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While some dismissed Carder as a “liberal social activist,” intent upon enacting his own political agenda, nothing could have been further from the truth, he says. It was about God, and about God’s Kingdom.

A Life-Giving Ministry: Advancing Pastoral Excellence

Although Kenneth L. Carder stepped down last sum-mer as an active bishop in the United Methodist Church, he’s still a bishop. And he’s still active. In fact, in some ways, he’s busier than ever.

After 12 years as a bishop—including eight years in Tennessee and four in Mississippi—Carder arrived last year at Duke. He’s teaching classes. He’s learning from both young seminarians and faculty colleagues. He’s sharing insights gained from more than 40 years in ordained ministry. And he’s directing a new program that promises to make a real impact in the church he so deeply loves.

“After my heart attack three years ago, I became increasingly sensitive to what is life-giving and what is life-depleting,” Carder says. “I’m finding that my work here with students, faculty, and church leaders, focusing on leadership formation, is more life-giving than the heavy administrative responsibilities of an active bishop.”

As director of Pulpit & Pew: The Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry, Carder will focus much of his work on overseeing a $6.7 million grant, “Advancing Pastoral Excellence.” The divinity school received the grant in January from Lilly Endowment Inc. to promote innovative pastoral leadership and excellence in ministry.

This work builds upon the initial, research phase of Pulpit & Pew, which was also funded by Lilly. Over the past four years, the Pulpit & Pew project has conducted research on topics such as clergy compensation, pastoral health issues, and images of clergy in the media.

The new grant identifies seven critical areas, each of which will be addressed by a working group of pastors, church leaders, scholars and others who will design and test strategies for change. The areas, many of which were identified and explored by the first phase of Pulpit & Pew, include:

  • The economics of pastoral leadership, including clergy compensation;
  • Nurturing healthy pastoral lives;
  • Assessment and evaluation of pastors;
  • Pastoral placement and fit;
  • Calling a new generation of pastors;
  • Getting started well in pastoral ministry, and
  • Pastoral work and the shaping of communities.

The center will also use funds from the Advancing Pastoral Excellence grant to sponsor several initiatives that will bring together a variety of people with the ability to effect change in those seven critical areas. These include:

  • Pastors and faith-based institutions undertaking pilot programs to test ideas identified by the working groups;
  • Two national summits with a broad range of church leaders;
  • A leadership development program designed to enhance key institutional leaders’ abilities to lead change, and
  • An ambitious communications program to encourage national dialogue and help pastors cultivate new pat-terns of writing in public forums beyond the church.

“Our emphasis and focus will be on developing strate-gies that promote change throughout the church and among those involved in calling forth, educating and deploying ministers,” says Carder. “The overall goal is to further understanding and practice of excellent ministry and how that excellence is formed and sustained.”

Many pastors today are dispirited, confused, isolated and struggling in systems that sometimes diminish them and sap them of their passion, says Carder.

“We will be working with new models, but models rooted in the Gospel,” he says. “In four years, we would like to see a church that has a clearer vision of what qual-ity, excellent ministry means and how to implement and sustain that ministry.”

- Bob Wells

“Opposition to the death penalty and ministry to thepoor are often seen as political agendas, but I never setout with a political agenda,” says Carder.

In his years as a student at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C., Carder learned that there isn’t a per-sonal Gospel and a social Gospel. There is just a Gospel, with personal and social dimensions.

Ironically, much of Carder’s theological vision—certainly its clarity—comes from those fundamentalist preachers who so terrified him when he was young. Even in those years, he says, prevenient grace was at work, leaving him with two abiding gifts: a deep respect for the Bible and an appreciation for the power of the atonement.

“If the Bible says it, you better take it seriously,” says Carder. “That doesn’t mean you take it literally, but the Bible is the word of God.”

Secondly, with all their limitations, those preachers from his childhood were convinced that Christ had died for him and all humanity.

“Their theological understanding of the atonement is very different from mine,” says Carder. “But for a youngster who was struggling with feelings of exclusion, inferiority, and powerlessness, to feel in the depths of my being that the God of the Universe would die for me, was enormously powerful.”

For Carder, justice and ministry to the poor are not abstractions. His father, Allen Carder, worked every morning in the fields, then left to work the 4 p.m. to midnight shift in a textile mill. Although his father preached the value of hard work as the key to success, little seemed to improve for the family.

The younger Carder, whose only escape from the world of poverty was in school, developed an inchoate understanding that hard work alone wasn’t always enough, that systemic injustices stunted human lives. Admitted to a special high school established by the fac-ulty at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, he became the first in his family to graduate from high school. He was awarded a scholarship to the university. But all through high school, he never revealed to his classmates where he lived.

It wasn’t until his mid-30s, when he was pastor of Concord UMC, a booming successful suburban church in Knoxville, that Carder made peace with his childhood. He wasn’t even aware of the scars it had inflicted until church leaders asked him why he was so angry, especial-ly when he preached on the dangers of wealth. Through support from friends and his congregation, Carder realized that, as pastor of a large and growing church, he had achieved a certain level of “success,” and was at once enjoying that success and resenting it.

“I came to realize that my experience in poverty and struggles with inferiority were not something to run from, but gifts,” says Carder. “I began to experience the grace that I had been preaching about: that I was a child of God and that my identity had nothing to do with wealth or poverty, and that I didn’t have to do anything to earn that identity other than to accept it.”

He continued to preach about the dangers of wealth and affluence, but his tone changed. “I wouldn’t choose [poverty] for others, but I experienced things for which I am profoundly grateful.”

One of the challenges of the Center for Excellence in Ministry is the culture’s understanding of excellence. A church that defines excellence based on growth and numbers is idolatrous, he says. “Success, upward mobility, wealth and power, are the very things Jesus refused to be part of in his temptation in the wilderness. Excellence in ministry is rooted in God’s excellence, which the world often sees as ‘weakness’ and ‘foolishness.’”

It’s talk like that that prompts the Rev. Peter Storey, who has known Carder since hosting him on a 1995 visit to South Africa, to call him “the most prophetic bishop in the United Methodist Church.”

A bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and prominent critic of apartheid, Storey often played host to American dignitaries studying “the South African problem.” It was a duty he did not always relish, as many of his visitors didn’t “get it.”

Carder, though, was a bishop who “got it.”

“Ken had an authentic sensitivity to the issues we were struggling with,” says Storey. For some pastors, “being prophetic” means sounding off on every issue for the sheer nuisance value.

“But Ken is a prophet in the deepest Biblical sense,” he says. “He has a pastoral love of people and a faithful-ness to Christ and Christ’s teachings that require him to speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.”

Long ago, the red-headed boy found his voice. end

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DIVINITY Online Edition :: Winter 2004 Volume 3 Number 2 Duke Divinity School