Meaningful Evaluation

Meaningful evaluation—an oxymoron? Well, maybe not.

Jim Chatham, a retired Presbyterian pastor, told me a story that gives a new angle on evaluation. I wish I had heard the story in earlier days of active leadership.

Jim invited a glass artist, Ken VonRoen to meet with him and some other pastors. The setting: one artist of one medium meeting with other artists of another medium. The conversation included the question of meaningful feedback or evaluation. VonRoen was clear:

I don’t ever let the question, “Do you like it?” be the question used to evaluate my art. No. The question is, “Does my art call you forward to a place where you have not been before? Does it ask you to look at your normal world through different eyes? Does it invite you to a new perspective?” If it does, then I have succeeded! I hope you like my art. I try to design it so you will. But that is not the point.

Upon hearing this story my imagination fired, picturing its application as a pastor.

Parishioner: leaving the worship service saying, “I sure liked your sermon.” Pastor: “Thank you, so much. Could we step aside for a moment (or, more likely, can I call you this afternoon)? I want to hear what you liked and what it meant to you.”

Or, on Monday morning at staff meeting, “Where did our ministry last week, including leading worship yesterday, take us personally to new places in our lives, to new ways of seeing?”

Or, parishioner in a note: “Pastor, during my grief, you meant so much to me. We couldn’t have made it without your words and presence.”

Pastor: calling (not emailing or texting), “Pat, thank you for your gracious note. I treasure as well the time together. Could we talk now or at a later time that suits you? I am curious. What about my words and presence helped you get through that dark time? Also, I would like to share how that time with you, Kathy and Mel, helped me see some new things.”

Or, parishioner or colleague: “I didn’t much like your sermon (or your comment, or what you did).” Pastor: “I’m interested. Tell me more. Where did what I said (or do) take you?

Or, pastor meeting with core leaders at the usually unsatisfying annual evaluation, suggesting, “Let’s talk specifically about where our leadership of the congregation during this year has taken us— perhaps personally or as a leadership team or as a congregation. Are we in new places we have never been before? Are we seeing with new perspectives?

Meaningful evaluation? Yes. Maybe it is possible. But my, what courage and inner security it takes to ask these questions. Do we really want to know?

4 Responses to Meaningful Evaluation

  1. Nancy Sehested says:

    This is a great way to frame the conversation differently. The “like” and “don’t like” evaluations are not useful. This gives us a lens to see from a different perspective. It could even prove transforming for both pastor and parishioners.


  2. Anne Hunter Eidson says:

    This curiosity and engagement shifts the conversation to a place of freedom. Thanks be to God for such wisdom, Mahan.


  3. Michelle McClendon says:

    After serving in a congregation for 3 months that gathers immediately following each worship service to go “deeper” in reflection and conversation on worship, the sermon, the text(s) for the day, I have first hand experience with what this kind of “evaluation” can provide all who choose to participate. Very meaningful, helpful, fascinating, compelling! Thanks!


  4. Mahan, thanks for your blog.
    I also wish I would have known this when I supervised around 30 – 35 hourly employees while working as a senior manager/director of a retirement community. I was required to have annual written evaluations submitted on each of the employees I supervised. The integrity of these “evaluations” was not in place due to what is so often the case in having to write the evaluation based on how the worker was to get an predetermined raise or no raise.
    This placed me in a position of either lying or being strongly corrected by my supervisor and further being personally evaluated insubordinate or worse fired.
    So often management’s leadership is an autocratic style leaving little choice of evaluating workers down the line unfairly by devaluating the true value of the worker’s skills in their performance and placing the supervisor in the role of simply “rubber stamping” the upper management’s predetermined worker’s value and worth (and raise/no raise).
    To be caught-up in this game as an intermediate supervisor is to allow yourself to be manipulated and used. I just don’t understand the upper management of a company operating with this kind of unethical way of management. I guess it all comes down to the company’s profit and power.
    Thanks, Gene W. Moore


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