How Do We Evaluate Ministers Going Forward?


If the way the church understands its ministry is shifting, then we must formulate new ways of evaluating how ministers do their jobs.  If things are changing as rapidly as some of us believe, we need new ways to think theologically about the vocation of ministry.  I’d like to offer a few thoughts to begin the conversation.

(DISCLAIMER: This is a reflection on preaching ministry–since that’s what I do.  A contribution from from those whose ministries include areas of responsibility like education, shepherding, chaplaincy, worship, and so on, would be extremely valuable.)

I would like to suggest that the function of ministry in the church is to equip disciples for the reign of God.  As such, then, the focus of ministry ought rightly to be on those areas that equip people to be more mature followers of Jesus.  That is to say, not all ministerial activities are created equal—which, of course, is as true for ministers as for ministry programming in the church. If ministry involves helping to lead others in a more mature manifestation of faith, the most crucial area of ministerial expertise and performance ought to be that of model.  In other words, ministers ought to be evaluated first and foremost by their performance as Christians.

  1. Does the minister model the attributes of discipleship that the church wishes to inculcate in its members?
  2. Is the minister’s life one the church feels good about holding up as an example of faithfulness, integrity, and humility for parishioners to emulate?
  3. Can the church say of the minister, “I hope my child grows up to be like her or him?”

Living as an example of Christian maturity ought to be the broadest context in which ministerial evaluation takes place.

If I am right about the function of ministry as the equipping of disciples for the reign of God, then taking that as the touchstone for performance evaluation, the next most important area of consideration should be the minister’s ability to reflect theologically on the implications of the practices of faith, and then to be able to articulate those insights for the congregation.  If what the church is about is helping to produce Christians, ministers need to have an intimate knowledge of what is involved in living out the faith, and then to be able to communicate that knowledge with confidence.  Preaching and teaching, therefore, are arguably the two most important aspects of the senior minister’s vocation upon which the senior minister ought to be evaluated.

  1. Do the sermons challenge people to deeper demonstrations of discipleship by helping them to understand the implications of worship practices, outreach, education, etc.?
  2. Does the preacher have an adequate understanding of the Biblical text and its normative values for the practice of the faith?
  3. Does the minister help to focus energy on spreading the good news?
  4. Is God the focus of worship?
  5. Does the minister offer challenges to follow Jesus that call into question the status quo and current power arrangements?
  6. Is the minister capable of interpreting the world through the prism of faith?
  7. Is lay leadership in worship encouraged?
  8. Does the minister study and pray?

Understanding that the church is a complex system, leadership by the minister should not be confused with bureaucratic administration.  That is not to say that ministers have no responsibility for helping the church to be good financial stewards by timely payment of its bills, accurate record keeping, and in full compliance with the law, or that ministers should not be burdened with the supervision of staff, or that ministers need not worry about typographical errors in the newsletter.  Clearly, part of the minister’s task as a leader in the church is to foster an atmosphere that understands and observes good practices with respect to its organizational commitments.  However, the reason that administrative decisions are made in the church is not necessarily because they work, or because that is “the way we do it in business,” but decisions are made because they are faithful and because they contribute to the process of equipping disciples for the reign of God.  Consequently, ministerial leadership requires a theological and not just a business understanding of the larger picture.

The larger picture that concerns the minister, on this reading, requires the skills and abilities to assess congregational systems and to help those systems move forward through, sometimes, difficult transitions.  Good leadership in the church calls for people willing to make difficult decisions regarding faithful practices, and then to stand by them.  And a good leader needs to help the church make those decisions with the knowledge that not everyone will agree.  Also, the minister must understand that she or he will sometimes be wrong—at which point, the good leader needs to be able to acknowledge poor decisions and to seek to make them right.  The minister, then, ought to be evaluated on her or his ability to lead the system through change.  This will be crucial in the coming years.

  1. Is the minister capable of helping the congregation envision a new future by honestly assessing its present emotional systems and organizational structures?
  2. Does the minister continually help the congregation and its leadership refocus attention on the compelling demands of the Gospel rather than the busy work of maintaining the institution?
  3. Does the minister help the congregation make difficult decisions?
  4. Does the minister seek to enhance the free flow of information through good communication?
  5. Does the minister foster systems of honest, open, and loving communication among the staff and the congregation?

Consequently, if a good understanding of organizational systems is necessary for ministerial leadership, also crucial to the minister’s skill set is the ability to identify, recruit, and develop new leadership in the church.  Given the fact that churches are dynamic systems with constant changes in membership composition, as well as the fact that ministry emphases are continually changing, developing new leadership in the church is consistent with the goal of equipping disciples for the reign of God.  Leadership development is the natural byproduct of equipping disciples.

  1. Is the minister capable of identifying people with the potential for good leadership?
  2. Does the minister have success in recruiting new leaders and working with them to give them an understanding of the expectations involved in leadership?
  3. Does the minister’s leadership style encourage or inhibit people from taking the initiative in developing and sustaining ministry opportunities?

In the process of equipping disciples for the reign of God, the minister is necessarily called upon to embody the love present in the gospel to people—within the congregation and without.  Perhaps, just as importantly, the minister is responsible for helping to teach the congregation how it is called upon to embody that love.  Good leadership requires that the pastor not only be capable of offering pastoral care on behalf of the congregation, but that the pastor take the necessary steps to multiply the scope and breadth of the pastoral ministry by training people to do the ministry of the church.

  1. Does the minister care for the critical pastoral needs of the congregation?
  2. Does the minister seek to give people in the congregation the necessary resources to carry out the bulk of the pastoral ministry of the church?
  3. Does the minister help persons to develop a spiritual life that relates to their faith?

Ministers need to be evaluated.  However, they need to be evaluated within a particular context.  In order to know whether a watch is a good watch or a bad watch, one must first know the purpose or end of a watch.  In the same way, there must be some nuanced understanding of the purpose and end of the task of parish ministry in order properly to evaluate its efficacy.  Whether the minister is nice, whether the minister is ultimately likeable takes a back seat to the question of whether or not the minister does the job a minister ought to do.

What do you think?

by Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and currently a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell has never eaten Grape Nuts and once set the sidewalk on fire with gasoline, while trying to kill a dandelion.
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This entry was posted in Christianity and tagged , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

5 thoughts on “How Do We Evaluate Ministers Going Forward?

  1. I think the first question to start with is what do ministers do? What do they get paid to do? I know you offer your answer in this post, but I think it’s a question that warrants more attention.

    • That’s a good question, Matt. What ministers ought to do and what they get paid to do often bear only a passing resemblance. I guess that’s why I thought it was important to raise this issue. Often the expectations people have of ministers have very little to do with the vocation of ministry–about which I propose some preliminary thoughts. But you’re right; we need to spend more time reflecting on this.

  2. Derek,

    I am in complete agreement with you, and I love your phrase, “equipping disciples for the reign of God” (which, fyi, is nowhere else on the web, according to Google). The United Methodist Church says the purpose of the church is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” but so many people understand making disciples in exclusively conversionistic terms, thinking that once a Christian is “made” a disciple is also made. The equipping work of the church is crucial.

    The last half of your phrase is likewise crucial. We are not preparing our parishioners, not all of whom are or desire to be disciples, to maintain the current institutional manifestion of the church. We are preparing people for participation in the radical realignment of personal and communal life that comes with the reign of God.

    If you are in a church and a network of people making this a reality I weep with joy for you!

    • David, I’m grateful for your comments. I’d love to have you submit something more extensive to [D]mergent exploring your thoughts on the fine distinctions you make about the phrase, “equipping disciples for the reign of God.” I think that would be really interesting. DM me if you’re interested.

  3. Part of the assessment is in the title of this article – a minister should be going forward, leading forward, calling the congregation forward – all of which is not necessarily the same as increasing membership or increasing donations. It is about faith growth and living the Good News joyfully and actively.

    A minister has a responsibility to be disturbing. A sermon isn’t any good unless it somehow jarringly shakes the complacency of the congregation. A minister’s life isn’t complete unless the congregation finds some aspect of it to be surprising or worth an eye-roll or a forehead-smack – daily.

    I discovered that ministers do not need to be passive tea-cup-balanced-on-the-knee creatures when playing driveway basketball against one of our New Castle Quaker pastors. (Once this senior moment stops, I’ll come up with a name.) Anyway, the guy had no qualms about invoking a full hockey-style body check on his way to the basket for a layup. Ministers need to know how to execute a full-out hockey-style body check – at least theologically, emotionally, and mentally. Ideally, this is done during the course of a “game” (fewer hard feelings, more respect), but it does a great job of putting people on notice that there is a new paradigm as well as a new player/sheriff/coach/principal in town.

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