By Kenneth Carder
Defining excellence in ministry remains a challenge. Some people suggest that the term excellence carries so much class and cultural baggage that an alternative descriptive word or phrase should be used. Faithful, fruitful, and effective seem to be the most frequently suggested substitutes.
I confess my own ambivalence with using a term that easily slips into elitism and Pelagianism or works righteousness. The term has roots in the Greek virtue tradition, which carries considerable class and gender connotation. For example, virtue was possible only for the privileged class. Wrestling excellence from its elitist roots as a mark of superior human achievement remains a formidable challenge for ministers of the Gospel.
But alternative descriptive terms also carry baggage. Faithful, fruitful, effective have their limitations. Faithful to what? What fruits? Effective at what? Ambiguity and cultural bias accompany such terms as surely as the term excellence.
Descriptive terms are modifiers, and care must be taken that we not give so much attention to the modifier that we ignore the subject being described. When severed from ministry (more precisely, Christian ministry) excellence becomes a “dangling modifier” without firm attachment to the reality which gives it meaning.
Excellent Christian ministry is a person, not a theological or ecclesiological abstraction. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of authentic excellence, the love and power of God to reconcile and transform persons, communities, and the entire creation. When defined by the Incarnation, excellence is stripped of its cultural and class baggage as popular images of success, elitism, and control are turned up-side-down.
The One who is the incarnation of excellence was born of a young peasant girl among the homeless in a cattle stall. He spent his first months as an immigrant fleeing the barbarism of a political despot. He grew up in a working class family and associated with the marginalized and despised. He was executed as a criminal among other criminals, buried in a borrowed grave. He never wrote a book or managed an institution or won an award.
Jesus, the incarnation of excellence, proclaimed and embodied God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy. He loved the unlovable, reconciled the alienated, freed the captive, comforted the grieving, forgave the guilty, healed the diseased, welcomed the outcasts. In his presence, the last were affirmed as the winners and the least were applauded as the greatest.
In Christmas we celebrate God’s excellence made flesh in Jesus Christ. And the appropriate response to the Excellence-Made-Flesh is being an extension of the Incarnation, the love and power of God becoming flesh in us.
In the Clergy Health Initiative and Spirited Life, excellence is not an abstract concept or dangling modifier. It is a person, supremely Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps during this Advent and Christmas Season, we should put aside abstract definitions of excellence in ministry and give thanks for the persons who embody God’s love, presence, and power, persons who bear the marks of the One whose coming we anticipate and celebrate.
Kenneth L. Carder is the Williams Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School.. He was bishop of the Mississippi Area of the United Methodist Church from 2000 to 2004 and the Nashville Area of the UMC from 1992 to 2000.
(This article was adapted from a version originally published in the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Newsletter, December 2006/January 2007 issue)