Clergy Effectiveness Critical for UMC

Date Posted: 8/6/2012

A pilot project involving about 100 churches attempts to assess how well United Methodist pastors perform while helping churches and clergy join in a covenant that will lead to more effective clergy and more engaged congregations.


“Clergy effectiveness is a critical issue for The United Methodist Church and every annual conference. We need clergy who can meet the adaptive challenge of leading churches in a changing world,” said the Rev. Meg Lassiat, director of Candidacy, Mentoring, and Conference Relations, Division of Ordained Ministry, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.


The assessment process is based on more than 10 years of qualitative and quantitative research about clergy effectiveness done for GBHEM. In the pilot projects, which will begin in September and October, the effectiveness of clergy will be assessed using that instrument, which collects input from the clergyperson, the district superintendent, and the staff parish relations committee. Annual conferences taking part in the project include Upper New York, Southwest Texas, Indiana, and Pacific Northwest.


After the assessments are done, the congregation and the pastor will develop a mission statement with a set of goals for the pastor and a covenant that spells out how the congregation and the district superintendent will support the pastor in achieving those goals. The covenant is modeled on the process set out in Watching Over One Another in Love: A Wesleyan Model for Ministry Assessment, written by the Rev. Gwen Purushotham, GBHEM’s associate general secretary in the Division of Ordained Ministry.


“A covenant changes the dynamics of ministry,” Purushotham said. “A covenantal approach subtly yet decidedly shifts the goal of ministry assessment from judging and correcting to growing and learning.”


That changes the way clergy approach their work, carry out commitments, and think about assessment, she said.


Bishop Marcus Matthews, president of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the Upper New York Annual Conference is participating because he hopes the tool will help with checks and balances. The conference was created from the merger of several conferences.


“We will be two years old this summer. We felt it was the right time to take part in something new that can help us set up a future process for developing effective clergy leaders,” Matthews said. He hopes the result will be helping produce effective clergy leaders for local churches and the wider community. And, he hopes the tool will help the conference Board of Ordained Ministry discover ways to help clergy be accountable.


Mike Comer, a member of GBHEM’s Advisory Committee on Psychological Assessment, said research has consistently shown that really effective managers hold two things in balance: getting the job done and being concerned about people.

“The church has erred on being concerned and taking care of people, while paying less attention to getting the job done,” Comer said. Comer, a licensed clinical psychologist and a UM elder, conducts the candidacy evaluations for the West Michigan Annual Conference and did his dissertation research on psychological evaluations of UM clergy applicants.


Comer said figuring out who is really ineffective is pretty easy. “Three consecutive failed appointments – those are the cases that stick out. It’s harder to evaluate the others.”


The research began with an intensive focus on clergy who were identified as highly effective by district superintendents and bishops. That research concluded that highly effective local church pastors performed 13 distinct clusters of tasks.

Effective pastors were found to possess a strong sense of calling, have the ability to cast a vision and mobilize and empower people to work toward that vision, were able to transform lives, and could help people discover and utilize their gifts for the good of their communities.


Comer said the church’s battery of assessments for candidates for licensing and ordination is clinical and geared toward psychological testing. The effectiveness study looked at which traits are going to be the most effective for clergy to have. Comer hopes once the process is tested, the findings can be used to create an assessment tool for candidates, too.


Rick DeShon, the researcher who led the research project and developed the assessment instrument, says the pilot project will test the process before it is offered to the whole church. DeShon is a professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Michigan State University.


“This assessment instrument will base the evaluation on objective criteria. It builds in accountability for both the pastor and the congregation,” DeShon said.


The research the instrument was based on began with focus groups of pastors identified as effective by their bishops, peers, and district superintendents. Those findings were tested with a quantitative survey of a nationally representative sample of local church pastors. That final sample in 2009 contained 935 pastors, and 341 responded to the survey. Their responses confirmed the findings of the focus groups concerning the traits that are common to effective pastors, DeShon said.


Lassiat said the ability to accurately evaluate clergy is important whether or not security of appointment for elders is removed.


“Different annual conferences have done different things to evaluate clergy. Some annual conferences have developed good tools, but it hasn’t been consistent,” she said.


The pilot projects will provide feedback on how well the instrument works and allow for any needed adjustments, Lassiat said.


DeShon and Comer both said that as far as they have been able to determine, the survey of church pastors represents the only empirical research ever done on clergy effectiveness.


“We hope this will be a process that can be used in any church,” DeShon said.


*Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.


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