20 Questions You Should Ask to See If Your Minister Is Any Good

By Derek Penwell

If you ask most churchgoers whether their minister does a good job or not, they will fall all over themselves to give you an opinion. Good or bad, they make judgments about the service their pastor renders (or, if you ask the right folks, fails to render).

What you won’t get, if you ask most parishioners about ministerial job performance, is hesitation. Saint or scoundrel, brilliant leader or incompetent dolt. What you won’t get is, “Hmmm, I don’t know.”

Whence comes all this certainty about ministerial competence? How did everyone get to be so confident about their ability to evaluate pastoral performance?

In what follows, I would like to help begin a conversation about what good ministry looks like, and then to provide a series of questions that I believe will help people to identify it in their own context.

Let me see if I can come at this in a roundabout way. In the philosophical discipline of aesthetics there is an important distinction between aesthetic judgment and matters of personal taste. That is to say, there is an aesthetic distinction between saying, “Virginia Woolf is a superior writer to Danielle Steele,” and “Coke is better than Pepsi.” The former is supportable as an argument by reference to a series of aesthetic and literary criteria about what makes good literature (which are always being argued about themselves), while the latter is understood to be an assertion of personal preference.

Declaring that there are standards by which to judge something as seemingly nebulous as art strikes many Americans as elitist. This is where we get the “Who’s to say?” argument: “Who’s to say anime isn’t an art form?” or “Who’s to say Steven Seagal isn’t as good an actor as Marlon Brando?” But those are arguments that can be had, as I say, by referring to generally acknowledged (though not always uncontroversial) standards about art.

Disagreements about Coke versus Pepsi, on the other hand, aren’t arguments at all, but rather assertions of personal preference, which, if carried on long enough, inevitably devolve to “Is not!” “Is too!”

Consequently, if you need to evaluate something, standards must be in place. You can argue about the standards, but if critical judgments are to be made that rise above purely subjective predilections and fancies, you have to agree in advance what those standards are.

And in order to know what the standards ought to be, you need to have a clear understanding of the purpose of a thing. A Seiko watch is perfectly serviceable if what you want it for is keeping time. It’s going to be a severe disappointment as a shovel, though.

I say all this because, while there is no dearth of opinion about ministers and their vocational aptitude, I fear there is a frightening lack of understanding about what makes a good minister good and a bad minister bad. So, I want to propose some criteria for evaluating ministers.

Now, someone will likely object that we shouldn’t be judging ministers at all, since judgment is exactly what turns people off about the church. I would point out two things: 1) I’m not talking about judging ministers as human beings; I’m talking about evaluating their job performance, and 2) people are already engaged in judging ministers; I’m just proposing some standards that allow for an argument, instead of the easier, but extraordinarily unilluminating practice of evaluating ministers, based on nothing more substantial than whether or not they say “Hi!” in the narthex in a satisfying enough way.1

I would like to begin by suggesting that the purpose of ministry in the church is to equip followers of Jesus for the reign of God.  Therefore, the focus of ministry ought rightly to be on those areas that prepare people to be more mature followers of Jesus.  That is to say, not all ministerial activities are created equal—which, of course, is as true for ministers as for ministry programming in the church.

And so, I’ve identified those areas that, I would argue (yes, as in, “argue”), help give us the fullest picture of what good ministry looks like as it seeks to accomplish its purposes. What follows is a series of questions that, I hope, will help to clarify how ministry might more effectively be evaluated.

The Minister as Example

If ministry involves helping to lead others to a more mature expression of faith, the most crucial area of ministerial expertise and performance ought to be that of model.  In other words, ministers ought to be evaluated first and foremost by whether they actually seek to live like Jesus said to live.

  1. Does the minister model the attributes of discipleship that the church wishes to inculcate in its members?
  2. Is the minister’s life one the church feels good about holding up as an example of faithfulness, integrity, and humility for parishioners to emulate?
  3. Can the church say of the minister, “I hope my child grows up to be like her or him?”

The Minister as Theologian

So, living like a grownup follower of Jesus ought to be the broadest context in which ministerial evaluation takes place.

If I’m right about the purpose of ministry being the equipping of followers of Jesus for the reign of God, then taking that as the touchstone for performance evaluation, the next most important area of consideration should be the minister’s ability to reflect theologically on the implications of the practices of faith, and then to be able to articulate those insights for the congregation.  If what the church is about is helping to produce followers of Jesus, ministers need to have an intimate knowledge of what is involved in living out the faith, and then to be able to communicate that knowledge with confidence.  Preaching and teaching, therefore, are arguably the two most important aspects of the senior minister’s job performance up to be evaluated.2

  1. Do the sermons challenge people to deeper demonstrations of discipleship by helping them to understand the implications of worship practices, outreach, education, etc.?
  2. Does the minister have an adequate understanding of the Biblical text and an ability to interpret it in ways that helps people to live out their faith in a modern context?
  3. Is God the focus of worship?
  4. Does the minister offer challenges to follow Jesus that call into question the status quo and current power arrangements?
  5. Is lay leadership in worship encouraged?
  6. Does the minister study and pray?

The Minister as Leader

Understanding that the church is a complex system, leadership by the minister should not be confused with bureaucratic administration.  That is not to say that ministers have no responsibility for helping the church to be good financial stewards by timely payment of its bills, accurate record keeping, and in full compliance with the law, or that ministers should not be burdened with the supervision of staff, or that ministers need not worry about typographical errors on the web site.  Clearly, part of the minister’s task as a leader in the church is to foster an atmosphere that understands and observes good practices with respect to its organizational commitments.  However, the reason that administrative decisions are made in the church is not necessarily because they work, or because that’s “the way we do it in business,” but decisions are made because they are judged to be faithful and because they contribute to the process of equipping followers of Jesus for the reign of God.  Consequently, ministerial leadership requires a theological, and not just a business or managerial, understanding of the larger picture.

The larger picture that concerns the minister, on this reading, requires the skills and abilities to assess congregational systems and to help those systems move forward through, sometimes, difficult transitions.  Good leadership in the church calls for people willing to make difficult decisions regarding faithful practices, and then to stand by them.  And a good leader needs to help the church make those decisions with the knowledge that not everyone will agree.  Also, the minister must understand that she or he will sometimes be wrong—at which point, the good leader needs to be able to acknowledge poor decisions and to seek to make them right, understanding that failure is not only to be expected, but is to be valued as a learning tool.  The minister, then, ought to be evaluated on her or his ability to lead the system through change.  This will be crucial in the coming years.

  1. Is the minister capable of helping the congregation envision a new future by honestly assessing its context, its gifts, its present emotional systems, and its organizational structures?
  2. Does the minister continually help the congregation and its leadership refocus attention on the compelling demands of the Gospel rather than the busy work of maintaining the institution?
  3. Does the minister help the congregation make difficult decisions?
  4. Does the minister seek to enhance the free flow of information through good communication?
  5. Does the minister foster systems of honest, open, and loving communication among the staff and the congregation?

Consequently, if a good understanding of organizational systems is necessary for ministerial leadership, also crucial to the minister’s skill set is the ability to identify, recruit, and develop new leadership in the church.  Given the fact that churches are dynamic systems with constant changes in membership composition, as well as the fact that ministry emphases are continually changing, developing new leadership in the church is consistent with the goal of equipping followers of Jesus for the reign of God.  Leadership development is the natural byproduct of preparing people for the hard work of following Jesus.

  1. Is the minister capable of identifying people with the potential for good leadership?
  2. Does the minister have success in recruiting new leaders and working with them to provide an understanding of the expectations involved in leadership?
  3. Does the minister’s leadership style encourage or inhibit people from taking the initiative in developing and sustaining ministry opportunities?

The Minister as Pastor

In the process of equipping followers of Jesus for the reign of God, the minister is necessarily called upon to embody the love present in the gospel to people—within the congregation and without.  Perhaps, just as importantly, the minister is responsible for helping to teach the congregation how it is called upon to embody that love.  Good leadership requires that the pastor not only be capable of offering pastoral care on behalf of the congregation, but that the pastor take the necessary steps to multiply the scope and breadth of the pastoral ministry by training people to do the ministry of the church.

  1. Does the minister care for the critical pastoral needs of the congregation?
  2. Does the minister seek to give people in the congregation the necessary resources to carry out the bulk of the pastoral ministry of the church?
  3. Does the minister help persons to develop a spiritual life that relates to their faith?

Ministers need to be evaluated.  However, they need to be evaluated within a particular context.  Therefore, there must be some nuanced understanding of the purpose and end of the task of parish ministry in order properly to evaluate whether it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.  Whether the minister is nice, whether the minister is ultimately likable takes a back seat to the question of whether or not the minister does the job a minister ought to do.

What do you think?

  1. DISCLAIMER: This is a reflection on preaching ministry—since that’s what I do.  A contribution from from those whose ministries include areas of responsibility like education, shepherding, chaplaincy, worship, and so on, would be extremely valuable. ↩
  2. And please understand, I don’t mean preaching and teaching as entertainment. Being funny and clever is a bonus, not the focus. ↩