A guest post from New Testament professor Scot McKnight
In the nearly four decades that I’ve been a professor, one of the last assignments of every class I’ve taught has been the student evaluation. What I learned from those evaluations during my first few years of teaching revealed not only my strengths but also my weaknesses.
I learned, for instance, that I was organized and passionate and had a good sense of humor. But I also learned that I wasn’t pastoral enough, that I had a tendency to talk too fast, and that I relied too much on my notes. (Thank God there was no such thing as PowerPoint yet. I might have gotten stuck in that rut.)
I was fortunate enough to have had colleagues who patiently encouraged me and helped me grow as an educator. I am a better teacher today because of those assessments. I believe in assessments. I believe it’s better to know than not to know; and it’s better to discover your weaknesses today than to learn about them after you’ve been dismissed.
How churches slip into ruts
Churches can easily slip sideways into the ruts of “what has worked will continue to work” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But times change and what works now will always need some adjustment over time. Often what is deemed “ain’t broke” actually is broken, but leaders may not have the eyes to see it or the ears to hear it. Why? Because a church’s culture is about 90 percent invisible and unstated.
Every congregation needs routine assessments to:
- Discern the health of the church, and
- Map out the path ahead.
The way forward may require some repentance, healing, and change. But how can a church evaluate itself? I recommend a particular tool—one that allows the people of the church to speak and promotes five key virtues.
Assessing your church with the Tov Tool
My daughter Laura and I have developed a self-assessment for churches and Christian institutions, which is called the Tov Tool and is included in our new book, Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture—that is, into a culture of goodness. The tool is not a normed test or a statistical study; instead, it is an assessment guide designed for both personal evaluation and small group discussion, asking questions to facilitate conversations.
The Tov Tool is designed to generate discussion about the six elements of tov that we identified in our previous book, A Church Called Tov. These six topics—empathy, grace, putting people first, truth telling, justice, and service—turn toxicity on its head and reveal the Christian alternative: Christlikeness.
These moral attributes are valuable for any organization and can easily be supplemented with other virtues. Conversely, the marks that identify a toxic church culture include narcissism, power through fear, institution creep, narrative spinning, loyalty to leaders and institutions, and celebrity syndrome.
Letting the people speak
Churches of all types and denominations tend to have top-down organizational charts. Genuine evaluations and assessments provide opportunities for leaders who are not in the inner circle of power and authority to speak. Though many people in a congregation are silent each week as they attend, most genuinely want to be heard; they want to be given a chance to speak; and they want to know they have contributed.
Once a church decides to give voice to a wider circle of leaders in the church, the Tov Tool can be distributed to the entire congregation through small groups. In each setting, conversations can be revealing; they can be opportunities for truth telling; and they can become transformational moments in the culture of a church.
Assessment tools can be unnerving for senior leaders, who are at risk of criticism, and destabilizing for leaders who are outside the inner circle. But apart from honest feedback, how can a church genuinely assess its culture? The truths discovered will prove to be more valuable than maintaining the status quo. But for assessments to be successful, five virtues are needed.
Five virtues to assess the health of your church
The first evaluation session—which is best done simultaneously with the inner circle of leaders and the second level of leaders in the church—must be a frank, pastorally sensitive, and big-hearted conversation about (at least) the following five virtues. Assessments are not opportunities for people to pop off and vent. Such feedback, when needed, should occur in a private, or even one-to-one, session with a trusted person.
For the assessment to work, both the leadership and the congregation will have to be transparent—about themselves, for starters. Personal questions will be asked. Conversations about people’s answers can be affirming of leadership as well as suggestive of areas for improvement.
What matters most for successful assessments is genuine transparency at the first and second levels of leadership. Transparency can help to form a church culture that affirms, reveals, and heals.
Transparency requires safety for the ones answering the questions and for those hearing the answers. Divulging to others what was discussed in the conversation violates the integrity of the group. Such betrayal of confidentiality can be destructive in a church.
Without safety, transparency becomes impossible as participants will become guarded and will quickly resort to spinning stories and speaking half-truths and outright lies.
Along with transparency and safety, another key virtue is listening. Assessments are opportunities for groups to practice the Christian art of listening to one another. Not to judge, not to instruct, but to hear and to be heard.
Christian leaders—and I include myself as a professor and author—have been nurtured in a “telling culture.” We call it preaching and teaching. Listening is different. It requires attentiveness. When appropriate, it calls for follow-up questions and the ability to rehearse what a person has said to the speaker’s satisfaction. Without listening, there is neither transparency nor safety.
Assessments such as the Tov Tool require that those going through the process of filling out the assessment and engaging in conversations exhibit the necessary virtues. It is never appropriate for one person to snitch on another.
A friend of mine learned recently that what she had shared in a small group—in a setting she had been told was safe—went straight to her director. Not long after, the director called her out in front of others for what she said in the small group.
Integrity requires that what is shared in confidence remains in confidence. Of course, other elements of integrity, such as practicing the art of listening and transparency, are needed as well.
A well-designed assessment tool will reveal invisible vices and bad habits in a church. Leaders who lead with the truth as their guideline will develop the skill of listening well enough to discern where the church needs to grow.
Assessments such as the Tov Tool will reveal surprises; and those surprises may require a church’s leadership to adjust its vision, goals, and preaching schedules. A church that thought they were full of empathy or grace may discover they need to repent and lament.
Then they will need to learn what empathy and grace actually are, develop some teaching sessions and some implementation practices, and evaluate themselves again a year later. The surprise may be that the church grows in a new direction, one that would not have been anticipated but for the assessment’s gentle revelation of lurking sins.
The cost of not assessing the health of your church
An unassessed church is a church in a rut. Ruts lead to flat tires and wobbly joints and eventually to a church in need of serious repairs. To discover whether your church is healthy requires that you know what healthy looks like. I believe that empathy, grace, putting people first, truth telling, justice, and service are good places for any church to begin.
Scot McKnight is professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. He is the author of more than ninety books, including A Church Called Tov, the award-winning The Jesus Creed, and The Blue Parakeet. He and his wife, Kristen, live in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Scot’s latest book, Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture, coauthored with Laura Barringer, releases in September from Tyndale Momentum.
Editor’s note: another way to assess the health of your church is to download Gravity’s church diagnostic tool: 4 Questions to Develop Holy Curiosity and Cultivate New Life in Your Congregation.