Clergy Reviews - Realistic and Hopeful?

How do the insights and systems of the business sector inform the management practices of the Christian church? About five years ago, I began studying Human Resources Management in the corporate world, and enrolled for Masters of Business with a view to researching how churches practise evaluation and accountability of their clergy. I had participated in or observed pastor review processes that were helpful, as well as some that were painful, or inadequate, and had discussed with my peers in a range of denominations about the cognitive, emotional and behavioural consequences of their appraisals. I had seen reviews used as a firing mechanism, a display of power, or a conduit for blame, and observed clergy I knew drop out, burn out or, sadly, exhibit moral failure, where perhaps a timely constructive appraisal might have changed the turn of events.  I had a gut feeling reviews can be positive and fruitful, a means of expressing appreciation for the ministry being exercised, and for sharing expectations and goals. But I was frustrated when they were co-opted by ill-fitting business criteria, inadequate governance, or destructive cultural or denominational hierarchies.

Most New Zealand businesses use a bundle of Performance Management and Evaluation practices; so do many churches, but the context of church ministry is very different from that of a commercial organisation. In New Zealand 5000 men and women currently name their occupation as minister, and the religious and community tasks we undertake in exchange for a living wage is a component of the social, or Not-for-Profit, sector. Ministers are not subject to an employment contract but operate under terms of call which give churches the flexibility they need for the nuances of clergy work. The role of a minister is a mysterious amalgam of leadership, service, exhibition, humility, authority and accountability, where issues of denomination, culture, and gender intersect with temperament, health, and biography.

In 2015 I conducted the research proper, having already studied important background material like Human Resource Management, Organisational Change, Gender and Diversity, and Research Methods at AUT Business School. The thesis I wrote completed a Master of Business degree. I was an 'insider researcher', being at the time of the qualitative interviews both an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church and a registered pastor of the Baptist movement. The findings were fascinating. I looked at the changing business sector practices of Performance Management in knowledge work, examined the polity and processes of the nationally-mandated Presbyterian Ministry Development Reviews, and mined Baptist documents for evaluative practices applied in locally-governed congregations. Then I interviewed 15 senior ministers in cities and towns across New Zealand; the participants were a mixture of age, gender, ministry years and the two denominations, but all had experienced at least two reviews fitting the definition of “the organisational exercise of appraising the minister’s performance, undertaken at intervals of 1 – 3 years.” 

I learned that Performance Management is now referred to as the Achille’s heel of HRM, that managers and employees often view it as ineffective, and that the focus of evaluation is changing from a top down ‘judging’ role to a more participative feedback cycle, especially where high-knowledge workers are concerned. I discovered that today’s turbulent social environment churches need to recruit and retain leaders who are self-aware, collaborative, and future-focussed, in serving both their organisation and the wider community. I saw how timetabled review and professional registration frameworks can work together to assist denominations to manage the intellectual, emotional and social capital that resides in their ministers. I used a complex qualitative research methodology to analyse the interview data and construct a theoretical explanation for the themes that emerged.  I developed a graphic, resembling a Celtic knot, which integrates five salient features of clergy review, relevant to accountability and support for pastoral leaders. Taking a description from Hudson, (p.7), the model also demonstrates how a “realistic and hopeful” review can describe and interpret the pastoral connection between minister and congregation

The 'Pastoral Tie' theory I developed is centred upon the concept of review as conversation, a model which enables respectful and trusting communication about church and clergy needs and development. The four other features threaded in and out of review conversations that recruit and retain valuable human talent are:

  • Formation, which connects review with spiritual and psychological learning and growth 
  • Collaboration, which acknowledges that the quality of teamwork between minister and governing elders is relevant to a review
  • Imagination, which notes the key role pastoral leadership can play in clarifying vision and managing change
  • Vocation, which recognises that in both Baptist and Presbyterian traditions there needs to be a robust connection between the training and sending out of pastors and their ongoing development and accountability. 

Feedback so far has been very positive. What I hope will happen is that review planners will experiment with the model as a framework for questions and conversations; in time I might draft up such a template myself. Interestingly, I have talked about the five salient features recently to 1) a minister whose context is not a parish, but more of a social justice role, and 2) a doctor mentoring a younger practitioner, and both said they would find the model a useful template to apply in their review conversations. So that’s encouraging!

A key finding of the research is that clergy review can be strategic both for the individual and the organisation, by contributing to effective management of qualified, knowledgeable, and committed human resources. Appropriately-nuanced ministry review processes can bring positive affirmation, challenge of inadequacies, acquisition of new skills, and appraisal of the pastor-people fit. When well-timed reviews are both realistic and hopeful, they can support ministry effectiveness and longevity, and help answer important organisational questions about the present and the future. Denominations should continue to recruit people who are self-motivated, collaborative and insightful, but they also should find ways to sustain their call and nurture their souls.  

A Harvard Business author offers pertinent advice for managing valuable human talent: 
“Don’t smother them with rules or give them too short a leash…Point them in the right direction, support them with appropriate resources, and give them periodic praise and rewards, and they will get the job done.” (Luecke, 2006, p. 32).

All fifteen participants would agree.

To Think About: Have you experienced performance reviews? How does it feel? What does it change? How do you think evaluations and accountability should be managed in a church? Talk with someone in your own context about the research.