Six church human-resource leaders share their best practices for successfully lifting the lids that limit the capacity of staff members
Leaders and employees have one thing in common when it comes to performance reviews. Both cringe at the thought of them!
How do you view staff evaluations? Are they an annual chore filled with official forms and uncomfortable face-to-face meetings? Have you ever said, “Write your own review, and I’ll sign it”? Would you prefer the “no news is good news” approach?
As a new ministry season begins and as the end of the year approaches, effective churches understand the value of evaluating staff, setting goals, and making the process relevant.
We asked executive ministers to discuss their best practices for evaluating staff: what they’ve found works best, what doesn’t work, and what “secrets” they can share with you.
• • •
THROUGHOUT MY CAREER, in both the corporate environment and within the church, I have used numerous strategies related to performance evaluations. My experience has taught me that as the needs and preferences of the staff shifts and changes, the way we think about and conduct feedback must adjust accordingly.
Currently, a large portion of our staff are millennials, who generally prefer real-time feedback versus a more traditional performance evaluation. To accommodate the needs of our staff, we have developed a method for engaging in two-way feedback via bimonthly one-on-ones.
During the first one-on-one meeting of the month, our department leaders “check the pulse” of their team members as it relates to their well-being—physical, spiritual, and emotional. We have found that our staff is most engaged when each one knows he or she is cared for as a person first. This meeting also gives our department leaders a chance to better understand what makes their specific team members thrive. If we can identify this, we can lead them more intentionally, develop them more fully, and help them reach their potential.
The second one-on-one meeting is more specific to their current work. Team members can update their leader in a more formal capacity during this time. As these discussions are designed to be more work-centric, we have identified key questions—such as where they are on their goals and budget and what obstacles the manager can assist with—that we ask each month to help gauge performance in a consistent manner.
This bimonthly system has allowed our team members to feel valued as individuals while also providing real-time evaluation of their strengths and challenging them on their areas of growth. In addition, those of us in leadership have a clear understanding of our staff culture.
This approach has allowed us to move beyond traditional performance evaluations. We understand the needs of our staff are likely to change over time, and as such we need to be sensitive and responsive as we continue to adapt.
• • •
STAFF EVALUATIONS don’t have to be fraught with anxiety because, if you’re leading your staff well, nothing you say will be a surprise to them. Evaluations should be an ongoing, day-by-day process by leading through example and coaching, not just telling staff where they are failing.
I’ve learned relationships are the most important piece of the evaluation puzzle. If I’m distant, closed off in my office all the time, and don’t interact with the staff I evaluate, they are less likely to listen to anything I say, regardless of its merit.
We often employ the “compliment sandwich” at Redemption. We encourage staff in areas of strength, then offer areas that need growth (again, these areas should rarely, if ever, be a surprise to the staff member), and then we wrap it up by encouraging some more. Over-criticism that hasn’t been addressed along the way is a quick way to strip hope from staff.
Finally, we lead with compassion and by example. We as executive staff may be “above” other staff in terms of the org chart, but all of us are people in need of God’s great grace. Our human resources are the single best resources we have in ministry. As such, we should treat them as fellow image-bearers of God, not just cogs in the machine getting tasks done.
• • •
THE DIFFICULTY of evaluating staff is trying to quantify something subjective. We try to make our evaluations a conversation. Staff members meet at least once a month with their supervisors to talk through projects and progress. From those conversations, we mine how well each staff member is doing. No staff member should be in the dark about how he or she is performing. If any ambiguity exists, the one-on-ones are the place where that is cleared up. We use forms we created in shared OneNote folders to prompt questions and record comments from staff and supervisors.
The one-on-ones are meant to drive evaluations into the context of relationship. We care more for people than just how they are performing, and usually poor performance means more than a staff member slacking off. If they are struggling, we want to know why and help them through it. Our goal isn’t to give them a pass/fail on job performance, but to help them thrive in their life with Christ and their life at work. At the same time, we do give numerical scores three times a year (with definitions of what those scores mean) so everyone knows where he or she stands.
No system is perfect, and neither is ours. We refine it just about every year. We don’t want our employees serving the evaluation system, we want the system to serve us toward our most important outcome: people who are thriving.
• • •
I LOOK FORWARD to our staff-evaluation time. I know not everyone feels the same way, but a big part of this revolves around the reason and motivation for doing evaluations. We have moved away from a ’90s-style rating system and toward a process of continual improvement that invests in the staff and clears the way for God to use them in ministry (the secret sauce of this process).
I have found that evaluations are as much about empowering staff by being an objective adviser as it is about removing roadblocks where possible. These staff-evaluation strategies have worked well for us:
• building a better review form that focuses on specific areas to continue to improve
• having leadership themes that are represented in the goals for each staff member (for instance our theme this year centers around communication and collaboration)
• conducting 360-degree reviews alongside key annual reviews to increase team feedback and reduce silos
• allowing key volunteers (e.g., from the church’s personnel team) to help
• using Google Sheets for the “evaluation form,” allowing a high level of collaboration across the organization, ability to keep summary goal sheets for all staff that are automatically updated, and the organic building of each staff member’s body of work at the church.
What hasn’t worked well? Doing it all myself! Changing evaluation culture, HR procedures, or even evaluation forms takes a village. When I started in my role as executive pastor, I tried conducting 360-degree reviews for just the senior staff and lost a month and a half of my life. Now, I elicit the help of key personnel team members and I look forward to the process.
When done right, annual and quarterly reviews can encourage and strengthen quality staff members. This process can build relationships and strengthen trust. These activities can also help you quickly identify and act on staff members who do not fit with your church.
• • •
WE TRY TO INCORPORATE three questions into all of our evaluations: What should you continue to do? What should you stop doing? What should you start doing? Obviously, having concrete goals that can be measured and evaluated is very helpful.
Other staff reviewing tactics have not worked so well, however. Years ago, we asked our program staff to fill out a notebook of very detailed information about their daily work schedule, their goals, a self-evaluation of their area of ministry, and several other things. It took a couple of weeks for program staff to get it filled out around their other ministry activities. The system was too cumbersome and didn’t bear much fruit.
We have recently streamlined our evaluation process so that we meet with staff members about once a quarter. We will still have annual written evaluations, but those are usually short and to the point since we have met quarterly throughout the year.
• • •
THE CONCEPT of “performance evaluations” is a constant work in progress within our culture. Without empirical data, it’s still safe to say that the very words performance evaluation strike fear or anxiety in the hearts of most mortals. Therefore, we use coaching sessions three quarters each year and save the last session of the year for the formal evaluation. In addition, that last session is called a “year-end review” rather than a performance evaluation. It’s more of a look back at the year and accomplishments made coupled with a look forward into the coming year and the goals we want to achieve.
Our reason for coaching sessions is that we are here to develop and coach individuals to success; therefore, those sessions should be welcomed rather than dreaded. The idea of the coaching session is to ensure we schedule time to be face-to-face with each direct report and hear from them. Our mission statement is, “Connecting People to Jesus and One Another,” so these coaching sessions provide us with a setting to connect personally with individuals and as part of the session to find out how they are connecting to Jesus. Fundamentally, those two things will give us a basis to drive results that are needed to fulfill our mission statement.
The most important part of any evaluation is to make sure we have clear standards against which to measure performance. We work hard to make sure expectations are clear. So, our discussions are usually centered around the goals and expectations that were given either when the person was hired or when their goals were set. Our HR team provides a list of suggested areas to discuss in each session, and each session is written into the staff member’s file for future reference. From an overall strategy, the review tools we use complement and coincide with our onboarding strategy, integrating and setting pace for the future by setting clear expectations and dialogue with 30-60-90-day benchmarks for each new employee. These weave nicely into our quarterly coaching sessions and year-end review.
Clear expectations of results and strong relationships make the process work. If our leaders are doing what they should be doing by connecting with their teams intentionally on an ongoing basis, the results of a performance review should be a formality only and never a surprise.