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.

Is clergy burnout a symptom of a crisis of identity and vocation?

One of the hottest topics in the church right now is clergy burnout. Everyone is in agreement that it is a problem, but when it comes to the solution, not so much. There are a lot of wise, commonsense admonishments about self-care and spiritual disciplines. They should be heeded, but they tend to address the symptoms without asking why burnout is so widespread. And I have yet to see much in the way of an insightful theological analysis.

While it is true that a person in any profession can experience burnout,  I am convinced that there are unique features to the current epidemic of clergy burnout.   And I have been ruminating lately whether clergy burnout is so widespread not merely because of the stresses and demands of the job, which have to some extent always accompanied ministerial vocations, but because of an identity crisis in the mainline church, and a vocational crisis among its ministers.

As I have written elsewhere, the evaluative criteria borrowed from the modern commercial sector, chiefly productivity and efficiency, are inadequate instruments for measuring the success of ministry. In the first place, they do their analysis without factoring in God. In this regard, as in so much of the modern church, they are functionally atheistic, no matter how much God-talk is sprinkled into the discourse. But ministry is largely about God, more precisely, how God uses frail and flawed humans as bearers of his Word.

To understand ministerial vocation this way requires a dialectical approach that sees at the same time the grandeur and misery of ministry, both the possibility and impossibility of the minister’s role and tasks.

I turn to Karl Barth for a model of how this might be done, for he does this with his assessment of religion. I recently reread sections of Barth’s Commentary on Romans, and I was struck (again) at how brilliant Barth’s take on religion is. To Barth, like Calvin before him, humans are great makers of idols, and one of our favorite idols to make is religion. All religion is to some extent idolatrous, the Christian religion not excepted, but for Barth, Christian religion, though idolatrous, is also where humanity hears about God, and so is indispensable in the divine economy. God uses what is foolish to shame the wise. He calls it the impossible possibility.

It seems to me, and I speak from 30 plus years in the pastoral ministry, that ministry is best understood employing a similar kind of dialectic. The minister, no matter how talented, is a flawed human being, but God can use him or her to accomplish marvelous things, not least of which is as a bearer of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Here is another “impossible possibility.”

But sadly, that understanding, and the honesty and humility it requires, finds little purchase in today’s church. For example, I have always been struck by how brazenly worldly our “search and call process” is, and how it so undermines our best theology about the church and its ministry.

To begin with, we have this instrument (now available on-line) called “the Minister’s Professional Profile.” This literary genre (a rare combination of fact and fiction) is used to display a breathtaking panorama of gifts and graces on the part of the minister. One is driven nearly to the point of prevarication in displaying one’s wares to a prospective “employer.” “Who is this grand creature?” one is tempted to ask upon reading the completed product.

Although nothing on the profile is untrue, it is not the whole truth. What is missing is an accurate assessment of one’s feet of clay, and thereby a betrayal of the biblical axiom that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7)

It is hard, of course, to imagine a process that could accurately do this, and God uses the present flawed one to match up foolish and broken ministers with foolish and broken congregations (they don’t tell the whole truth either), where graceful and gracious happenings can and do occur. That is the point. If this grand creature, the minister, could make them happen, they wouldn’t be grace, but expected, even promised.

And I think one of the outcomes of the kind of mutual deception (and self-deception) that is happening between ministers and congregations is genuine disappointment when the claims and promises explicit or implicit in this circle of self-promotion turn out not to be quite true. The result is often graceless mutual recriminations. Sometimes one is fired, or, more often, demoralized into moving on. It is epidemic, and it is not good for the church or its ministers.

So I am convinced that much of what passes for burnout is merely the symptoms of an untenable arrangement.  Clergy have both sold and been sold a bill of goods that they can neither deliver to the church nor receive delivery from the church. And since the mainline churches (at least in America) are an institution experiencing a half-century of precipitous institutional decline the opportunities for failure and disappointment are almost limitless.

The measures of success the world values will most likely elude the minister. Indeed, a “successful minister” is an anomaly in a faith with a cross at its center.  It takes a hearty sense of Christian vocation to handle this. For many the very nature of the task will get you quickly to burnout. And, as the models for ministry has become increasingly professionalized, more and more ministers will find themselves wondering what they have got themselves into.

The prescriptions for burnout typically ignore this fundamental disconnect between Christian vocation and cultural expectation. They only address the symptoms.

And how do they address the symptoms? In reading the literature about clergy burnout I am struck that the prevailing prescriptive model is “wellness,” a useful term borrowed from the health field. Now I am married to a public health nurse and have a great respect for the wisdom and applicability of the idea of wellness. I’m all for wellness.

And I think the argument is sound that seeking wellness, physically and mentally, is good Christian stewardship.

BUT, wellness isn’t a category that can carry all the Christian freight. If wellness is the new secularized salvation, it suffers from its inability to address fundamental human predicaments such as sin, death and the persistence of evil. A century ago P. T. Forsyth criticized the church of his day for having a religion of amelioration, and it seems to me that wellness is the personalized version of that. Our mainline churches continue in a religion of amelioration, they want to make things better (more peaceful and just and green), and I am all for that, too. But both social amelioration and personal wellness are implicates of the Gospel, and not foundations. That is, they are fruits and not roots.

The real root is God’s love for us and for all creation, acted out in the grand Christian narrative from garden to New Jerusalem, with its very center and core in the atoning cross of Jesus Christ “for us and for all men.” Where that is not preached and heard the fruits will be sparse.

So clergy burnout seems to me to be largely about the identity crisis of the mainline church, and the vocational crisis of its ministers. And a realistic assessment of the situation from a worldly point of view offers little to be hopeful about.

But those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead wait eagerly for new possibilities yet unimagined.

For more of my ruminations on the stresses of pastoral ministry see these posts:

Ruminations on Burnout: “Should clergy really be ‘working?’”

Clergy burnout is a hot topic now. My two most popular posts of late have been been Pastors in Peril, and the snarky satirical Ten Highly Efficient Strategies for Crushing Your Pastors Morale.

And when the New York Times notices religion at all it is usually some aspect of it that is aberrant or weird, but, lo, there have been a couple of articles this month on clergy burnout. For a compendium of recent articles on burnout in the media and blogosphere you can go here to Jason Goroncy’s ever-dependable site Per Crucem ad Lucem, where he is doing a series on clergy burnout.

It is a vast topic to cover, but here is one of my small ruminations:

I think the whole category of “burnout,” although quite real, is also a bit of a red herring. All the articles agree that clergy are overworked. And when cast in terms of “work” that is undoubtedly true. My question is simple: “Should clergy really be working?” Or to put it another way, “When did what clergy do come to be understood as work?” Clergy have always been busy doing what clergy do, visiting the sick, attending to the dying, preaching and administering the sacraments and the scholarly preparation for same. The “work” clergy are now expected to do is a category drawn from the industrial and post industrial West, and seen in terms of their terms of efficiency, productivity, and professionalism.

I submit that this is a category error, and that the expectations of this category are one of the causes for burnout. On reflection I realize that an embarrassing amount of the “work” I did in my over thirty years in pastoral ministry was designed to give the appearance of being effective, productive and professional, to my congregants, the greater community, and to myself.

And I think many clergy share this loss of confidence about their core identity and engage in “the sin of bustle” (P.T. Forsyth) to convince the world that they are useful, valued, and worthy of the high social status to which they aspire.

Years ago one of my GE manager types got on my oversight board and hounded me into doing detailed hourly logs of what I do as part of a compensation review (I know this sounds like Dante, but it really happened.) I was insecure enough to hold my doubts and my tongue, and dutifully filled them out, but a good deal of the time I found myself in comic reflection. For example, when I was thinking about whether Paul’s radical theology of justification in Romans led to antinomianism while soaping up in the shower, was I “working?”  Or am I working right now while I ruminate, for I have no position and am not being compensated for it?

My point is that the role of clergy is not something you put on and take off like a cloak. The clergyperson was once the “the parson” (person), and embodied the church in some way. We reject that model because it was patriarchal and hierarchical, and with good reason, but we have lost something as well. Ordination was never about the intrinsic qualities of the ordained. All the way back to the Donatist crisis the church asserted, “The efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.”

That is to say that ordination was never about the gifts and graces of the ordained, no matter how impressive. Rather ordination was the church conferring authority and its requisite graces on the ordained for the good of the church. When we lost the model of embodiment for clergy we turned to function, and looked around for models from the society. That is where we are today. Now there have been many good things to come out of the professionalism of the clergy, but much has been lost.

It seems to me no accident that the declining mainline clergy are much more preoccupied with compensation and various “work” related protocols than the more robust evangelical and Pentecostal churches. In my own United Church of Christ we have compensation recommendations based on seniority, experience, size of congregations, and all the measures that corporate America would value. The result of this is that we have priced many small congregations out of full-time ministry, and discouraged  many talented clergy who feel called to serve these churches from doing so.

We also have guidelines for how many hours (divided into parts of days called “units”) that pastors should be “working.” Like so many things in our churches these suggestions are right-minded but wrongheaded. Because ministry can’t be cut into tranches like pate.

The category of burnout is a symptom of what happens when you take on these models. If your criteria for “success” is efficiency and productivity you will always fall short, because ministry is neither efficient nor productive in the terms of the world.

The real measure of ministry is faithfulness, because the ministry belongs to God, and God is famously difficult to evaluate. Paul said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth.” Ministry is about planting and watering. We seldom see our results.

The attempt to quantify the “work” of ministry fails before it begins, because it is based on a secular model. Look at how we talk about it: The pastor goes to the “office” (not the study), and keeps “office hours.” And how is the pastor deemed “successful?” By how much money is raised? By how many new members are brought in? Are these the real measure of the dominion of God?

How many faithful mainline ministers in demographically unfruitful vineyards have cast a covetous eye on thriving churches in more fertile spots? Or at their evangelical brothers and sisters? How many have secretly perused a brochure for a Willow Creek or Schuller workshop on church growth when the door to their “office” was closed. And how many have accepted growth strategies and practices that neither their hearts nor their theologies truly believe in?

This is some of the climate in which clergy burnout, by whatever name, flourishes. Because if one ceases to believe in the integrity and importance of what you are doing, than it doesn’t take too much “work” for it to seem like too much. And conversely, clergy who know what they are doing and love doing it would seldom describe their busy lives by the word burnout. Paul describes his various trials and tribulations, which could match any modern pastor for being overworked and undervalued. But he saw his ministry as a sharing in the ministry of Christ, including his cross, and rather than being burned out he could rejoice in his afflictions.

So it is not just about how much a cost we pay to do our ministry, for faithful ministry always comes with a personal cost, but whether we believe in what we are called to do, and know what we are doing and why we are doing it.

It is like the old joke about the pilot who comes on the intercom and announces to the passengers, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news! The good news is that we are making great time. The bad news is that we are lost.”

The good news is that clergy are working harder than ever. The bad news is that they are burned out. Because when you don’t know what you are doing, you don’t know when you have done it.