Sarai Rice says congregations often evaluate pastors and staff in ways that lead to a lot of stress but little clarity or accountability. She offers five suggestions for how churches can reduce the stress and structure evaluations to enable pastors and their teams to pursue the church’s vision with energy and imagination.
Pastors can be in a tough spot — on the “losing” end of an evaluation process — whether they’re the evaluator or the employee. Unclear expectations and flawed accountability structures create stresses that can threaten any pastor’s ministry. Fortunately, the church can do better.
When pastors are evaluated, they often feel they are expected to fulfill every member’s idiosyncratic concept of their job. Even a governing board that has clearly articulated the pastor’s responsibilities and priorities can easily be swayed by individual members who complain that the pastor isn’t visiting enough or doesn’t come to coffee hour or is changing the beauty of the way we’ve always done worship. The result can be an evaluation process that feels unfair and a pastor caught between conflicting understandings of the job, none of which align with their own sense of the holy work to which they’ve been called.
When pastors evaluate others, they often find it difficult to hold professionals and volunteers accountable. Many congregations have no useful written process for evaluation, and pastors rarely receive the training needed to effectively implement those that do exist. Volunteers are often left out of the evaluation process altogether.
Stress and burnout
When a pastor’s job expectations are not (1) clear, (2) shared with the congregation, (3) adjusted to reflect current realities, and (4) defended from random member complaints, many pastors gradually begin to overfunction. Striving to ensure the congregation’s success, they wind up unclogging drains and holding a pre-meeting before every scheduled meeting. When pastors are not trained to hold staff accountable or given authority to hold volunteers accountable, that too often leads to overfunctioning. Pastors end up feeling responsible for the whole enterprise. Eventually they are burned out, frustrated, and ready to quit because they see no way to ease the strain.
Ways to mitigate burnout and reduce stress
Fortunately, leaders can take personal as well as institutional action to mitigate this kind of burnout by reducing stress. Here are some of the most important actions:
1. Be clear about the pastor’s direct responsibilities.
These do not include the whole life and ministry of the church! Even in the smallest church, few pastors have the time or the gifts to do every aspect of a congregation’s work. Some of it (e.g., encouraging visitors) is better done by members.
2. Provide training for pastors who supervise and evaluate team members.
Effective evaluation is rarely a natural gift, and most pastors have not had the opportunity to learn.
3. Hold volunteers accountable.
As Dan Hotchkiss points out in Governance and Ministry, “congregations often give people — most often, volunteers — authority without holding them accountable.” This is not an effective strategy. Every person helping to achieve ministry goals, whether paid or volunteer, needs a clear description of their role and responsibilities, knowledge of what the congregation hopes to achieve as a result of their work, and clarity about how success will be measured. They need to consistently bring their best qualities to the work — energy, creativity, flexibility, reliability. And most importantly, they need to understand that routine, nonthreatening evaluation of their contributions is a necessary aspect of the congregation’s life together.
4. Help everyone to learn to say “no.”
Individuals need to be encouraged to say no to small tasks that belong to others. Whole congregations need to say no to extensions of their ministry when no one is available to do or support the extra work that good ideas require.
5. Help individuals experiencing microstress to “rise above.”
One reason microstressors affect us, suggest authors Rob Cross and Karen Dillon in their new book, The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems — and What to Do about It, is that we allow them to. Most of the happiest people belong to two or three groups — outside of their work — that are meaningful to them. The “dimensionality” that these relationships create allows people the perspective to rise above microstresses rather than continuing to swim in them.
Evaluation is a necessary component of any organization trying to achieve a goal. How churches structure the process can create untenable stress or can enable pastors and their teams to pursue the church’s vision with energy and imagination even amid chaos.
This article is adapted from Pastors Stressed about Evaluation by Sarai Rice posted to the website of the Congregational Consulting Group. Used by Permission.
- 4 Practices to Help Prevent Clergy Burnout by Matt Bloom and Kim Bloom
- Why Year-End Evaluations Rarely Help Leaders Grow by Lovett H. Weems Jr.
- Principles for Sound Staff Evaluation by Dan Hotchkiss