This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Why the PIF is a flawed and faulty tool for evaluating ministry.

As many Presbyterians know, “PIF” stands for Professional Information Form.  Ministers fill out this long document when they are open to receiving a new call. 

The content and process of our PIF ensures that our call system has the dignity of a beauty pageant, the sensitivity of speed-dating, and the spiritual depth of an episode of American Idol.  It is a routine in which we are encouraged and even required to place on display our most ego-centric, personality-driven, shallow, superficial, achievement-oriented projection of our selves.   

After completing it, I craved nothing so much as a two-week silent retreat and a full-body cleanse.  

Apparently, if the PIF is to be believed, Presbyterian congregations are interested mainly in being served by ministers who are exceptionally good self-promoters.  Humility is not considered a positive trait. 

Imagine Calvin having to fill out this PIF.  How about Dorothy Day?  Any saint of the church would simply roll their eyes and shake their head when confronted with this absurd bureaucratic instrument.  They would wonder where, in God’s Name, these Presbyterians came up with such leadership values.      

The heart of the PIF is the set of four essay questions.  They address success and fulfillment, growth, leadership, and change.  Apparently, these are now the most important categories that all ministers and churches have to relate to.  Maybe we think that if we can get ministers to refer to and define themselves in such terms then these things will somehow start happening in our churches, and that that would be a good thing.   

And yet, strangely enough, these words are not prominent in the New Testament.  One searches in vain for much talk about “success” and “fulfillment;” neither word appears in the NRSV at all.  “Growth” shows up in Scripture mainly regarding nature or the body, or as a synonym for “become.”  The New Testament does talk about “change” a bit more, but when it isn’t used eschatologically or about Jesus’ transfiguration, it means repentance.  I wish the PIF was talking about this kind of change of thinking and direction, then we might be getting somewhere.  But it clearly isn’t.  And while the epistles do have a handful of references to leaders in the church, in the gospels, the “leaders” are almost always Jesus’ enemies. 

While Scripture may not care about success and fulfillment, they are important categories in our culture.  We use these big words for building up the individual ego.  They stereotypically define the meaning of life for most Americans.  When the PIF wants me to relate a “moment” in my recent ministry when I felt good about myself and something I did,  it wants me to wallow in and polish what feeds my personal self-esteem.  Like that matters.  Like that is anything but spiritually toxic.

The PIF asks me to describe the ministry setting to which I believe God is calling me.  We understand that God’s call comes through and to a particular place.  But if I am only looking in one direction for one kind of ministry, does that not make it more difficult for me to hear if God calls me to something else?  This question asks us to lose ourselves in a fantasy about our “dream church.”  It could easily prevent us from developing a relationship with a real situation.  God almost never calls us to the familiar, desirable, and the perfect.  What if a committee reads what I have written and decides, “Well, we’re not anything like that.  It is pointless to contact this guy”?  What if that’s where God wants me to be?  Maybe God calls churches and pastors out of their comfort zones to work and build something new together?  I have seen this happen repeatedly.

Another PIF question wants me to talk about the “areas of growth” have I identified about myself.  The virtue here, presumably, is self-improvement.  The minister is encouraged to show off her/his ability to spin shortcomings into strengths, a skill that apparently our churches feel they need in a pastor.       

Finally, the last question is about when we have “led change.”  There are two things going on here.  

First of all, the word “led” raises that question of leadership.  The Book of Order lists the qualities and tasks of a pastor.  Significantly, “leadership” isn’t one of them.  This is because there is only One Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.  Pastors are disciples just like every other member of the church.  Some disciples may be a little farther along the Way.  This makes them good examples and possible teachers.  It does not make them authoritarian “leaders” with coercive power.  Ministers lead by asking questions, encouraging, suggesting alternatives, sharing expertise, and speaking out of their experience.  They do not lead by having a goal — change! — and manipulating others to attain it.  We are sometimes called “teaching elders,” not “leading” elders.

Secondly, we see here again our fetishizing of “change.”  We assume that the church needs change more than anything.  It doesn’t even matter what kind of change we are talking about, we seem to be at the point where any change is better than keeping what we have.

How often do churches want to hear about the real change that Jesus is about?  That kind of change involves, well, taking up your cross, renouncing your life, and giving up all you have.  At most they seem to want advice about how to adapt to a changing religious marketplace.  By “change” they mean moving to guitars in worship, or improving the church’s use of social media.  How do we attract millennials?  How do we change without alienating the older people who donate the most?  Churches mainly want to know how they can avoid real change by making these provisional, superficial adaptations.

What does it mean that Louisville can come up with PIF categories that bear no reference to the New Testament or even the Book of Order?  Why do we have to conjure things like this from scratch, relying on the imaginations of GA entities or people sitting in offices in Louisville?

What if we started evaluating ministers based on something related to Jesus, like the Beatitudes?  Does this person exhibit poverty of spirit?  Purity of heart?  Is she a peacemaker?  Does he hunger and thirst for justice?  What does that look like in their ministry?

What if we discouraged ministers from talking about themselves, but relied on how their vocation is perceived by people they have served with?  Congregants and colleagues might provide a better measure of someone’s faithfulness.

Such a strategy might work for the twin document, the MIF (Ministry Information Form) that churches are asked to complete, which has identical problems.  Only these are filled out by a committee.

It comes down to the basic question for a post-Christendom church: are we going to adapt ourselves to the standards of a secular and pathological society, or to Jesus Christ?
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