This is not the fault of congregations or their leaders, but rather, the too-predictable result of taking on a complicated and challenging project without much advice or guidance. And many lay people have bad experiences with professional evaluations themselves, so come to the process without understanding the practices that help nurture professional development and growth.
Believe it or not, it’s possible to have an evaluation process that can hearten your minister. My congregation’s last evaluation of me was completed in 2019 and was, for me, a very nurturing and helpful experience. I have talked about it often with colleagues who are looking for guidance for their congregation in conducting a ministerial evaluation, and I have been meaning to share some key ideas from our evaluation process here on my blog for some time now. So at last, here they are!
Be Clear About the Purpose of the Evaluation
I think the purpose of any ministerial evaluation is to strengthen the minister and their connection to the congregation through the offering of praise, helpful feedback, and positive criticism. The minister should come away from the process feeling loved and appreciated, feeling clear about what the congregation views as their strengths, and knowing what are 2-3 areas for focusing on professional development over the next several years.
Selecting an Evaluation Task Force (ETF)
- How many people are on this task force? I think three people are plenty, but of course, every congregation is different.
- ETF members should be respected and experienced leaders in the congregation. They might be current Board members, but they don’t have to be. In my case, these three were the Board President, Past President, and a congregant who had been a President and was currently in another prominent leadership position.
- ETF members should have received evaluations as part of their professional lives. It is important that they have experience being on the receiving end of a professional evaluation, to help them understand what it can feel like.
- ETF members should be trusted by the minister. Yes, the minister! The minister should be part of the selection and approval of who will serve on the ETF. In my case, I felt that each of the ETF members was supportive of me and my ministry, wanting nothing but the best for me. Feeling their support would later help me be open to the most challenging part of their feedback.
Who should not serve on the ETF? Known critics/detractors/antagonists to the minister should not serve on the ETF. Our congregations sometimes think it is a good idea to put people in this position in the interest of some idea of “fairness.” But it is not appropriate to put someone who does not want to see the minister succeed into a position of overseeing a process meant to encourage the minister’s strong connection to the congregation. Critics can be invited to be evaluators and to have their voices heard through the evaluation process.
Selecting an Evaluation Tool
There is no evaluation tool used by a majority of our congregations, which can feel like the biggest part of this puzzle. I will share here the questionnaire my ETF created in case it is helpful. Perhaps other ministers and congregations might share their evaluation tools in the comments to this post.
The Evaluation Form the ETF created was primarily based on two resources: “Parish Ministry-Governing Board/Supervisor Evaluation for the UUA Ministerial Fellowship Committee” (this document is used to evaluate ministers in preliminary fellowship) and the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association’s “Fulfilling the Call: A Model for UU Ministry in the 21st Century.”
The Evaluation Form (provided below) has eight categories of ministerial responsibility and within these there are 44 tasks. This is a lengthy form that requires a substantial time commitment from the evaluators, but it does lift up the many different parts of a minister’s job.
Selecting the Evaluators
Your first impulse may be to survey the entire congregation. Everyone has feedback about the minister, right?
But this would be a mistake. When too many people are involved with the evaluation process, important feedback can get lost in a sea of responses. I have seen this firsthand, looking over the evaluation of a predecessor (found in a file) who did not cope well with personal challenges during their ministry. Several insightful comments from congregational leaders expressing concern for the minister’s well-being were lost in the feedback of Sunday attenders who were happy with the minister and thought everything was going fine.
We err when we treat everyone’s feedback as if it is equally important. Those who work closely with the minister will have far more relevant and insightful feedback to offer than congregants who come for Sunday services once or twice a month. Certainly it matters that the majority of congregants are appreciative of the minister. But congregational leaders shouldn’t need to survey the congregation to know if there is primarily satisfaction or discontent with the minister’s work.
Take a moment to look over the evaluation form provided above. Evaluators should be in the position to know how the minister is doing in many, if not most, of the work categories being evaluated.
For similar reasons, evaluators should provide their feedback confidentially, but not anonymously. By this I mean that evaluators should attach their names to the feedback so the ETF knows who is providing the responses, but the minister will not know who has said what when the final evaluation summary is given. Anonymous feedback is almost never helpful (and you can read about that here), but confidential feedback allows the ETF to fully understand the feedback being received, and to interpret it for the minister.
In my congregation, we invited 18 congregants to complete the form and 16 did so. Evaluators included Board officers, paid staff, chairs of key committees, longtime volunteers, and additional congregants of varied backgrounds. The ETF chose congregants who either had first-hand experience working with me or who were longstanding congregants. I suggested names of people to be invited, but the ETF made the final selection of names.
When we talk about evaluators for my next evaluation, this coming fall, we will probably talk more about demographics than we did the last time. We will want to make sure there is a balance of evaluators representing different generations, as our congregation is heavily comprised of Baby Boomer-age folks.
The Minister Completes a Self-Evaluation
I completed a self-evaluation using the same form that was distributed to evaluators. This self-evaluation was given to the ETF for them to incorporate with other results as part of the overall evaluation process. The ETF greatly appreciated the insights that came from reading my own assessment of myself, including information about how I had worked on my professional development over the years.
The ETF Gives the Results to the Minister
Side note: I did not actually find the amalgamation of comments that useful, as they seemed all over the place, but the ETF was useful in helping me make sense of them. For example, the ETF could tell me that two respondents seemed disproportionately negative compared to the rest of the respondents. That was something I could not “see” in just wading through a sea of comments.
The ETF sent me the results in writing, and then we met a week later to go over it. I appreciated having that week to process what I was reading and to formulate the questions I had for the ETF. At our face-to-face meeting, we looked at places where my self-evaluation was incongruent with what congregants see. We discussed how I might improve performance in the areas that might most impact my ministry to the congregation.
The ETF Summarizes the Results for the Board
The ETF summarized the evaluation process and results into a short report (two pages) for the Board. This was not the full evaluation that was provided to me, but a high level summary of strengths and areas for growth, as identified through the evaluation process. The Board, including me, reviewed this report in executive session. I asked the Board to use that time not just to consider if my performance was okay, but to reflect on the question of whether or not I was still the right fit for the congregation. (I fully expected the answer to be yes, but I think it should be part of the Board’s process to consider this question.)
The ETF Reports on the Evaluation Process to the Congregation
After the Board received their report, a statement from the ETF was issued to the congregation (in the congregation’s monthly newsletter) that the evaluation happened, that it reflected an assortment of strengths and growth areas that are to be expected from any professional, that no issues or concerns were raised through the evaluation process that would indicate any significant failures or misconduct on my part, that the Board reflected on the question of how my gifts fit with the needs of the congregation, and that the Board was pleased with my performance as minister and looks forward to many more years with me as the minister here.
Do It Again in 3-5 Years!
Hopefully, a healthy and supportive evaluation process helps nurture a strong and long relationship between the congregation and its minister. The congregation should undertake the evaluation process with seriousness, care, and most of all, love for the minister and a desire to support and strengthen the ministry.