Every pastor I know wants to do a good job. The vast majority of them are willing to receive feedback. Yet many pastors get nervous about receiving an annual review. Why? Because they’ve been through a review with some of these four problems. Here’s how to solve each one.
1. There’s no clear standard.
“The reason that so many reviews of pastors don’t work is this: There’s no form or measure set ahead of time on which the pastor will be measured,” explained pastor and leadership coach Karen Miller. Without a standard, how can anyone say whether the pastor performed well or poorly?
A pastor in New York State told me his experience: “The board chair, Joe, gave me no feedback. Joe just wrote a number on a piece of paper and said, ‘Based on your performance, this is your salary for next year.’ I looked and said, ‘This is exactly what I’m making right now.’ ‘Yeah, right, that’s right,’ Joe said. I could tell other people on the parish-relations committee were uncomfortable; a few said, ‘Well, we think you’re doing a good job.’ But I was in total limbo. There was no form, nothing. I still don’t know why I was getting zero raise.”
Solution: Decide the standard a year ahead. Here are three options:
- Have the pastor set a maximum of five “ministry-year goals” that are agreed upon by the people who will conduct the review. Make sure each goal is smart: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.
- Create your own evaluation questions, based on the pastor’s job description, the church’s values, or the tasks the church needs most now. For example, one congregation includes several questions about leadership (“What are the pastor’s leadership strengths? How can the pastor grow in leadership?”). If you do this, let your pastor add a few questions as well. A veteran pastor told me, “I wanted to know if I’d overstayed and people were looking for a new pastor, so I added two questions that nosed around that. I found out they didn’t feel that way at all."
- Finally, you or the pastor can choose an existing evaluation form—perhaps one used in business or provided by a consultant. Just make sure the evaluation form covers important dimensions of the pastor’s work.
2. The reviewers aren’t the right people.
Much of a pastor’s work is not observed by others—e.g., preparing a sermon, counseling a marriage in crisis, or making a hospital visit. So the reviewers may, without intending to, rely heavily on, “How were your most recent sermons?” or “How was the last board meeting?”
Solution: Make sure the following people are given voice in the review process:
- The pastor himself or herself. It’s always wise for the employee to write a self-assessment ahead of time. The pastor may be too hard on himself or herself, and you can encourage; or the pastor may not see a weakness, and the over-rating will reveal it’s time for honest feedback.
- A few people who work the closest with the pastor. As part of preparation for reviewing the pastor, one board chair emails “any staff member who reports to the pastor, plus two board members, plus two key lay leaders” and asks for two strengths of the pastor, along with one growth area “seen in his or her work with you.” The email explains, “Information you provide may be shared with the senior pastor. Don’t tell us something you wouldn’t want us to pass along with your name.”
- The people conducting the face-to-face review. I recommend there be two (more than that can feel intimidating), chosen from the board or pastor-relations committee. Ideally, one would have management experience, so this is not the first performance review he or she has conducted, and the other would have experience working in a church.
The one person who should never be involved in a pastor’s review is a known antagonist. Yes, criticisms may come forward in a review process, and this may be needed. But as one Chicago-area church told me, “Performance reviews are a chance for growth and are not meant for an airing of ill-will.”
3. There’s no set timetable, so feedback comes only when there’s a problem.
Mike, a pastor with 26 years’ experience, told me, “My last church was very inconsistent in reviews. The elders didn’t do a serious review for eight years. Then they did, and it was like they had waited nine years to tell me all this. It was not helpful.”
Solution: Set a time and stick to it. A good time to do a review usually is:
- The anniversary of when the pastor began working for the church
- The end of the “ministry year”—calendar or school year (though this may not be the best time, if the pastor finishes a ministry year deeply tired)
- Another set time of year, agreed to by the pastor and the reviewers
Whichever you choose, don’t let it be the only time you give the pastor feedback. There should be informal conversations along the way so nothing in an annual review comes as a total surprise.
I agree with pastor Larry Osborne that the annual review should not be held at the same time as the salary conversation. Osborne writes, “Not that a salary shouldn't be tied to performance (Scriptures like 1 Tim. 5:17-18 suggest they're related), but I will not be as open to personal growth during a review tied to salary considerations as I will during one that's entirely separate.”
4. The review is overly “nice” or overly critical.
In many churches, the ideal of Christian kindness gets translated as “I would never tell the pastor something he or she is doing wrong!” But that kind of review ultimately keeps the pastor from ever growing. One pastor confessed, “I would get these super-nice reviews—‘You’re doing a great job’—but nothing honest or nitty-gritty. That was not helpful. I knew I was struggling, and I needed to know how I could improve.”
On the other hand, some reviews go the other way, unloading on a tired pastor who needs encouragement. A pastor told me, “One year, I got a review like that, and I was devastated. Afterward, I sank into a depression.”
Solution: Blend affirmation with a few specific ways to improve. Here’s how:
- Begin with affirmation, and (unless there’s a massive performance problem) make the overall tone encouraging.
- Describe needed changes in specific behavioral terms—for example, “Try to keep sermons to 35 minutes” rather than “Don’t overwhelm us with your preaching.” Don’t question someone’s motives or label his or her character; just ask for changes in behavior: e.g., “Please arrive for meetings on time” instead of “You don’t care about board members.” A pastor in his sixties told me, “The more specific and concrete the feedback given, the more helpful that is to me.”
- Any concerns that are passed on should come from more than one person—and those people should be named. As Larry Osborne wrote in “Performance Reviews: Avoiding the Pitfalls,” “Criticisms and compliments should be weighed, not counted….Only by knowing who said what can I tell the significance of an observation.” One longtime board chair told me, “Before the vice-chair and I meet with the pastor, we get feedback from all the elders. But that is filtered. If one elder has a gripe, that doesn’t get passed on. If several of us have an issue, we would include that, with the names attached.”
After the Review
Provide a written summary of the review for the pastor to read. Give the pastor a chance to write an addendum—in case he or she wants to clarify or disagree with something in the review—then file the review (and addendum, if any) in the personnel files.
“If the review was difficult,” says Karen Miller of StrengthenYourLeadership.com, “follow up afterward. Tell the person, ‘I know this review has had some hard things, and it will take some time to process. I will stop by tomorrow, so we can talk more.’”
Larry Osborne describes a review he experienced like that: “While I received plenty of praise, there were also some harsh criticisms. In particular, we discussed at length my insensitivity to people who see things differently. I also discovered I wasn't delegating nearly as effectively as I'd thought. The next morning, our board chairman called. He sounded worried. ‘Are you doing okay, Larry?’ he asked. ‘I was afraid you might have been crushed by some of the things we said last night.’ Actually, I'd rushed home to tell my wife what a fantastic meeting it had been. My board had been open with me. I had learned a great deal about myself and my ministry. I had received a much clearer picture of my strengths and weaknesses, and now I could work on them. What our chairman failed to grasp was that, in the controlled environment of my pastoral review, I had not been unfairly criticized. I had received the faithful wounds of my friends. There is no comparison between the two.”
Kevin A. Miller is senior pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL, and an editorial adviser for Church Law & Tax.
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