Assessment Conversations

My post about quality communication highlighted the usefulness of sensitive respectful human conversations in creating mutual understanding and shared goals. While some conversations are mundane, others have the power to change lives. Used sensitively, they can give us power to create shared meaning out of our pasts, and to imagine new futures. 

Organisations in business and the Not for Profit sector know this, and aim to leverage workplace conversations, so that people are enabled to discover what they know, share it with others, and create new organisational learning. They realise that conversations that develop caring, collaboration and commitment have the potential to transform a business, a charity or a church. That’s why performance reviews that take the shape of a conversation are becoming more common, particularly in the helping professions, where appraisal needs to be a collaborative effort. 

In my 2015 research into clergy review I found that ministers are “high-value knowledge professionals” whose intellectual capital needs to be conserved in the same way as the business world “manages talent”. The ministers I spoke to for my thesis believed that a well-delivered and appreciative review process has great potential for protecting the valuable human talent found among clergy. They identified many quality reviewer skills like the attending, honouring, stilling and nurturing I described in the first post in this series. I concluded that when a review process is an authentic conversation that is collaborative, transparent and appropriately confidential, it is a positive, even life-changing experience that enhances engagement and growth. 

However a review conversation can be so subjective that it has potential to shatter the pastor’s self-confidence and upset the equilibrium of the pastoral tie. Presbyterian participants described reviewers who focussed only on their own opinions and experience, and others who took months to present a draft report. But these were minor issues compared with the Baptist experience, where intermittent or non-existing reviews meant many churches lacked expertise in effective clergy evaluation. Some reviews went horribly wrong, and even precipitated an unwarranted resignation. Pastors felt ambushed by questions or feedback they had not expected, and noted that elders exhibited a poor understanding of the boundaries of their governance role. Documentation, before and after a review, was inadequate, if it existed at all; in one case, a prepared pastor self-review document was lost, so the elder “winged it” using their own experience in the education sector, with disappointing results.

Roy Oswald, senior consultant for Alban Institute, notes  this over-optimistic exercise of power happens often: “Congregational members with confidence in their evaluative skills may volunteer to set up processes for the assessment of their pastors. They may then proceed to objectify the roles and functions of clergy on the assumption that these factors are quantifiable” (from Getting a Fix on Your Ministry, p 4). But, he wonders, how do you measure the quality of a pastor’s work? Many assessments oversimplify the pastoral role or try to prescribe quantifiable outcomes (eg attendance or baptisms) that are not necessarily under the minister’s control.  Oswald reckons that secular technologies are not useful tools because a quantifiable assessment can’t ever get at the essence of the clergy role. 

Interestingly I found - in researching assessment in the HRM disciplines - that NFPs and even businesses are finding the same challenge where knowledge roles are difficult to define and work is not easily measurable. My decision to utilise the notion of “conversation” to describe the formal clergy review was influenced by my finding mechanistic approaches to performance assessments by HR managers are being rejected in favour of more participatory styles, especially in the social and voluntary sector. 

Employees today are often said to “hate” their performance appraisals because they are experienced as a top-down lecture from management, and can involve intimidation and vulnerability. And while businesses agree evaluation will always be a necessary ingredient of organisational effectiveness, many see it changing focus from a top-down interview by a ‘judging’ manager to a more participative feedback and ‘coaching’ conversation (see for example, Pulakos et al., 2012). Culbert in his book about getting rid of the performance review says mechanistic evaluations function poorly as constructive feedback. He recommends moving from a past-focused evaluative review to a “reciprocally-accountable preview”, a dialogue where the focus is on the future. When the work is characterised by rare skills and worker autonomy, a conversation format is less confrontational than the standards-based measurement of mainstream HRM. A conversation implies two parties in dialogue, looking together at past events, present practices and future goals (G. Roberts & Pregitzer, 2007). A conversation that allows evaluation to take place within a trusting relationship means problems can be seen as issues to be solved together rather than personal inadequacies to be addressed. Conversations make shared meaning out of our pasts, imagine possible futures, and help create collaborative practices (Branson, 2004, p. 37). 

It seems that a strict business model of performance management not only fails to serve the realities of parish ministry, but also other contexts where professionals work unsupervised on hard-to-measure tasks (like education, health care and social work). Well-structured, integrated feedback loops are more successful at building community, and evaluating work, in both business and in church.  Reviews are meant to be a tool not a weapon; churches wanting to protect the valuable human talent of ministers should plan assessment and reflection conversations that release energy and guide development. Yes, clergy do need accountability and their work does need evaluation, but I recommend a review conversation as a helpful framework for negotiation, affirmation, illumination, confrontation and even termination. 

Such a conversation is good to have, but a conversation based on an agreed framework, aligned with others in the denomination, is even better. My research suggests that a ministry review conversation can work positively for both the individual and the organisation, by engaging pastor and people in mutual commitment to four key components I called formation, collaboration, imagination, and vocation (Learn more about this)  Taking a positive approach to clergy review, as an opportunity to dialogue about goals, address problems and seek means of improvement, will benefit both pastors and churches.

Organisations today see conversations being of key strategic value in talent management, the ability to generate enviable performance by using “bundles” of practices that protect and develop valuable employees. Talent Management is often explained as an investment in the future, one that will require performance management practices to be agile, collaborative and “contingent” - shaped by context. Such conversations were in this study shown to be relevant to evaluation of ministers who, like many other professionals, are largely self-managing, knowledgeable and committed. 

The opportunity for confidential dialogue can also be helpful in testing the “pastoral tie” between pastor and people. One participant said his review was “the first time somebody has ever, in any detail, said anything positive about my ministry” while others said they had been wondering if it was “time to go” and were reassured by a review conversation that the relationship was still working.  Gentle probing questions around the strength of the pastoral tie can contribute to the protection and support of valuable ministry talent, both lay and clergy. On the other hand, the review conversation may lead to the pastor concluding that things are not working and that it is time to look elsewhere; that is one reason why it’s important to have an outside reviewer to support a minister who comes to this realisation. Presbyterians definitely saw God at work in the review experience, though Baptists I interviewed tended to see it as a more of a human process. Still, it was a Baptist pastor who shared about his team’s leadership retreats spending the whole morning silently listening to God, and then posing quirky questions such as, “what’s the biggest issue we’re not facing right now?”  Unpredictable questions can challenge rigidity and help develop curiosity and new insights. The energy released in such evaluative conversations can generate interpersonal awareness  and enhance commitment to the church and the denomination. 

In summary I found that focused clergy review conversations that fit their context can engage pastor and people in more effective collaboration, point to ways the pastoral tie might be strengthened, and enhance the capacity for envisioning the future.

To Think About: what assessment conversations have helped you think about the future and perhaps even changed your life??

"Evaluation is natural to the human experience.  Evaluation is one of God's ways of bringing the history of the past into dialogue with the hope for the future.  Without confession of sin there is no reconciliation; without the counting of blessings there is no thanksgiving;  without the acknowledgement of accomplishments there is no celebration;  without awareness of potential there is no hope;  without hope there is no desire for growth;  without desire for growth the past will dwarf the future.  We are called into new growth and new ministries by taking a realistic and hopeful look at what we have been and what we can still become.  Surrounded by God's grace and the crowd of witnesses in the faith, we can look at our past unafraid and from its insights eagerly face the future with new possibilities" (from a Methodist pamphlet). 

This post is the second in a 2017 series that I hope will add new perspectives to my 2014 series on “Holy Conversations.”