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At a minimum, they are signs of new life emerging in an otherwise gray landscape. Consider just a few of the Duke-related programs, both large and small:

  • Under the Lilly-funded Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program, more than 7,000 pastors across the United States and Canada have participated in more than 700 peer learning groups, coming together for worship, community, friendship and support. Sponsored by 63 different SPE programs at seminaries, denominational offices, retreat centers and other institutions, with support and coordination from the divinity school, the peer groups are helping pastors rekindle their passion for ministry.

  • In a departure from the usual path to local church ministry, recent seminary graduates from Duke and other divinity schools postponed taking positions as pastors and associate pastors to first spend two years in pastoral residency programs, including one at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, essentially serving an apprenticeship under the guidance of clergy and lay mentors.

  • At the divinity school, an expanding portfolio of lifelong learning programs are dramatically changing the nature of ministerial continuing education. Courage to Serve, for example, provides periodic retreats aimed at personal and professional renewal for pastors from rural churches across North Carolina. The Reynolds Program in Church Leadership provides an intensive yearlong course of study for selected United Methodist pastors from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

  • In Indianapolis, Pulpit & Pew this spring convened a national meeting of representatives from a variety of institutions that all play some role in the identification and formation of pastors—churches, colleges, seminaries, denominational offices and others—to talk about how they can better work together.

The impetus for excellence in ministry is obvious. The church, particularly in mainline denominations, is in trouble. Membership rolls are stagnant if not dropping. Fewer young people are entering pastoral ministry.

God’s Potters  Jackson W. Carroll, Williams emeritus professor of religion and society at Duke, is the author of God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations
Jackson W. Carroll, Williams emeritus professor of religion and society at Duke, is the author of God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations

While pastors in Pulpit & Pew’s nationwide 2001 survey reported high job satisfaction overall, many complained of isolation and loneliness and said it was difficult to convey the Gospel to their parishioners. As Carroll notes in God’s Potters, inadequate compensation, congregational conflict and criticism, job stress, and a lack of time for renewal and reflection contribute to pastors’ frustrations. Though not as widespread as many people believe, such problems cannot be ignored, says Carroll, because they have a corrosive effect on clergy, their families, and their congregations.

But beneath that scenario is a much deeper problem, says Jones.

“Underlying the pathology is a crisis of confidence that Christian life in general and pastoral leadership in particular has a direction and a purpose,” he says. “You can see that statistically in the declining numbers in mainline Protestantism, but you can also see it in churches where they just don’t think very much is at stake.”

While genuinely bad ministry does take place—as evidenced by clergy sex scandals in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches—the more common problem is complacent and ineffective ministry, says Jones. It’s what John Wimmer D’82, program director in the religion division of Lilly Endowment, calls “mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness.”

Years ago, when Kenneth Carder was an active United Methodist Church bishop in Tennessee, he would listen to cassette tapes of worship services from churches in the conference while driving to meetings throughout the area. Repeatedly, he was struck by how casually many services were conducted and the sermons were prepared and delivered.

“It was as though it didn’t really matter,” says Carder, now a professor of pastoral formation at the divinity school and a senior fellow with Pulpit & Pew. “They suffered from what Fred Craddock said about many sermons, that they were just ‘little.’ They didn’t matter one way or another. They were just common sense advice aimed at helping people feel good, or entertainment, a series of stories thrown together.”

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