Is “Evaluation” even Orthodox?
When the programs of the Office of Vocation & Ministry were just getting going, I was troubled at having to spend part of the annual budget on “evaluation.” I was skeptical about the whole task of evaluation itself. Isn’t it what businesses do, but is foreign to our vision of Orthodox ministry?
My skepticism had begun during my final year in seminary, when I started refusing to fill out the evaluation form at the end of semester. If the course was a generally good course, all I would say on the form was “thank you.” This came from the idea that my first goal was to be a student of the Tradition. The Tradition (starting with the Scriptures, and Tradition then as Scripture-rightly-interpreted) teaches me; I have not earned the right to critique the Tradition, or by extension the professor teaching, because both the levels of my knowledge and spiritual awareness are too novice.
This perspective was also related to my understanding about how to “hear” our fellow students practice preaching in chapel: no matter how objectively bad a sermon is, the one hearing it—unless they have formal responsibility to critique it, such as the professor of preaching—should not sit there thinking of all the ways it could be improved, but rather should reap whatever may profit her own soul.
This view was then bolstered by some writings of spiritual fathers about attentiveness in church: if a baby crying or your neighbor’s behavior is bugging you, this says more about the state of your own soul than it does about their behavior. I was learning the spiritual posture of humility, of looking inwards first instead of putting blame elsewhere. This includes trying to learn from every situation and reserving any kind of judgment. Within this vision, where does evaluation fit?
When I started work in the OVM, I was already pretty hesitant to do “evaluation.” My role leading these programs had me asking the question: how do we evaluate the impact of our programs on participants when what we’re trying to do regarding faith and vocation is inextricably connected with the state of our participants’ souls? And my reading of Scripture and the Fathers taught me to reserve judgment about our human measuring of this, for so much is about the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and only our Lord truly knows this. Moreover, our hope is that those involved will be sorted with the sheep at the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)–how can we ever evaluate or assess anything before then? Doesn’t our Lord actually warn about ever judging before then in the Parable of the Sower? In evaluation lingo, an “intermediate impact” with this parable would show a whole lot of sprouted plants, when it turns out that many of those plants wither and die because they were actually on rocky soil. (Matthew 13:1-33)
Another issue that haunted me was that evaluation counts high attendance and/or growing numbers as the marker of success. Throughout the ups and downs of our program planning over the last nine years, with some programs we have struggled and had very low attendance—a mark of worldly failure. And yet Christ deals with this in his parable of the wedding feast where a huge banquet is thrown and none of the invited guests show. (Matthew 22:1-14) Low attendance seemed to have nothing to do with the value of the event itself.
Moreover, to evaluate well, we must define what we’re looking for in terms of successful project outcomes. But how do we define “success” anyway? Does martyrdom equal success? Crucifixion equal success? By tallying up markers of success, are we doing what the publican does in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, touting the success of the external measures of our spirituality, when what we should be saying is simply “Lord have mercy”? (Luke 18:9-14)
This point leads to a final worry: Is a culture of evaluation dangerous for our spiritual lives? If we develop this culture, will we be led down a path where we think so evaluatively that we come out of confession and rank it on a scale of 1 to 10? Or out of liturgy and rank our overall satisfaction?
After years of thinking about all this, I have realized that all of these concerns have a certain value in tempering a hallowing of the evaluation process itself. They provide cautionary measures to the process. They are important.
But they are not the whole story. In my early thinking about evaluation, I hadn’t taken the time to read good thoughtful perspectives on the potential and promise of good evaluation. And a couple great readings have, over time, made me realize there are essential dynamics of evaluation, if we take the time to break open and reexamine whole concept of evaluation itself.
The most important article for me is the short but potent piece by Craig Dykstra, “Evaluation as Collaborative Inquiry.” It’s really, really worth reading and digesting in full. Here’s why.
Dykstra opens space for thinking of evaluation in a way that is, to my way of thinking, about as Orthodox Christian as you can get. He begins by picking apart a major hesitation that most of us have with “evaluation.” In his words:
The word “evaluation” has bad connotations. It is an anxiety-producing term that often lands us back in a geometry classroom or conjures up memories of the day we received our SAT results. “Evaluation” unavoidably connotes, at some primordial level, grades and scores. We are put on a scale and compared to others. And whether we received good grades or poor ones or somewhere in between, we all want to avoid as much of that kind of thing as we can. It is not just anxiety about how we measure up that makes us reluctant to pursue evaluation, however. Also involved is something to do with the reduction of our sense of ourselves and the meaning of our efforts and productions that is intrinsic to measurement according to some scale. “C”, or “B+” or even “A” simply cannot capture the significance of a paper I have invested myself in crafting. We all at least implicitly demand a fuller, more human response, even if we never ask for it out loud or cannot seem to get one when we do.
A full, human response to what we are doing. What if that is what evaluation is about? Dykstra likens good evaluation to the process of coaching. He looks at the superior athlete as an example:
Superior athletes constantly evaluate their own performance and search for ways to improve it. That is why they easily recognize their need for good coaches/teachers/evaluators: other people who can help them see and feel what they are doing, people who can help them understand what’s going on and figure out how to do it better. The interesting thing about the really good athletes is that they regularly seek such help. They go get it. They ask for it. They even pay for it. (No wonder! They can afford it, right? But the stakes are high for them, so they also know they cannot afford not to.)
Artists (musicians, writers, filmmakers, dancers) also seek such evaluation. Whether the evaluators are called teachers, editors, or coaches, they make it possible for artistic creators to pull out of themselves the highest craft and skill they can muster. Somehow, it seems, the art of evaluation is an essential ingredient in the human activity of creation.
Our programs—our parish ministries, our regional ministries, camping ministries, national efforts, etc.—are the human activity of creation. Creation with some lofty purposes in mind, but human creation nonetheless.
This past spring, I had the undergraduate students in the Religious Education class at Hellenic College read this article on evaluation, and their instinctive response was: “Evaluation is like confession!” They understood repentance and confession as liberating invitations to humbly face the times we do not love as we ought, share these with another human being in the person of a priest, and be forgiven by Christ. Evaluation, from this vantage point, is akin to the process of self-examination that we pursue in our life in the Church, self-examination that leads us to repentance, and life lived more fully loving God and neighbor. Evaluation is then simply doing this on a programmatic level—rigorously examining our programs in hopes of seeing clearly what we are not doing well and striving to do better.
Evaluation can be most effective when we find great “coaches” in our work—people who will walk alongside us, ask us really tough questions about what we’re doing, and make suggestions—much in the way a good spiritual father or mother, Godparent, or yiayia might. Of course, with these relationships, we only heed the advice when we ask for it, when we’re ready for it. And this is what’s key to what Dykstra is talking about. Whenever we’re leading anything in Orthodox ministry, we as leaders need to be open and welcoming of this kind of coaching—for it is only then when evaluation is effective.
This kind of evaluation, in Dkystra’s words, is not about grades and scores, but has
everything to do with gaining better insight into what one is doing and with finding ways to improve it or extend it in worthwhile directions. Each of us can (and should) do a lot of this sort of evaluation ourselves as a regular part of everyday self-critical reflection in our own work. Reflective practitioners of all kinds constantly build self-evaluation into the very warp and woof of their endeavors. But there are limits to what we by ourselves can see and figure out. Like the best athletes and artists, we all need coaches and teachers who give us honest assessments (including those that make us uncomfortable) and helpful suggestions.
Evaluation, with this understanding, is about depending on a conciliar, community vision of things. It can also take into account our own legitimate concerns that we not assess the state of participants’ souls (which is impossible; we are not God), that we not get hung up on numbers in attendance, and that we not aim for worldly success. A coach for our ministry might ask, however, if our attempts at some parish ministry program are not drawing high attendance, “Why aren’t you, following Christ’s parable, inviting the people from the street?” Hard questions that sometimes make us uncomfortable; that is what good evaluation should do. It can lead us to administrative repentance. It makes us humble as leaders.
My colleague who worked for many years in the OVM and reviewed this post for me, asked me to elaborate on this point. The evaluation process will often ask us to change our mindset (metanoia), to put away any visions that we need to be perfect, invulnerable leaders—which is unrealistic and ultimately stressful—to a vision of a more humble, collegial leadership where we expect we will not have perfect vision and will seek out others to help us. He said that this type of evaluation let him get past the anxiety that comes from criticism and to want genuine feedback.
All this said, some of my earliest concerns still stand. I can see why leaders of ministry endeavors must think evaluatively about their work. But I do have lasting concerns about how much participants/learners think evaluatively. I still just say “thank you” when I’m blessed to listen to a great teacher.
But our work with youth has made me sensitive to two extreme opposite concerns about their development as young Christians. On the one hand, our world and culture does have us giving “feedback” on every little thing. Schoolteachers struggle to teach students well because these students (and often their parents) have such a sense of entitlement that the teacher’s manner is never to their learning style, etc. This kind of evaluative attitude can make real learning, learning that is truly formative, very difficult.
But on the other hand, I also see it as deeply, profoundly important to encourage our youth to be discerning, critical thinkers enough so that they don’t accept every spiritual or religious idea as of equal value. I used to be just concerned about this when our Orthodox youth engage persuasive non-Orthodox peers or take college courses from, say, atheist professors intent on debunking faith. But as Orthodox Christianity grows on American soil, there will be increasingly ways that the faith is taken in bizarre and even harmful directions, and we must prepare our youth to discern truth within Orthodoxy itself.
For CrossRoad, we have been working to teach both attitudes: real learning that seeks to “hear” the theological content in a deep way AND critical thinking/discernment about life, the world around us, and spirituality itself. Participants critically engage the lyrics of pop songs. And they are asked to think about and articulate themselves why a false asceticism, asceticism based on a set of external rules, leads to pride.
When it comes to having these young people engage in evaluation, we try to shape the questions for participants carefully so that it furthers their goal of learning, rather than give them reasons to not learn. For example, at CrossRoad we’ll ask participants not, “how did you like that class?” But rather, “what did you learn from that class?” Then as a leadership team we’ll examine their responses and ask ourselves whether or not their responses matched what we would hope they’d learn. If they don’t, we know we have more work to do.
In sum, to answer the title question, YES, evaluation is eminently Orthodox—if, of course, we carefully define what we mean by evaluation. As our ministry programs grow and expand in the US, I think there is much promise as to how we utilize evaluation for “programmatic repentance.”
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