Starting well. Observations on establishing ministry expectations

I think one of the most difficult things about full-time ministry is establishing and maintaining realistic ministry expectations. I think there are two primary reasons for this: First, few really no what a ministry job entails. I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “besides writing your sermon, what do you do during the week?” People just don’t know. Fair enough. Ministry is not like most other jobs. Second, and connected to the first, most ministers work without on-site supervision, most without colleagues who observe their day-to-day routine. Without concrete knowledge of what a minister does day-to-day, members are left to fill in the blanks. As a result, they have high and diverse expectations with little realistic information. 

This is a recipe for disaster. And, making things worse, other congregational leaders (elders, boards, etc) tend to be poor at helping to set realistic expectations for church members. Ministers have to take responsibility themselves for setting and maintaining these expectations, and this begins with the job interview.

As important as it is for the congregation to get a solid picture of a ministry candidate, it is equally, even more, important for the ministry candidate to interview the congregation well. The questions the candidate brings go a long way to discovering the work environment she might be stepping into. More, however, good questions are the first way a prospective minister can begin to set ministry expectations. So, I’ve developed a list of the questions I would ask if I were interviewing for a position. In this post, I’ll deal with the first two, the rest to follow.

1. Do you have a detailed, written job description for this position? I would not take a job where one doesn’t exist. In my experience consulting with congregations, most ministers work without one. One of the unfortunate results of working without a description is that everyone in the congregation becomes your boss. You are subject to the whims of every member who have wildly different ideas about what your job should be. A written, detailed job description gives the minister a set of boundaries that are defensible. Some things are your job, some things aren’t. You report to some people and not to others. Beyond the defensive benefit of a job description, however, a good one helps a minister make choices about how to spend her time most effectively. It is easy to get overcome with the diverse demands of a ministry position. A good job description might allow a minister to make choices, might provide a basis for saying yes and no to things.

Job descriptions should be thought of as living documents. They seldom are perfect at rendering the fit between the actual job and the gifts and capacities of the minister. I recommend a re-working of the job description at the one year mark, and at least every other year after that.

2. Do you have a regular process of evaluating congregational leaders? Obviously, this question is related to the first. It benefits neither the congregation, nor the minister to have a job description if there is not a regular way to evaluate leadership. Again, most congregations do not have a well-thought out evaluation process for leadership. Where evaluations are conducted, they are often poorly done and unfair. 

At one congregation I served, my first evaluation was a list of open-ended questions that had only a slight connection to my job description. Because most members had little knowledge of what I did during the week, they could only answer questions on the basis of what they knew of me publicly. Fortunately, most members were pleased with my preaching, and so gave me good evaluations across the board. One member, however, was very critical of me. She found me unfriendly and accused me of caring only for my friends. This became my performance evaluation. Keep up the good preaching, but learn to be friendlier and don’t care only for your friends. Now, this woman might have been right, especially about the unfriendly part, though I felt the characterizations were unfair and said more about her than me. The point is, these complaints were not evaluated before they became a part of my review. The process was poor and unfair.

I know its often no fun being evaluated. But regular, fair evaluations are the minister’s friend. They provide a benchmark in writing that can be appealed to when the system gets anxious about performance. And they provide the opportunity for mapping conrete steps for the minister to improve, hopefully avoiding trouble down the road. In fact, in a new position I would ask to be evaluated at the three month, six month, and one year marks. This would not only identify potential problems early, but might also establish a perception that the minister is open to suggestions for improvement.

Notice, that the question is phrased “process of evaluating congregational leaders.” I think its fair to ask if other leaders are subject to some kind of review. You want to work in a system of accountability, even mutual accoutability.

Now all of this assumes that congregations have their act together. And most don’t. In many cases, the minister will have to advocate for her own care. If the answer to the first question is “no,” then I would request that one be written before the next phase of the process. And if they fail to produce one, I would provide samples from other congregations and one you have written as a starting place for coming to agreement on one before you begin your job.

I’ve talked about why a minister should want a job description, but other leaders benefit as well when there are good job descriptions in place. In Churches of Christ, my tradition, congregations are elder-led. This means they are functionally the customer service department for members. Complainers go to them with their reports of dissatisfaction, and they are often left with little to say except, “give us some time, we’ll do better.” But a good job description and a regular evaluation process provides at least the possibility that a different response could be given. “Minister A has a job description that is regularly evaluated. She is doing what we have asked her to do. She can’t do everything and answer to everyone. Maybe the rest of us need to take more responsibility for helping this congregation become what God has called us to be and to do.” (This is my fantasy elder).

Fair evaluation processes are also likely to be something the minister has to take responsibility for. There is no HR department at church and volunteer leaders are sometimes ill-equipped and lack motivation for this kind of work. Again, I would want some examples of what other congregations do to provide fair and timely evaluations. And I would suggest two broad guidelines. First, the evaluation should be tied to the job description. Second, members should only be asked to evaluate those parts of the job about which they could make a reasonable judgment. 

One final piece of advice about receiving evaluations. Be as specific as possible about things you are asked to work on. Often evaluations remain vague and general in nature. Improve your sermons (usually shorten them, which on the whole is not bad advice), improve relations with other staff, manage your time better, etc. Ask for specifics. How are we going to measure improvement? What are reasonable outcomes? What specific steps can I take? When will we check progress or re-evaluate? Again, the minister likely will have to take the initiative and make specific suggestions. “Here are the three things I’ve decided to work on to improve my preaching. Here’s what I’m hoping to accomplish. I’ve sent samples of my sermons to David Fleer for input. Can you help me in these ways… Does this sound reasonable? Can we check in again in three months?”

None of these things will absolutely protect you in the managing expectations department. You may still find detractors with unfair expectations who wield a lot of personal power in the congregation who can make your life miserable. But at least you will have done what you can, taken responsibility for your own work, and invited the congregation into a collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship. On the upside, the process of coming up with a job description and fair evaluation process may clarify congregational values and model ways of treating one another with respect, with mercy and justice.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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4 Responses to Starting well. Observations on establishing ministry expectations

  1. Ben says:

    Along with a detailed job description, I would add that a new minister should also know where the church keeps spare lightbulbs. This is important. If that’s not possible, at least have an educated guess where they might be kept. One wouldn’t want to be discovered ignorant of congregational light bulb storage policies.

  2. ryanlassiter says:

    What about job descriptions for elders?

    • Mark Love says:

      I think they should have one as a group. Here are the things that we are responsible for together, not individually, but as a group. We had one for our elders at EC. The great thing about that was that it allowed them to identify areas that they needed help with and we got them training.

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