Clergy evaluation committees and why they are a bad idea

multiple fingers pointing blame at man

Every relationship needs thoughtful reflection and mutual careful feedback, and the relationship between a clergy person and a congregation is no different from any other in this respect. But stand-alone committees formed only for the purpose of evaluating clergy are a bad idea. I call such a committee a posse, by analogy with those hastily gathered bands of citizens that helped the sheriff look for the fleeing miscreants in old Westerns.

Most clergy have existing structures within which mutual conversation and evaluation can take place. They may be parish councils, diaconates, elders, vestries, consistories, or whatever depending on one’s denomination and its polity. The one thing that separates these from the clergy evaluation committee is that they have other work they do, and collaborate with the clergy person in doing it. Around that work mutual trust is formed, and so the evaluative function is just one of many and not the sole focus of the committee.

I have written elsewhere about the commodification of ministry, and the poor models for ministry that come more and more out of the corporate world with little theological undergirding or even much thought.

It is true that the relationship between the ordained leader of a congregation and that congregation partakes of some of the same dynamics as a business relationship, accountability, transparency, trust, but at its best is more like a marriage than a job. As in a marriage there is an “us-ness” about the enterprise, the old word is covenant, and the relationship is characterized by mutuality, forgiveness, affection, and grace. You don’t work for each other but with each other.

So the clergy evaluation committee, the posse, invites trouble because it has no other function than to criticize the clergy person, and, as we all know, an “idle mind is the Devil’s playground.”

If there is nothing for them to do things will find them. In any congregation there are disgruntled people, and a constant stream of criticism is corrosive to clergy morale and not helpful in assessing what is really going on in the congregation. Thus begins what I call “death by a thousand cuts.” The posse is a bad model. It just is.

By way of illustration, try setting up an evaluation committee for your spouse and let me know how that works out for you.

A better model is to let the appropriate body, which shouldn’t be too big, have regular mutual conversations about what each party needs more or less of to make the congregation and its leader flourish. Then the focus is off real and imagined wrongs and shortcomings, and on the task of assessing the mission and ministry of the congregation.

The very worst model is when the posse gets formed to address “a crisis” with the clergy person. This is usually the beginning of the end of the relationship, and often signals that they want you gone, but are too ashamed of their part in the dysfunction to tell you the truth. The signs of this are demands for micro-bookkeeping, and regular “progress” reports. It is akin to getting to the marriage counselor so late that the only task left is amicable divorce.

If you see this beginning to happen to you, a new committee forming to “help” you, please protest right away and find a better model. Because (Floyd’s axiom): Once the posse gets formed, you will never outrun them.

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6 thoughts on “Clergy evaluation committees and why they are a bad idea

  1. Quite right. It’s the congregational version of “Internal Affairs,” whose job is to remain separate from and critical of the people doing the work on the ground. That skepticism is so that corruption can be caught by those who are ideally not complicit in it. It’s a form of self-policing, not cooperative evaluation. And as long as they have objective standards that are public and reasonable, and processes that are accountably transparent, and know how to keep personal conflict out of doing their jobs, one could hypothetically get along with such a body. That entails the congregation having an ethics code. But it’s a wholly separate function from ministry evaluation!

  2. Yes, Matt. And Internal Affairs is peer review, which the pastor/parish relationship certainly is not. What about an ethics code for congregations? A good idea. Pastors have them.

  3. “*By way of illustration, try setting up an evaluation committee for your spouse and let me know how that works out for you.*”

    Very good illustration -It made me completely understand your point…and it made me chuckle too!

    The problem with a (Catholic) parish council, is that it is just an ‘advisory.’ The Pastor still has complete decision making authority. He can ‘veto’ even unanimous advice of the council, and often does. Are there church organizations that have a more democratic administrative system?

  4. Kevin. Protestant congregations tend to have very active and democratic administrative councils, sometimes to the point of being ponderous for decision-making. But these things vary greatly across congregations and denominations. Thanks for your comment.

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