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'Tis the Season for Evaluation

Tis the season that congregations begin to talk about evaluation –apparently. A number of requests for advice about this have arrived in the past month. It is time I put my thoughts in more coherent form.

This is another of those questions where it is not possible to have an answer that is both good and short. My answer, you will find, is about 78 pages shorter than the most commonly used UU resources on the subject, but still long enough.

If you have suggestions out of your experience for revision of the advice I give here, that would be wonderful.

1. The Basic UU Answer

The basic UU stuff on this at the moment consists of two documents: Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.

Two important virtues are that they are comprehensive (40 pages each) and available free and they are instantly available on the web: http://www.uua.org/leaders/leaderslibrary/ministerialdevelopment/16229.shtml
Their third virtue is that, to the extent that there is a standard UU thing on the subject, these are it. So, in using these resources you would help familiarize with the things that are currently most discussed in UU circles.

Trouble with this first answer is that the process to which it points is so long and complex that I have rarely seen it used.
Another excellent UU resource — and more recent — is assembled by Laurel Amabile with a lot of good material from Dan Hotchkiss and others. I suppose the reason it is less discussed is that it is primarily directed to religious educators. Yet the content is applicable to all congregational leaders: Resources for Staff Evaluation, Review, and Assessment Processes: http://tjd.uua.org/re/Collection%20of%20Resources%20Staff%20Reviews%20and%20Evaluations.doc

2. The Answer for Those Who Think They Want to Use a Survey

I have previously blogged my views on surveys. Frequently when congregations propose doing evaluations, they presume that the chief method they will use is a congregational survey. This is a bad idea. Evaluations become very important lessons in communication for congregations. Surveys are by their nature anonymous and indirect. Anonymous, indirect communication is the bane of congregational life.

Yet, people do use surveys as a central tool in evaluation. For those who choose to do so there are many resources. In this internet age, a Google search with the terms “minister,” “evaluation” or “assessment,” and “survey” or “questionnaire” will get you lots of examples to crib and adapt.


Thankfully, if you restrict your search to UU examples there are not quite as many examples. Yet they are used and do have their uses in specialized circumstances. The UUA Transitions Office uses one in the evaluation of interim ministers:

An approach to evaluation focusing on a survey is pretty much the polar opposite of the 80 pages of Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment. One lies at the extreme of length and process orientation and the other at the extreme of short, mechanical, and process challenged. Wisdom lies somewhere between these extremes.

3. Ian Evison’s Answer

So, answer number one is so big and complex people do not do it. It contains lots of good stuff but people look at the complexity and their brains freeze. Answer number two — the survey–models and teaches unhelpful patterns of congregational communication. It gives little guidance to establishing good practices for evaluation.

What to do? In my view, there is a pretty strong consensus across denominations about what the basics of good evaluation should be. And it does not take 80 pages to set this forth.

A little playing on the web came up with a very good summary — 4 pages. And really the last two pages of the 4 are the crucial ones. The “Ten Principles of Pastor Evaluations” really represent the core of present wisdom on the subject. It needs a little translating out of Methodist into UU. And principles two and ten don’t apply directly, but the rest are excellent.

Those who wish to begin doing evaluations might want to have a meeting with the appropriate leadership group and read aloud and discuss point by point these or my midrash on them (below). These basic principles are what underlie the 80 pages of the UU version — so, if you want elaboration on how you might do the things suggested in a UU context you can then go to Assessing Our Leadership and Congregational Self-Assessment.


My redaction of these principles is as follows:

  • Evaluate the minister in the context of the whole congregation’s ministry. Evaluate the minister only within the larger context of an evaluation of the whole ministry of the congregation. When the minister (or ministers) is evaluated but the whole ministry is not, it invites the unstated and untrue assumption that the minister is responsible for everything that happens in the congregation. This ends up blaming the minister for all the congregation’s strengths and praising her or him for all its strengths. Ministers don’t need to be invited to see themselves as the center of the universe in this way!
  • Evaluate against goals. Evaluate in the context of the congregation’s goals for the year and the mission of the congregation. Evaluations that fail to evaluate against overall goals of the congregation and the minister’s role in achieving those turn into beauty contests. Evaluations that ask how well people liked this or that (rated on a one to five scale), push ministers to please people and avoid offending people — and away from focus on achieving mission.
  • Do not tie directly to determining compensation. Do not, do not directly link evaluation to compensation. While, in the business world, it is popular at present to find ways to link these directly by having evaluation be an immediate prelude to compensation discussions, it is far better in congregational life to separate the two in the year — perhaps with one in the spring and one in the fall.
  • Collaborate. This should be a collaborative process. Agree in advance on what will be evaluated and how. This avoids a lot of misunderstandings.
  • Take the time this needs. Evaluation done well takes time and attention — lots of intentionality and good discussion. Another reason to do evaluations at a part of the year that is a long way from the compensation determination and budget building process is to ensure that evaluation is not rushed. Evaluation is communication and good communication takes quality time.
  • Agree what use will be made of the evaluation. Agree, in advance, on what will happen to the results of the evaluation: Who will receive them and what use will these people make of them? The single greatest failing of evaluative processes in congregations is that they are introduced as a means of dealing with emerging conflict or disagreement. The proper response to emerging conflict is conflict resolution, not an evaluation process. Evaluation not only tends to fail as a conflict management strategy. It also tends to undermine the institutionalization of evaluation in the life of the congregation. Use evaluation as a conflict management tool and you teach that it only should be and only needs to be used when there is conflict.
  • Strengths and Weaknesses. Focus on both strengths and weaknesses. No congregation was ever made great by a process of focusing on and eliminating weaknesses. Likewise ministers.
  • No anonymous feedback. Build agreement in the congregation in advance that anonymous feedback has no role in the process. Evaluation processes are one of the key ways in a congregation that good communication is taught and learned. Good communication needs to be open, honest, and direct. The gain to the congregation and to the process of communicating in this way far outweighs anything that is lost by leaving anonymous comments out of the process.
  • Less is more. For most of us, it is very easy to lists or our weaknesses, and fairly easy to list our strengths. The challenge is to choose the one or two improvements we might make that would be both most possible and salutary. Likewise on the side of strengths: which among any person’s strengths is it most important to develop at any given time? An evaluation process is generally most helpful, not in its listing of strengths and weaknesses but in its collaborative discernment of where to focus attention. The committee that facilitates the evaluation process must have the courage to say that some feedback should not be given attention.
  • Do it yearly. Most congregations at some point have done evaluations. Their failure is often in institutionalizing it into a yearly process. The last act in an evaluation process should be to put next year’s evaluation on the calendar.
  • Keep it simple. With all due respect to our eighty-odd pages of UU documents on evaluation, committees charged with devising an evaluation process often devise processes that are complex enough that it pretty much assures that they will not be repeated. An evaluation process needs to be simple enough that it can be continued even in those years when other things must have higher priority. This advice may seem to contradict the advice to take the time it needs. It need not. Simplifying the process can also open space for better quality conversation.
Hope this helps.