aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Helping congregations through proper evaluation

As I was nearing the end of my coursework for my PhD, the School of Education at ISU was going through its re-accreditation process for its graduate programs. Each program had to be evaluated separately. A review team from the accrediting agency would visit to go over our submissions. What surprised me is that the accreditation was criterion-referenced. In a field jammed with buzzwords and self-promotion and theory, expectations were clear and concrete.

In that, it jibed with the way BSA accredits its summer camps. I was at that time a Regional Visitation Specialist (we don't call them "inspectors" any more) for BSA. Every summer, I was part of a team that visited one or two summer camps. Our process was criterion-referenced. Every camp knew well in advance what it was to be evaluated on. The accreditation process culminated in an on-site walk-through and an examination of paperwork.

BSA Camps are evaluated by means of a list of Standards. These Standards cover facilities, emergency procedures, staff credentials, food service, every program area's operations, etc. Some Standards are labeled Mandatory. Others are optional; not every camp has the same program opportunities, or should. Every Standard is Yes or No: either you have it, or you don't. There is little room for judgment (which means little room for prejudice on the part of the Visitation Team, and little room for weaseling or self-promotion on the part of the Council). To be fully accredited, you have to pass all the Mandatory Standards, and 75% of the entire list of Standards. If you pass all the Mandatory Standards, but not 75% of the entire list, you are conditionally accredited, and you will have to undertake corrective action. If you fail a Mandatory Standard, that program or service area described in that standard may be closed; certain Mandatory Standards describe conditions so essential to camp that failing them could mean the entire camp is closed. This is extremely rare, since the process is very fair and well understood.

Anyway, shortly after my return to the pastorate, there was a lot of noise being made in the Conference over evaluation of churches and clergy. And what I noticed was that the means of evaluation being used were completely inappropriate. Terms were unclear, consequences unclear. Buzzwords were everywhere; everything was a matter of interpretation, and interpretation was left to the higher-ups. Fear was rampant.

The great problem with evaluating churches and clergy is that both are masters of bullshit. Whatever we're doing, we can make a plausible argument that we're succeeding at it, even though it's obvious we are in a state of decline. We are masters of words, and we use words to justify ourselves. Well, so are college professors, which is why college accreditation processes use criterion-referenced systems instead of buzzwords to evaluate doctoral programs. And it's why BSA uses criterion-referenced systems to accredit its camps.

I wrote up an entire set of Congregational Standards and a program of church visitation that I thought would be a basis for discussion and sent it to our Conference COM Director. And there it died.

I still think that proper supervision of churches would be enhanced by such a system. It would begin with Check Day, when we file our annual stats. The congregation begins addressing its performance on the Standards with these stats. All the work areas of the congregation begin reviewing the things within their responsibility as well. An on-site visit by a 2-3 person team of laity assigned by the District Lay Leader would attend worship, tour the facilities, and give feedback to the Church Council. After the visit, a letter describing the visit and putting suggested actions in writing would be sent.

This spring visit would become part of the normal rhythm of congregational administration. And where deficiencies are noted -- especially where a Mandatory Standard has been failed -- corrective action would be required. The DS would follow up to see how he could be helpful. And the results of the spring Visitation would be on the agenda for the fall Charge Conference. (This assumes, of course, that we're doing real Charge Conferences.) If no progress had been made on the deficiency, then other help would be offered and perhaps certain interventions would be required. The object would always be to return the congregation to its proper functioning.

A criterion-referenced evaluation program assumes that all churches are real churches and every church can succeed. Expectations are clear and concrete and scaled to the size of the congregation. You don't have to score 100%. Nobody does. But you have to do all the mandatory things and a significant percentage of the total number of things expected of churches. And you can't say that the hierarchy had a down on you: the Standards were reasonable, and you had them in your hands all along. Either you delivered, or you didn't. And until everybody acknowledges that reality, playing buzzword bingo won't get us anywhere.

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