There is often lacking any avenue through which the pastor receives meaningful and positive feedback in his labors. A pastor can go for long periods of time without any positive feedback. But pastors need positive reinforcement and feedback just like anyone else. An appreciated pastor is a thankful pastor, and a thankful pastor is driven pastor in his service of the people. Conversely, an unappreciated pastor will struggle with discouragement and motivation in his calling. Pastors need to be encouraged and strengthened by other godly men. Encouragement from God’s elders is motivating and energizing, especially since it often feels like pastoral labor is accomplishing so little. Positive feedback is essential to promoting the growth of a pastor.
Pastors often receive negative feedback at the worst times and in the wrong places. Elders are generally unaware of how harmful such interaction is to the pastor’s relationship with the congregation. Pinned up frustrations are often expressed in times of conflict. When critique comes improperly, such as during the handshake line after a service, or over an angry phone call, over time, a certain measure of separation between the pastor and the congregation begins to build, especially if there are growing pockets of dissatisfaction with his work. If the critique is aimed at the heart of his calling, the preaching of the word, such improper responses can have devastating effects on his personal and family life. It should also be noted that in many circumstances, congregants who complain against the pastor do so because they feel little is happening by way of elder oversight of the pastor. This too encourages critique of the pastor by members at the most unhelpful and inopportune of circumstances.
Anyone familiar with the trajectory of pastoral dissolutions (a sad but increasingly common occurrence), will find classis and synodical officers often trying to pick up the pieces after a long protracted struggle in the local church. It is nearly impossible to resolve the conflict when broader assemblies are trying to intervene at the end of the process. Something went wrong along the way. Little or nothing was in place to positively address the beginnings of the problem. As the problem festered until reaching a point of no return, pastoral dissolution was the last and only remedy.
In almost all of these circumstances, elders feel that the situation quickly spiraled out of control. It was generally late into this process, beyond breaking points, seeing the inevitably of division in life of the church, that elders began to intervene and assess the pastor’s ministry. But this is unfair to all parties involved, especially the pastor. Leaving the pastor to his own navigation, helping him only when the waters turn rough can be compared to the men with the binoculars who yelled to the captain moments before the Titanic struck the iceburg. A lot could have been done to early prevent what turned out to be the greatest of nautical disasters.
Consideration of the different states of pastoral ministry will help to make a case for its necessity in the early seasons of his ministry. While not every pastor’s ministry looks identical to the following breakdown, nor can these be delineated too precisely, still, in general, the following breakdown may help elders understand what is happening in the pastoral ministry and where it would be best to implement the review.
1. The First Season: Honeymoon The honeymoon is often an exciting season of church life. Though circumstances will vary due to previous pastorates, in general the people are excited about receiving their new pastor. It’s a fresh start for the church. The pastor can often do little wrong in this period. It’s a time of up building and establishing the new relationship. Expectations are often set high.
2. The Second Season: Building In this season the pastor and congregation have come to know each other, understanding and generally accepting the clear direction of the pastor’s ministry. The high expectations of the honeymoon stage are often brought to ordinary levels as the pastor and congregation move forward with the normal life of Christian ministry.
3. The Third Season: Adversity, Conflict, & Testing Seasons of conflict in the life of a congregation are inevitable. The devil, the world, and our flesh are active in disrupting the peace of Christ’s church. Pastors often become tired and weary in these seasons of conflict. Whatever the conflict may be, one of the most destructive occurrences in church life during these seasons is a weakening of the pastor/congregation relationship. Trust between the two can be lost and the pulpit ministry weakened. The spiritual health of the pastor and congregation is a crucial factor in how the church will go forward through the conflict. Preventative measures that have already been put in place and practiced will have a lightening effect upon the severity of the conflict.
4. The Fourth Season: Strengthening God’s Word teaches us that endurance through seasons of trial and adversity has a fruit bearing effect in the life of the congregation. A congregation that glorifies God through today’s trial will bear the fruits of righteousness to the strengthening of the church. The season following conflict is often one of the best fruit yielding times that a congregation will enjoy. If the pastor endures the conflict well, this has a strengthening effect in the bond that a pastor has with his congregation, trust and love between the two are furthered.
5. The Fifth Season: Reassessment Sadly, many pastors never make it through the seasons of conflict. The number one reason pastors exit the ministry is burn out due to conflict. But a pastor who has enjoyed a season of strengthening in his current ministry will come to a point when it is necessary to consider another call to pastor elsewhere. Through this process he will prayerfully determine whether God is calling him to another congregation or remain in his current calling with renewed focus.
Critique of the pastor’s work often comes in seasons of adversity and conflict as outlined above. To begin the pastoral evaluation in the heat of conflict often results in overreaction, further exacerbating the situation. For instance, as stated above, T David Gordon writes, “ministers don’t want to be told that their preaching is disorganized, hard to follow, irrelevant, and poorly reasoned.” Fair enough. But do we really want to say that to our pastors in the heart of adversity and conflict? Is it fair for an elder to address what he knows has been a problem only because the matter is now breaking open in the congregation? That is grossly unfair to the pastor and congregation. This can have terrible effects on the pastor and his pulpit ministry. At this point, the intervention is too late.
Evaluation of the pastor’s ministry in the heart of conflict is almost always viewed punitively. This rarely goes well.
What I am arguing for, therefore, is a process of review that has already been established outside the third season of conflict. Elders need to have some sense of what is happening in the course of their pastor’s ministry. Ideally, the pastoral evaluation should be established during in the honeymoon process or in seasons of momentum in the ministry and on a yearly basis. When established early in the pastoral ministry a platform has already been created to address future problems in a non-threatening way and to the benefit of the whole church. Whenever the process is implemented, the pastor must believe motivations are sincere and the process is being implemented in the spirit of love for the good of Christ and his church. This kind of proactive care in the shepherding of the pastor will promote a healthy reception of his ministry in the life of the congregation.
Editor’s Note: This section is adapted from “How to Evaluate Your Pastor” in Faithful and Fruitful: Essays for Elders and Deacons, edited by William Boekestein and Steven Swets, which along with a free printable sample pastoral review form is available here: https://www.reformedfellowship.net/faithful-and-fruitful