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Redeeming the priest’s appraisal

04 December 2015

Ministerial reviews can be done in a way that suits the Church, argues Ian Cowley


Not the Church’s way: business-style evaluations can be inappropriate

Not the Church’s way: business-style evaluations can be inappropriate

“NO, PLEASE, not the performance review. . .” was the headline in an article in The Times earlier this year, by Philip Delves Broughton. “What new ‘performance feedback’ hell are they planning?” he asked. The boss of Accenture, Pierre Nanterme, was quoted as saying: “We are not sure that spending all that time in performance management has been yielding such a great outcome.”

It is becoming clear that, in many companies, the annual appraisal system is being re-evaluated. Yet, increasingly, the Church is adopting systems of appraisal and performance indicators for those in ministry. But many of the clergy, including me, are uneasy about some of these developments. We do not want someone constantly measuring our performance on the basis of some centrally approved targets. It may be that we have more to lose than we have to gain by buying into another bit of secular management practice.

The Church’s core work is spirituality, discipleship, and mission. Performance indicators are seldom likely to be appropriate instruments for measuring the fruitfulness of the Holy Spirit. It is not easy — or perhaps even possible — to measure faithfulness in ministry, or depth of prayer, or compassion in pastoral care.

Many leaders recognise that the idea of managing people’s performance against targets or criteria is not appropriate for the Church. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, has written: “Within the Church we are not primarily here to run an organisation, or to manage people’s performance against targets or criteria. We are here to see people formed individually and in community, after the pattern of Christ” (in Developing in Ministry by Neil Evans, SPCK, 2012).


IT MAY be tempting to see the Church as an organisation that needs good management (which it does), and which, therefore, should be run in the same way as any business or secular organisation. Performance indicators can be useful in setting targets, measuring progress, and providing levers of control for managers. But they need to be used with a great deal of care when applied to Christian ministry.

Setting goals based on church attendance, numbers of vocations, or levels of financial giving may look good on paper. But these are blunt instruments that do not take into account many of the factors which inevitably affect church life.

Robert Warren, in The Healthy Churches Handbook (CHP, 2004, 2012), provides what has been, for many, a helpful way of approaching this. He suggests that size is not what matters; small can be beautiful. What matters are the signs of life and health.

Warren lists such criteria as: being energised by faith, having an outward-looking focus, operating as a community, and making room for all. These can be scored from one (low) to six (high). This provides a helpful model for many churches and clergy in reflecting on how they are doing, and in prioritising steps for future development. So the issue is not the need for reflective practice and accountability — it is the way that this is done that matters.


APPRAISAL and ministry review can be very helpful if well done. I have had mixed experience of this in two dioceses in the Church of England. A great deal depends on the person conducting the review. When I was a parish priest, one senior-staff review began with the reviewer asking: “So, tell me, Ian, where is your parish?”

I then spent an hour and a half trying to explain the demands of a tough parish to someone who had little interest in, or understanding of, what I was experiencing.

One of our greatest needs is to be listened to by someone to whom we are accountable, and to be given a sense that someone in leadership cares about, and values, our commitment and service.

Of course, this is also true of other professions. But, in my experience, the clergy particularly often feel that their work is undervalued. Many of us are working under huge demands, hidden away from the centres of diocesan attention.

The cross of Christ continually challenges our culture’s fixation with the visible signs of success. Much of the true ministry of Christ is hidden. It takes place among the poor, the weak, and the broken, and is centred on love and care, not on achievement.


WHEN I served my curacy in the diocese of Sheffield, I was expected to do a great deal of visiting, mainly to elderly and housebound parishioners. I met some remarkable people, full of grace and wisdom, and the presence of Christ was real to me in those visits.

But these were mostly people who did not attend church, who were tucked away in their homes in the back streets. Performance indicators cannot easily make sense of the value of an hour spent with Miss Waddoups.

A vital distinction in ministerial reviews is whether the balance of a given area that is to be assessed is seen primarily as having a management function, or a pastoral function.

If the primary function is managerial, then we have plenty of helpful models from the commercial world that we can usefully deploy. If the primary function is pastoral, we need to develop a different model — or perhaps have no model at all.

There will immediately be people who see this as an attempt by those in such positions to avoid accountability. This is unfair, as each time someone preaches, presides at worship or a meeting, or prays at the bedside of someone at the end of 

life, those who look on are carrying out their own mini-appraisal, and logging the outcome for possible reporting to others, or for future leverage.


THE target-based secular perform­ance review is not likely to work as
a model for “managing” clergy. We used to trust people in ministry to do the work. We must not lose the heart of ministry, which is relation­ship. Good relationships between parish clergy and senior staff are vital for the health of the Church.

In the first 20 years of my ministry, I experienced a different model, which we now seem to have lost. This is how we worked in the Anglican Church in South Africa; and, initially, in the C of E, I was able to continue this practice.

As a parish priest, I would have an annual appointment with my diocesan bishop to talk about the parish and my ministry. These were invariably meetings that I found affirming. I was able to reflect with my bishop on the cure of souls which was both mine and his. He was able to point to areas where he felt that I might be able to learn.

More recently, I have experienced some good ministry reviews with bishops: I was able to raise dif­­ficulties with diocesan structures, besides personal health issues. Of course, this is possible only when there is a relationship of confidence and trust, with no underlying sense that I am simply an employee who needs to be made to work harder.


MANY of us are aware that some of the ways of the world have been introduced to good effect within the Church. With the increased em­­phasis on accountability, assess­ment, and the introduction of key performance indicators, the Church can appear to be using helpful tools to ensure the best stewardship.

The danger for the Church is of moving too far towards collusion, and, in so doing, weakening our capacity to hold before the world a different way of seeing what is important.

The values of the Kingdom of God are radically different from the world of business management and profit. To compromise our core message and mission for a short-term fix would be a calamity for both the Church and the world we seek to serve.


The Revd Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator for the diocese of Salisbury and the author of The Contemplative Minister (BRF, 2015)

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