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COMMENTARY: Clergy evaluation time brings renewed anxiety James Howell, Aug 25, 2011
By James Howell Special Contributor
Groans overheard from offices up and down the hallway, grimaces in the breakroom: Yes, the new, improved clergy evaluation forms from annual conference are online! And due soon. We’d all groaned and grimaced for years over the formerly-known-as-new-improved-but-now-old clergy evaluation forms.
The kinds of people who raise their hand to become pastors aren’t fond of such instruments—to put it bluntly. We do want feedback, and we really crave support. We want to cultivate stellar ministry habits. But what’s the best way to do this?
The laity also have a form, and it’s fear of what they might say, and their fear of not really knowing what to say, and our own inability to speak fairly of our own ministry, that give us all pause. I’m asked about my preaching. What do I say? “Exasperating but oddly meaningful”? “Last Sunday was dismal, but I think on average I’m pretty good, and I’m certainly doing my best”? What do the laity say? “She’s good”? “We love him”? “She’s better than the other guy”? “I wish she’d say more about American values and self-esteem”?
The new improved form asks—quite wisely—about personal spiritual development. But what can I say to laity about my—quite private—prayer life or struggles therein? And how would they fill in their portion of the form?
Historical musings pop into my head. How would the Constantinople folk have ranked John Chrysostom on preaching? “Brilliant orator, but he gets on our nerves, and so we vote for exile!” Martin Luther on his relationship with his denomination (which my form now asks about)? (“F minus!”) Or Julian of Norwich on caring for the poor? “She’s in a room and hasn’t come out for a decade.” Jesus’ annual assessment of Peter would have been dismal, although Jesus himself didn’t rank well with messianic expectations.
We need to engage in process, and I suspect our new improved process is as good or better than any. But how can we without excessive fret and perspiration, sweating our way through the whole process?
I wonder if we begin with the curious recognition that at some level, clergy don’t really work for the people in the church, and don’t exist to satisfy their expectations. Certainly in our denomination, where we are “sent” to the people, but also in every ecclesiastical organization, we are charged with bringing something to the congregation the congregation hasn’t asked for and doesn’t prefer.
And the truth is bishops and superintendents get nervous when things don’t go smoothly. If there is conflict in a congregation, and in these evaluative processes, the blame often lands on the clergy. I don’t mean to imply that we are called only to be fiery, prophetic and cantankerous: Thinking that lets us off the evaluation hook and allows us to rest smugly in our mandate from on high. People won’t like it, either.
Sometimes what we’re called to bring is strange, even to the clergy. I just finished Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor, and his best moments come when he exposes “the Americanization of the congregation,” which turns each congregation “into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.” In such churches, clergy pass evaluations with flying colors, but worship lapses into “entertainment, cheerleading, and manipulation . . . a public relations campaign for Jesus.” This strikes the Rev. Peterson, and me, as “a violation of the holy, a secularization of the sacred, taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Or what about his realization “that I was gradually becoming more interested in dealing with my congregation as problems to be fixed than as members of the household of God to be led in worship and service”?
How can evaluation take into account divine calling? And the holy? And be theologically, not corporately grounded? How can whatever it is we are compelled to do (and why, really, do we engage in such a thing?) annually be life-giving, an hour of repentance and a return to the gospel, the way of the people of God portrayed in the Scriptures and throughout history?
The Rev. Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C.