Appraising performance: how to tell good from bad in ministry

When I worked in banking I became used to both sides of the annual appraisal process. Every year everybody “agreed” objectives with their manager and then was assessed in light of them at the end of the year. This assessment was expressed in a number from 1 to 5 where 1 meant “that was terrible, you’re fired” and 5 meant “that was brilliant, have a big bonus and pay rise”.

I never knew anyone to get a 1 – if it was that bad they’d already been fired before appraisal time came round. A small number of 2s were given every year (I know all about it from my period as part of a departmental management team) and triggered a process where people’s performance was more closely monitored and special action taken to improve it (a “performance action plan”).

It was a constant complaint from HR and executive management that not enough 2s were given. Managers on the whole gave 3s to most people and 4s and 5s to people who’d done well. I’m reasonably sure that I personally never gave anyone a 2 (I’m sure I’d remember being caught up in the action plan process).

The key to reducing the pain of all this (and it was a big drag for everyone involved) was getting the objectives right (this was true whichever side of the table one sat). These objectives were supposed to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-bound – are you impressed that I remember?). If they were clear enough the writing of the report and agreeing of the number was pretty straightforward although no-one who didn’t get a 4 or 5 (which inevitably was most people) was entirely happy since for grades below Senior Manager a 3 attracted little or no bonus.

I was thinking about all this because the beginning of my stipendiary ministry is beginning to feel very close. We plan to put our flat on the market this week, I’m working on the essay for my last course at the University, I’ve had the forms to fill in so that the URC’s system can pay me my stipend from September.

All this is reminding me of some of the ways this will be like and some of the ways it will be unlike having a job at a bank. Especially it’s made me think about how I will know whether I’m doing a “good job” as a minister. What would the SMART objectives of a pastor look like? Who would be the right person to appraise a pastor against those objectives?

In the URC there is a sort of appraisal process called “accompanied self appraisal”. In my former life this was one of the tedious aspects of the performance management process. As the person appraised one had to write a self-appraisal before getting one’s manager’s view. This was a trying exercise. Whatever the truth about one’s performance or commitment there was a very good reason to want a 4 or 5 (money). Managers only had so many to give away and bonus pots were set by the budget so there was a competitive aspect to the whole thing.

In ministry, though, there are no bonuses. Self-appraisal should be honest but I wonder how true that is. How would a minister know how well they were doing and what would it be to do well anyway.

Towards the end of my career, as a senior manager with responsibility for the strategic direction of the computer systems for the accounting functions of the Group centre, my objectives were woolly in the extreme. Strategy, implementation and operations were separate so anything that actually happened was outside my domain. SMART my objectives were not, except the most trivial ones, so I’m used to this but ministry takes it to a whole new level.

What specific and measurable objectives can I imagine agreeing with my manager? Church membership? Numbers attending Sunday worship? Numbers attending other Church activities? Hours prayed? Tears shed during sermons? Money offered? Sick people visited? Committee meetings attended?

All of these could be part of it but I can imagine faithful and “successful” ministries in which they play no part and anyway it’s hard to see how they could be seen to be within the control of the minister.

The old denominations are all in decline in numerical terms and the URC is declining particularly fast. This background is part of the reality of anyone embarking on ministry within it. Some local churches are growing and no doubt this will continue but this is against the overall trend. To think only a growing church is serving God adequately implies a negative judgement on the denomination as a whole that I am not prepared to give.

There is also the issue of the person with whom objectives should be agreed. In a Presbyterian (or Congregationalist but I’m assuming the URC to be essentially Presbyterian for this purpose) church polity this is difficult to discern. We do not simply serve the congregation(s) nor is there a bishop to mediate authority to us. We serve Christ in the setting of the local church but who or what mediates Christ’s authority to us? To whom are we accountable directly?

This is the great difficulty that fills me with anxiety. Jesus has no office or PA, no diary I can get a slot in. To know whether we are fulfilling the tasks he has set for us is a matter of faith. As I embark on this ministry my self-respect and sense of myself become entirely reliant on faith in Christ, there is nothing else left to me.

  1. Fran Ruthven said:

    Nick, you raise some interesting questions that I believe do need to be addressed both by ministers and congregations. The first thing I would say is that ministry is not a job like other jobs; it is a calling – a calling to serve Christ and ultimately one is accountable to God in this calling. But it is also true that our calling is lived out in specific contexts and very much in the service of particular people or groups of people. In the case of a minister in pastoral charge, that minister is serving Christ within the context of that particular congregation and so there needs to be an accountability that includes the members of that congregation. I don’t think the accountability is a one way street. Rather it is a mutual accountability – both being ultimately accountable to God.
    That is why the URC Ministerial Accompanied Self-Appraisal is done in conjunction with the Local Ministry and Mission Review of the congregation. For me it is a very Pauline model of members of the body being accountable to one another in the service of Christ.

    You are correct, I think, in understanding that getting the goals and objectives right is imperative. That is something, I believe the minister and the congregation should agree together and part of that process would be deciding who is responsible for what aspects of the missional goals and objectives. I’m not sure in ministry that successful outcomes are the measuring stick by which we should evaluate ministers or congregations as much as faithfulness to meeting their responsibilities. After all, what is a successful church? I prefer to use the term vital rather than successful. For me a vital church is one where those who are participating feel that participation is making a real difference in their lives and those whom the church impacts feel that the presence of the church is making a difference in the community. In other words, there is life in the church that life is overflowing out into the community.

    Having said all that, I think that the relationship between a minister and his/her congregation is more like a marriage than and employee/employer situation and therefore, assessing whether a minister is doing well or not is more an art than a science. It’s about the health of the relationship, mutuality and respect, building a life in Christ together and supporting one another in living out that life for the sake of the world. One can’t always define it exactly, but one knows it when one sees it.

    • Yes, Fran, I agree with everything you say, while also wondering if it isn’t (even) more difficult than that. Given that the minister is first of all serving Christ it seems to follow that only Christ can determine the objectives but then the difficulty is how one can discern his will. There may be times when a minister feels that his or her discernment of the divine will puts them in conflict with all those who appear to have a say. What does one do then? And how would such a minister know? There is no human being (and that includes the minister and the congregation) who can legitimately claim the authority to determine goals and objectives except by claiming to speak for Christ. (Oh, dear!)

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