94. Assessment as a Spiritual Discipline for Boards

Commonly we think of spiritual disciplines as individual pursuits such as prayer, meditation upon Scripture, fasting, or penitence. However, obedience to the mission and mandate of Jesus Christ forms a fundamentally important aspect of spiritual discipline, without which none of the other “exercises” have any significance. Further, Christians working together in ministry teams have the opportunity and responsibility to experience and express spiritual disciplines collaboratively. If we think of a spiritual discipline as essentially attention paid to the instructions of Jesus such that we follow him obediently and take seriously our relationship with him, then all aspects of our lives can be perceived as a cluster of spiritual disciplines as we live with deliberate “consciousness of God.”

A significant part of a church board’s governance and stewardship lies in designing, implementing and sustaining assessment processes. In other words, the board seeks to determine whether or not the goals established are in fact being achieved. Are the anticipated and desired results actually occurring? Because goals within a church context frequently are ‘soft’ goals, i.e. hard to quantify (e.g. is a person a better disciple this year than last year because of the congregation’s ministries?), church boards tend to avoid assessment. It is too hard, too time-consuming, and too authoritarian. It is difficult to discern what to measure and then to figure out how to measure it. The board’s agenda is filled with many other significant issues and the personnel, both paid and volunteer, are already overworked. As well, requiring assessment and accountability within a faith community appears to be “unspiritual,” after all God is the One Who judges our work, it is claimed. So there are definite challenges to implementing good assessment processes that church boards have to face and wisely overcome.

If as chairperson of a church board you desire to help the board members exercise the spiritual discipline of assessment, where do you begin? I would suggest the first step is to guide the board in an examination of the scriptural teaching about accountability and assessment. For example, when Jesus sends out the Twelve in teams of two to extend his mission throughout Israel, they give an account of what they did upon their return. In several of his parables Jesus compares himself or God to the owner of an estate or the ruler of a kingdom, who requires his servants to give account of their work. Paul seems to regard himself as accountable to the Antioch church because he gives these Christians a report of his work during his first missionary journey. In his letters to TImothy and Titus Paul urges certain actions and expects positive response because they are accountable to him. A biblical and theological justification for assessment of ministries is available within Scripture. More broadly the responsibility to steward the resources God provides is perhaps the most significant element in this.

A church board requires different kinds of assessments. In the financial area assessment is accomplished through annual audit or financial review. Monthly or quarterly statements with evaluation of the financial condition of the congregation provide another mode by which to assess the financial health of the congregation. Employee assessment or performance review, done annually, forms another important category. Although the board should only be involved directly in the annual performance review of the lead pastor, policy should require that the lead pastor ensure that all employees are evaluated annually, with report provided to the board demonstrating compliance. The goal here is not to create grounds for dismissal, but to discern ways by which to encourage employees and improve their capacity and competence to serve God and the congregation well. Thirdly, there will facility assessments that have to be conducted to ensure safety, to discern the appropriate focus for maintenance, to develop plans for facility improvement, etc. These three kinds of assessment are normal and expected in most church board contexts.

Two other kinds of assessment prove more challenging. One is discerning the spiritual health of the congregation. Determining what measures will enable the church board to perceive progress or lack of progress in the spiritual condition of the congregation is a contentious question. Some quantitative measurements can be defined rather quickly, e.g. number of baptisms, number of members, number of people in church on Sunday morning, size of offerings, etc.). However, most boards will not regard such measurements as a sure indication of spiritual health. Factors external to the congregation can seriously affect each of these measurements (e.g. the closure of a major industry in a small town). Conversely, these numbers do reveal something about the state of the congregation and so they need to be tracked consistently, even as important data to help in strategic planning. It is the qualitative side of the equation that proves much more challenging. Are people praying more, able to interpret Scripture with greater skill, making better ethical decisions, loving other people more deeply, sharing their faith more boldly, understanding their spiritual giftedness and vocation, etc.? Difficult though it may be, in most of these areas some data can be gathered to gain a rough sense of achievement or non-achievement of goals that are set.

The other difficult aspect of assessment is the evaluation of programs or ‘ministries.’ It is tough in a board meeting even to ask whether or not a ministry or program is really contributing to the advancement of the mission. Significant resources are often being expended on ‘traditional’ activities which no longer advance the mission as once they did, but no one has the heart or courage to challenge their continuance, at least in their present form. It would be too upsetting for the congregation because those leading these programs exercise considerable influence and may even be members of the board or relatives. The only way to move towards implementing some kind of periodic assessment is through a policy decision on the part of the board. Some discussion with current ministry leaders would be advisable during the process to explain the reasons for this and gain their input on what a fair, manageable and helpful process might be. Gaining their ownership at the start will be important in successful implementation. Develop a schedule whereby one key ministry/program annually prepares an evaluation, with recommendations for improvement — and select the first program for assessment one whose leader is very supportive of the new policy. It will take a while to develop the process. People will be watching what the board does with the report. Are the recommendations acted upon or not? Does  the report just get shelved? Is it given due attention? How the board treats the report will either be motivating or de-motivating for other program leaders. Remember that in many cases volunteers are leading these ministries.

The board has opportunity to help itself implement good program evaluation as it reviews proposals for the initiation of new programs. At this stage the board can insist that the proposal include measurable outcomes that demonstrate whether or not the program is fulfilling its vision and is aligned with the congregation’s overall mission and vision. As well, the board can require an assessment report at a certain point as condition for renewal of funding. In other words intentionally design an assessment requirement into each new program.

Assessment is part of the spiritual discipline of telling the truth out loud. It takes courage for a board to call itself to account when no conversions or baptisms have occurred in the congregation in the last three years. What truth needs to be discerned and told in such circumstances? Assessment is also linked essentially with a spiritual disposition to accept change under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. If we cannot admit failure in the context of our relationship with Jesus and other believers, then how will we mature in our faith? If we cannot enjoy the wins that God’s Spirit generates through the board, the pastoral staff and the congregation, then what will fuel our praise of God?


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