Performance Evaluations and Sanctification by Grace

The topic of performance evaluations in Christian ministries came up on a website I sometimes read. A robust discussion ensued, and I’ve been thinking about the topic ever since. Occasionally, I feel the need to give some disclaimers about myself, and this post is one of those occasions. First, I am nobody and have no authority. I am literally writing this in my pajamas. Second, I call this blog a lecture to myself. Others are welcome to read and interact, but I don’t write this to lecture you. Just me. If something is helpful to you or makes you think, that’s awesome. With all those disclaimers said, I’m going to give my thoughts on the topic. I think the principles apply well beyond the topic of performance evaluations, so maybe the discussion here will be more relevant to readers than the topic at first seems.

The discussion on performance evaluations in Christian ministry reminded me how easy it is for our theology and our practice to diverge from one another. That was the point of my first book, Practical Theology for Women. What we believe about God and the gospel has to mean something in our daily practices. And I submit that it has to mean something on the topic of rating the effectiveness of staff and leaders in Christian ministries.

The second thing that came to mind in the discussion on performance evaluations is how important it is that we never assume the gospel. I did that some in my first book – assumed that the readers knew the gospel. Life experience between my first book and my second book taught me otherwise, and the Ephesians Bible study, though every bit as practical as my first book, is saturated with the gospel from beginning to end (as Paul himself does in the book of Ephesians). As we take communion each Sunday, my pastor reminds the congregation of the necessity of this review of the gospel. We are by nature suspicious of grace. We don’t really believe that gospel grace changes people. We will default to law and performance every time apart from regular meditation on the truth of the gospel, and Scripture is full of examples of this very thing.

The third thing that came to mind when thinking about performance evaluations is that Christ didn’t seem to use them with His disciples. At least He didn’t use them to decide who He’d disciple or who He’d promote. Of all the disciples who actively hurt Jesus’ ministry, Peter had to be at the top. Yet, after Peter cuts off a soldier’s ear and then DENIES Jesus three times, Jesus’ next interaction with Peter is to reaffirm that God will build His church on Peter. Peter would have failed his performance evaluation in every way, yet God gives him the greatest task of all – “feed my sheep.” Jesus deliberately set up discipleship methods that were the exact opposite of the world. His discipleship tactics do not fit secular business models.

I think the important theological issue at hand is sanctification and how it applies to rating the effectiveness of someone and then what to do without them after assessing them. Theological positions on sanctification seem to fall into 3 categories. Sanctification by works, sanctification by a mix of works and grace, and sanctification by grace. I grew up in a Christian environment that didn’t use those terms but practically believed in sanctification by works. We were saved by grace and no works of our own. But then, because God had done so much for us on the cross, it was our job to obey and be righteous. There was great guilt heaped on those who fell or made mistakes, and they were easily discarded, deemed unworthy of further discipleship. Why waste time on someone just sucking up resources?

In my 20’s, I started attending a reformed church that taught sanctification by grace, where the only work on my part was cooperation with the Spirit and even that was empowered by God. That was transforming for me. I can’t put into words how beautiful it was to understand that God took the responsibility for my daily transformation as much as He did my first moment of regeneration.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:18

I don’t lay back passively as God makes me righteous. Yet, I’m not the first cause of my righteousness or obedience either. God moves in and for me, equipping me to be and do something I could never muster up on my own. Consider how the Scripture speaks of this concept:

Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. (Lev. 20)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2)

In Leviticus 20, we’re commanded to be holy (sanctified or set apart for God’s purposes) because God is making us holy. In Philippians 2, we’re told to work out what God is working in. And in Ephesians, Paul instructs us to put off and put on, as we are being renewed (passive voice) by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working in and with me, so that I show outwardly what He is changing in me. Any righteousness we exhibit outwardly is a result of our inner relationship with the Spirit. You can’t separate the two, and God is the first cause.

Now apply this all to the idea of performance evaluations. Obviously, there is no value in self-delusion over our faults. I’ve been evaluated at times, and it can be helpful. The evaluations that were helpful, by the way, were OBJECTIVE, not subjective opinions by my employer or boss. If we’ve evaluated someone using objective, quantifiable measurements, what do we do if we find them lacking? We need to distinguish between moral failings and weakness in giftings or talent. And if Christ is our model, we don’t write them off for either. If we are discipling them, we must offer them the HOPE of the gospel for their daily transformation. Your moral failings are real, but they don’t define you! Christ has paid for this on the cross. Put off the old, lean into Him for the renewing of your mind, and put on new ways that reflect His image in your life. And if you aren’t particularly talented, that’s OK too. God is clear that He uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. It’s His modus operandi. However we respond to poor performers, the gospel calls us to something other than writing them off for their past performance. We can’t use the world’s business models to dictate how we evaluate and promote or demote staff in Christian ministries.

The gospel changes EVERYTHING. It’s not a footnote or addendum to Christian ministry. It is relevant when we are loving/respecting our husbands, it is relevant when we are parenting our children, and that same gospel is relevant when we are evaluating our staff.

7 Responses to Performance Evaluations and Sanctification by Grace

  1. peggy November 2, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Once again, thank you. You seem to have a knack for putting word to things that i can only agonize over internally. I have yet to find a church, though that understands and practices these things.
    Keep writing for yourself, because you are writing for all of us.

  2. Kevin November 2, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    GREAT word! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Luma November 3, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    Wendy, you're right, this is relevant in other areas as well.

    I like your distinction between moral failings and a weakness in talent and objective qualifications for the task. I think unless we look at the situation through gospel eyes we will tend to blur that line. We all need to ask for more of the spiritual gift of longsuffering when dealing with these issues. Of course Jesus was the embodiment of longsuffering with his disciples.

  4. Ruth in New Zealand November 6, 2011 at 5:23 am #

    Hi Wendy, I am really enjoying your posts. As a fellow Math lover, and someone who “discovered”' reformed theology at university after being a christian all my life I can really relate to the way you think things through. I have four children and have also been interested in the “grace based parenting” discussions etc. I don't disagree with anything you have posted here but just had a few things to throw into the pot, so to speak. I realise that Jesus didn't use criteria to choose his disciples in the way we usually do, however, when Paul gives instructions on the choosing of elders and deacons he gives some quite specific requirements (e.g. titus 1:6ff).(blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. ) Timothy was told in 1 Tim 5 :17-22 that “elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor”, indicating SOME form of assessment and there is certainly instructions to rebuke those who were sinning. Timothy was also instruction not to be hasty in the laying on of hands, implying that time was to be taken to assess a person's suitability. Again, I am not arguing against anything you have said here, but rather I'd be really interested to hear how concepts like these fit in with a desire to interact within the church “with Grace” (which is indeed my desire.)

    I am halfway through your first book at the moment and really appreciating it.

  5. Wendy November 6, 2011 at 5:40 am #

    Ruth, that is a great point. You are making me think. Thanks!!

  6. Anonymous November 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    The Lord says He sees us as competent since He has made us so. Then, I think He expects us to walk it out, prove it, through our own very intentional cooperating effort with His power. (Rom 15:14; 1 Cor 6:2; 2 Cor 3:5-6)

  7. Oliver T June 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I came across this article while perusing Christian perspectives on performance evaluations. I want to thank you for that hilarious first paragraph and the amazingly succinct third paragraph that takes me (laughing & crying at the same time) back to the cross and the empty tomb.