Over the years, I've observed that feedback is one of the weakest areas of communication between pastors and Sessions.
There are two basic feedback types:
The superficial compliment - "Pastor that was a wonderful sermont." Does the pastor really know why it meant something to her? Does the parishioner really believe it, or is just being socially respectful of the person of spiritual authority?
Word of Mouth Complaints - The pastor never really knows what is going on in the minds of his congregation when they become silent, passive aggressive critics who by the influence of the grapevine decide it is time for him or her to go.
Neither is effective, and both are products of the lack of development of open, honest lines of communication in the church.
I'd like to point to three areas of feedback that churches need to develop if they are going to stay on the cutting edge of serving their congregations and communities.
1. Pastors need feedback. They need to know both that their officers care about them as people, not just an employee, and that they have clear ideas about what the performance of a pastor should be. Developing an effective evaluation approach is essential if both churches and their pastoral staff want to maintain a long term, sustainable relationship of respect, trust and partnership. It begins with pastors asking for feedback. Not just annually, but regularly.
2. Sessions need to give honest, constructive and timely feedback. Criticism is not effective evaluation. Feedback should be focused on clear standards and goals for the performance of the pastor and the congregation. This is very difficult because it means that the church must communicate about how they determine whether the church is meeting their needs.
Sessions need to give feedback to the pastor that is critical, constructive and timely. You can't do an annual review and expect it to be effective. The annual review should set goals that are then just on a daily basis to determine how well the pastor and the congregation are doing.Michael Feiner, professor at Columbia University School of Business addresses this in his new book, The Feiner Points of Leadership. He tells the story of being the young new executive whose boss asked his thoughts about a particularly poorly conducted meeting by their boss. After his very specific critique, Feiner's boss told him -
"You're at the meeting, you're an executive, and if you were there to observe, I would have told the group that you were there to take notes. You were there to be part of the meeting. Leaders affect the outcome of meetings, and around here, reporting on what's wrong with the meetings without take any personal responsibility for the outcome suggests you exercise zero leadership. So do you want to report on the problem, or do you want to take personal responsibility for fixing the problem? Becasue if you want to do the former, you're in the wrong place. I could care less about the other people in the meeting, but I hired you because I thought you had what it takes to be a leader. Leadership is not about identifying problems, nor reporting them, nor tabling them, but being a party to fixing them. I'd give you an A for analysis, but you just flunked your first leadership test. p.170-171.)This sort of ownership of the outcomes of the church comes from believing that feedback matters beyond just making some point. It is about making things better. It is about change. Not change next year, but right now.
3. Congregations need to be clear about their expectations and goals for the church. - In a recent sermon about the relationships in the church I said the following:
Our lives are so full, so busy, so helter-skelter, that it is actually difficult to live as if each person is a gift. We stop thinking of people as gifts, and start thinking of them as something else, as just people, or, just a way to get things done. We lose the sense that the people whose faces we see in our imagination this morning are gifts that God has brought into our lives for a purpose.
I’ve seen this in the lives of pastors. A new pastor comes to a church. There is a honeymoon period, where we are getting to know one another, our differences and idiosyncracies. Things are going well. Then things begin to change. Because of a past pattern of a revolving door pulpit, the congregation begins to pull away emotionally. They are preparing themselves for the inevitable announcement the pastor is leaving. Nothing is ever discussed. But everyone feels it in their gut. The pastor begins to feel that this isn’t the church he thought he was called to. That they misrepresented themselves, and he decides to start looking. And within a very predictable time frame, both the congregation and the pastor’s worst fears are realized. That they were not meant for each other, and the process of search begins all over again.
Without a good method for determining the health of a congregation, this scenario can easily happen. I've seen it.
The crux of the issue goes to the quality of relationships we have in the church. If we lack caring, respectful relationships, then we will see the pastor as either the person who conducts services, completes specific tasks and is the vicarious symbol of our collection spiritual health or dysfunction. Lacking this, congregations lose the experience of community, and become a place for artificial security from a world of threat.
This is why developing an effective evaluation process for both the pastor and the Session is a key element in the health and happiness of a congregation.
If your immediate reaction is not that we are healthy and happy, then you need to take an honest look at how criticism, judgment, evaluation and feedback are conducted, or not, as the case may be.