My first ever Charge Conference was the one that recommended me for candidacy, way back in 1974. I remember the District Superintendent sitting behind a table set up in the front of the sanctuary. On one side of him sat our pastor, shuffling the many reports to be presented and considered. On the other side sat the Charge Conference Secretary, taking minutes. The DS asked if there were any Certified Lay Speakers to be certified. The pastor said “No.” The DS replied, “Why not?” There was an awkward moment as the pastor looked flustered and tried to come up with an answer. The DS was smiling – he was just yanking the pastor’s chain. But I always thought that was an important moment.
We have no Lay Speakers to recommend. Why not? We have not taken in any new members, by either profession of faith or transfer. Why NOT? We have no new discipleship groups or Sunday School classes this year. Why NOT? There may be reasonable excuses for not doing this or that. But the question is not rhetorical, it Is real. The congregation must be made to confront its deficit and begin to account for it. To bury the question in a mere paper chase, as we have done – or to substitute some silly rally for Conference programs in place of face-to-face accountability, as we have more recently done – is to treat that question as unimportant.
So, how do we hold congregations accountable for the things we expect of them? Years ago, I gave a lot of consideration to that. I was the student rep to the Graduate Council at ISU while working on my doctorate when the School of Education (in which I was also a student) was going through its periodic accreditation review. I didn’t observe the entire process, but I noted that there was a tour and interview, and the final review was accomplished by using a criterion-based questionnaire.
Now, I had been for several years a Camp Visitation Specialist for the Boy Scouts. Every spring, each Council operating a camp had to do a bunch of preparatory work before opening the camp for the summer. And during the first week of operations, a team of trained visitors from outside the Council would come and inspect the reports assembled by the Council, tour the camp in operation, and interview the Director. A criterion-based scoresheet was filled out, upon which there were two kinds of items: mandatory standards (often critical safety and management features) and ordinary standards. In order to get an ‘A’ rating, the camp had to meet 100% of the mandatory standards and 75% of the whole number of standards. In order to get a ‘B’ rating, the camp had to meet 100% of the mandatory standards, which opened up a conversation about how the camp could improve. If any mandatory standards were failed, the best the camp could hope for would be a ‘C’ rating (conditional approval), and if any of those mandatory standards were concerned with health and safety, the visitation team could close any area of camp down until they had been corrected – or even close the camp entirely. After the visitation, the team leader would send a written report to the Council. After noting all the positive things, there might still be, even for camps that had achieved an ‘A’ rating, suggestions for improvement in the future.
The Conference I was a clergy member of had wrestled with evaluation for years. Several schemes for evaluating both clergy and congregations were proposed, most using resources with squishy management language, like Callahan’s Twelve Keys or collections of other buzzwords. Each time we were told that these evaluations would have teeth. Each time they were resolutely resisted by both clergy and congregations. Why? Because the managementese in which they were written scared people. Those who didn’t understand the buzzwords feared they would be used to penalize them. And, of course, the trust deficit that arises from the same people doing the evaluating and the hiring/firing/moving/closing couldn’t be got around. Meanwhile, those that did understand the buzzwords were all for their use in evaluation, since they could use their managementese to justify whatever they were doing in order to qualify as a well-performing clergyperson or congregation. So each new, proposed scheme fell to the ground. Accountability languished.
As one who had been involved more or less intimately with two very successful criterion-based systems for evaluating organizations and programs rather similar to the church (university programs and summer camps), I suggested we should borrow the system employed by these organizations. I wrote up an entire set of proposed standards (both mandatory and ordinary) and sent them to our Conference Council Director. Along with them, I sent a proposal to put the actual evaluation of congregations into the hands of the laity. Each spring, the church would be visited by a team from other churches in the district, which would attend worship, look at records and maintenance paperwork, and interview congregational leaders. They would then issue a report, either giving the church an unconditional accreditation, or a conditional one. If they identified serious issues – such as, lack of professions of faith or poor records or whatever it might be, they could require that the congregation create a plan to address their deficit and give at least preliminary results by the fall Charge Conference. At Charge Conference, the DS would not only preside over a review of all the performance of the congregation, but would also specifically take up the question of what had been done about the failed mandatory standards. If more improvement were needed, the DS would give them a year to correct it, with district leadership help; if after a year, the problem hadn’t been corrected, the church would be placed on probation. At some point, the church might even risk being closed.
Well, as I say, I sent all this off to the Conference High Poo-bah, who did not dignify it with a reply. I still think I’m right.
Under a criterion-based system, everyone knows what is expected of the congregation. Everyone knows how the evaluation will be scored. Real successes are celebrated. Real problems are addressed and not left to fester. Real consequences for poor performance ensue. No squishy managementese, no higher clergy’s suspected vendetta, no unfairness. Just the facts, sitting there staring everybody in the face.
This sort of approach is not meant to create winners and losers, but winners all round. And it can be administered with kindness as well as firmness. The last time I led a team of Camp Visitors, we were taking a tour of the camp. When we visited the Health Lodge (first stop), I noted that the temperature chart on the refrigerator in which medicines might be kept had not been filled out. (Hot and cold units are supposed to be checked several times a day and the temperatures and times noted contemporaneously.) We went on to the Kitchen, and there, too, not a single hot water or freezer/cooler temp chart had a speck of ink on it. The camp had been operating for almost ten days by this point, and nobody had checked to make sure that temps were proper even once. We mentioned this to the kitchen crew, and went on. The rest of camp was wonderful, and to be fair, the Health Lodge and Kitchen were doing good work, too. But maintaining hot and cold charts was a mandatory standard. To be completely fair, we stopped and re-checked both the Kitchen and the Health Lodge, both of whom had been warned. They still had not checked temps and written anything on their charts. It was as if we had wasted our gentle admonitions.
When we sat down to complete the interview, I turned to the Area Director (the professional Scouter who accompanied us, but was not technically part of our team). I noted that they had failed a mandatory standard that affected the health and safety of everyone in camp. Afraid of what I was about to say, I nevertheless asked, “Do we close the camp?” There was a stunned pause, and a very careful discussion began over how mandatory “mandatory” was. I watched the Council Scout Executive behind the office counter saying nothing, but turning redder and redder. Finally, the Area Director said, “I’ll see it corrected before I leave.” We passed them on it. That allowed the CSE and his boss, the AD, to handle the delicacies involved. I would not have wanted to be the Camp Director who had to hear the results from his CSE, though. Later on, I became good friends with that CSE, and looking back on the episode, the thing that most exasperated him was, “They didn’t even have the brains to LIE” and backfill the charts before we had got there. We had a good laugh over that.
Anyway, I still recommend that we create a criterion-based system for accountability of congregations in the New & Improved Methodist Church, administered in a two-stroke rhythm between spring visitation and fall Charge Conference, led by trained laity with no axe to grind.