when a minister receives and then accepts a call, that minister cannot leave or resign that call without council’s permission.
Finally, the council supervises all significant actions related to the ongoing work of the minister. Each church provides support to its minister(s) through its council (CO Article 15). It is also the council that grants a temporary leave of absence when a request is presented by the minister (CO Article 16). Even when it comes to the exercise of discipline it is the council that oversees the discipline of officebearers, including ministers (CO Articles 82-84).
Part of the confusion over this matter arises because of important words found in the charge to the elders. In the form for the ordination of elders, where the charge is found, the elders exercise oversight of the church and are responsible for the spiritual well-being of God's people, in partnership with the minister(s) (CO Article 25).
In pursuit of that oversight they provide for the true preaching of the word and are responsible to supervise worship and sacraments (CO Articles 52, 53, and 55). They are also charged to support and strengthen the minister. However, there is no specific reference there to supervising the minister. That particular responsibility is spoken of consistently in the church order, and it is assigned to the full council, including both deacons and elders.
Evaluations that Bless
On this point, the supervision of the minister by both elders and deacons, the Church Order seems to be capturing some practical wisdom: The kind of well-rounded feedback that will be most helpful to a minister requires the gifts and virtues associated both with elders AND deacons.
Generally speaking, the elders represent Christ to the congregation, especially his grace and his truth. Meanwhile, the deacons also represent Christ to the congregation. But they represent, in particular, his justice and his mercy. The best kind of supervision involves all four of these concepts as lenses through which the elders and deacons should see the work of the pastor and as categories out of which they should speak about the work of the minister.
For example, the elders should encourage and help the minister to shape the life and work of the church as an expression of God’s grace and truth. Likewise, the deacons should help the minister to shape the life and work of the church so that it expresses God’s justice and mercy. If the preaching, teaching, and/or counsel provided by the pastor is weighted too heavily in any one of these four directions then the whole council, made up of those who represent all of these values, should gently point that out. The council can then help the minister to think about and then proclaim all four biblical values in a more balanced manner. This is easier for the council to do when both elders and deacons are able to offer their unique voices in the supervision of the minister.
Even the feedback provided to the minister should be shaped by these four values: grace, truth, justice, and mercy. Can the council speak truth to the minister about her work, both happy truth and hard truth? Can the council also be gracious—both in how it speaks truth and in how it walks with the minister in areas of the work that need improvement?
And can the council provide both justice and mercy to the pastor? Will it speak directly to the minister rather than about the minister? Will it honor commitments made to the minister during the call process? Will it receive and then deal with congregational input discerningly rather than slavishly? Will it allow the minister to speak into the evaluation process? These are justice issues—issues that deacons are specifically equipped and called to uphold in a church’s life.
And when there is criticism that needs to be spoken, will the council do that in conversation with the minister instead of through a “to do” list that is pushed at the minister? When the minister’s weaknesses are on the table, will the council treat them tenderly? Will the council provide generously for the minister and the minister’s family? These are mercy issues—issues that arise right out of the heart of the deacon side of the council. The deacons then, can help ensure that the minister’s supervision is characterized by justice and mercy.
So, deacons, raise up your voices! Take your place, alongside the elders, in supporting your pastor with encouragement and supervision.