By John Wimberly
Almost everyone dreads the annual performance review that remains a ritual in most congregations. The employee wonders if it will be fair. If the pastor performs reviews of staff, she or he wonders if the results will be toxic for the relationship with the staff member. Pastors tell me about problems finding members qualified to perform an annual performance review of the pastor. After all, most members are not closely enough involved in the work of their pastor to perform an informed review. So the thought of annual reviews is not something that warms our hearts!
Despite all of our legitimate fears and trepidation about annual performance reviews, we do them—religiously. Some denominations, like my own Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., require an annual review of the pastor. Other reviews take place because of traditions or policies within particular congregations. Some congregations do them just because everyone else does them.
I have written about this subject before. I write about it again today because, given the dissatisfaction with these processes, there are now clear signs that more and more well-run organizations are doing away with annual performance reviews. The latest to eliminate them is Accenture, one of the largest companies in the world. Accenture is noteworthy because its product is helping other companies become more efficient and effective in organizational practices. In March, Deloitte, another major company that helps companies be more effective by using best practices, announced that it is doing away with employee ranking and performance reviews.
Will congregations, once again, be the last entity to embrace positive trends in organizational behavior? Or will we read the literature and begin to change our ways? Obviously, I hope it is the latter.
Why Annual Performance Reviews Fail
To me, the primary reason that annual performance reviews fail is their focus on individual performance. In my consulting work, it isn’t unusual for a congregation to explain that they have gone through multiple Christian educators without realizing their goal of improving the quality of their Christian education program. While they may have made bad hiring decisions, it is as likely that the problem isn’t in the individual educator but in the internal dynamics of the education ministry.
A second reason annual performance reviews don’t work is a lack of willpower to enforce the results. Congregations typically will tell a pastor or other staff member to do this or that during the course of an annual review. When “this or that” doesn’t happen during the next year, the people doing the annual performance review rarely even comment on failures to perform on stated goals.
Congregations are not alone in this failure to hold people accountable. A recent poll of the federal government agencies revealed that, “Perhaps the most startling finding was that 70 percent of respondents felt that underperforming non-managers were rarely or never dismissed or reassigned. And 64 percent felt action was rarely or never taken for underperforming managers, either.” Annual reviews are painful rituals with little observable impact on performance.
A Better Way
So if we drop annual performance reviews, what do we put in their place? First, we focus on the performance of the congregation, not the performance of individuals or committees. As we do so, staff will be viewed through a different, larger lens. It becomes less personal and more about the congregation accomplishing its mission. Of course, if dysfunctional staff can’t improve their performance in helping the system to accomplish its goals, they will need to improve or move on. But the issue will be the performance of the congregation in meetings its goal, not a staff member per se.
Second, we trust the people we hire. Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme says, “The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating. It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure.” He says the old system of individual performance reviews is focused on performance in the past while he wants to position his employees to do well going forward. I would add that the old system is rooted in control while newer management systems are working to unleash individual and group creativity.
In a performance-driven congregation, the head of staff and governing body will focus on whether or not the congregation is accomplishing its stated goals (Hopefully, there are stated goals.). This focus won’t be on once-a-year reviews. It will happen every day, week, and month. Heads of staff will continually coach staff, boards, committees and teams. A key part of coaching is ongoing evaluation of where performance can be improved.
I am confident that Jesus didn’t do annual performance reviews of his individual disciples. Instead, as they gathered every night for dinner after a long day of work, my guess is that Jesus asked, “How are we doing? Did we make progress today on the things we want to achieve? If not, why not? James, how is your work going? What do you need from the rest of us to make it happen?” It is an exhausting process to monitor performance every day. However, I just don’t see any other way to do it.
I am convinced that annual performance reviews have failed to increase our ability to do the ministry we are called by God to perform. We can’t evaluate performance once a year. We need to evaluate it daily.
John Wimberly is the author of the new Alban book Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things Done. He is part of The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, as a network of independent consultants. This article appeared in the CCG publication, Perspectives.