One of the most frequent questions I get is, “You say that we must do a better job of evaluating clergy effectiveness. How is it possible to define ‘effectiveness’”

I believe that those of us who are charged with the ministry of administration must get better at evaluating and rewarding clergy effectiveness. Thus the book that was read by the Cabinet, Marcus Burkingham and Curt Coffman,First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster, 1999, the Gallup Organization), stimulated our thinking. One of the most important responsibilities of managers (read: District Superintendents) is to evaluate performance. Here are some of my notes from the book:

Managers make a mistake to believe that some outcomes defy definition.

A manager wants to turn talent into performance: There must be accuracy, standards must rule, don’t let the creed overshadow the message.

Focus upon each person’s strengths, work around his weaknesses, and don’t try to perfect them. Conventional wisdom says that “you can be anything you choose to be, there is a real you awaiting to be discovered and developed, within you.” This conventional wisdom is wrong. Conventional wisdom then says to identify your weaknesses and fix them. You can waste a lot of precious time on this. A bad relationship is not one in which your partner does not know you, it is one in which your partner knows you quite well and wishes you were utterly otherwise. The less effective manager believes that he or she is a mentor. This means that he is constantly in the role of a critic, a rearranger. Great managers help an employee to identify talents and then to develop those talents. They manage by exception. They spend most of their time with their best people.

Managers identify talents by watching an employee’s behavior over time. They want to manage the talents, to the requirements of the role. An aggressive person is matched to a role that requires someone who lights a fire.

We must manage by exception. Beware of all application of rules. Treat each employee according to his or her needs. New managers invest in their best. They spend most of their time with their best people. If you spend too much time with your strugglers, it is a sign that you are into control, rather than coaching and teaching. The manager’s best role is that of a catalyst, turning talent into productivity. Try to figure out better ways to unleash the distinctive talents of the person.

What about fairness? Fairness does not mean treating everyone the same. The better performance, the more time the manger spends with that person. This becomes an incentive. You cannot learn about excellence by studying failure. Be as good about describing excellence as you are about describing failure. Observe your best people and learn!

Poor performance must be confronted, directly and quickly. Sometimes there is poor performance because of “mechanical causes” – the employee lacks certain tools to get the job done. Personal causes are also a problem. Both are difficult to solve. Some performance problems are more difficult to identify and rectify.

Is the performance problem trainable? Once a weakness is perceived in an employee there are only three possible courses of action: Devise a support system, find a complimentary partner, or find a different role. Manage around the weakness so the employee can focus on his or her strengths.

You succeed by trying to capitalize on who you are, not by trying to fix who you aren’t.

The Peter Principle.We promote someone up to their level of incompetence. The Peter Principle believes that the way to reward someone for good performance in a role is to promote them out of that role! Every signal we send tells the employee not to stay in the same role too long. It doesn’t look good on the resume. Keep taking the “next step” this is the way you “get ahead,” and “get respect.” Sooner or later he steps into the wrong role. He can’t go back without great humiliation.

This system is built on false assumptions: Each rung on the ladder represents a slightly more complicated version of the previous rung, it creates conflict by limiting prestige to the next rung, what about alternative career paths. Create meaningful prestige on every rung of excellence. It assumes that varied experiences might make the employee more attractive.

Excellence in each role this requires a distinct set of talents. Good performance in one role does not guarantee good performance in another. Talents must not be confused with skill. The notion that “higher is better” is a damaging distraction. Legions of employees trying to scramble on to increasingly smaller rungs.

Create heroes in every role. Make every role a model. Anyone performing in an excellent way needs to be publicly recognized. There must be graded levels of achievement.

(I think this is a major challenge for our church. Too often we think that the only way to award effectiveness and achievement is to move effective clergy to bigger churches and higher salaries. But our closed appointment system is limited in its ability to ‘advance’ everyone. We have got to create incentives and rewards at every level of clergy deployment.)

The most effective people are those who look in the mirror at themselves, discover their talents, and learn to match those talents to their role. They are not those who look to the organization, climbing up the ladder, give them their job satisfaction.

The employee is the star. It is up to the employee to take charge of his or her life and career, make choices accordingly, and find the sources of satisfaction. The manager can’t do this.

(I fear that our system sometimes encourages clergy to think of the District Superintendent as the key to ‘advancement’ and job satisfaction, rather than satisfaction being a gift of God and a gift of knowing that you are doing God’s work wherever you are serving.)

Prestige must be spread throughout the organization. Therefore the employee is more free to pick roles that will bring lasting satisfaction.

Performance feedback sessions are important. These help the employee think about style, about talents and non-talents. There should be four of these a year. If you can’t do four a year, you have too many employees! It is important that some time alone be spend with each of your people.

People should be evaluated on the basis of performance outcomes.

Removing an employee from a role is one of the hardest of jobs. We need to get to know our employees, to risk friendship. It is hard to give bad news to a friend, but friendship is a good way to really get to know someone. There must be an uncompromising focus upon excellence, with a genuine need to care. Tough love.

Any performance is unacceptable which merely hovers around the average with no movement forward. The notion of talent frees the manager from blaming poor performance on the employee. Not all behaviors can be changed. Not all poor performance is the employee’s fault, due to laziness or lack of engagement. It is a matter of miscasting.

“This isn’t a fit for you, let’s talk about why.” Or, “You need to find a role that better matches your talents.”

“To care” means to set the person up for success. This is how firing can be a caring act.

Each human being is different, and those differences are the power that can be harnessed in an organization, and the manager is the means of doing it.

– Notes by Will Willimon


  1. Rev. Willimon-Thanks for posting your notes on this subject! I saw Buckingham at Catalyst Conference in Atlanta last October, and blogged some of my notes from his presentation. As a result, I took some good-natured flak from readers and friends, on the issue of business models’ (ir)relevance to church leadership. I think we can take solid cues from business gurus such as Buckingham. Everything in moderation, though. I’d venture to say that those who oppose any integration whatsoever of “corporate world” leadership principles are simply reacting to past overexposure to –or to much emphasis placed on– ideas like those that Buckingham et al propose.P.S. I’m a huge fan of your Pastor reader!


  2. As I am discerning my call to ministry and running into some obstacles, this piece you have posted is reassuring. Not all paths to service are linear and straight forward. It would be so simple if they were, but alas. Thank you for sharing this wisdom. I was blessed and will be sending this on to others.


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