The very word glitters on the page like a new trophy. Sought by many but possessed by few, it’s the object of desire for much of contemporary society, the cure for just about every personal, professional, social or cultural deficiency. Whatever the vocation or avocation, whether business, medicine, baseball, clarinet, cooking, plumbing, parenting or poker, a book has been written that purports to hold the secrets to excellence.
From this teeming field of titles have risen two new books articulating a very different kind of excellence. The authors are not calling the church to embrace the world’s excellence, the blue ribbons and competitive edge. Instead, the books propose that a uniquely Christian excellence is the key to the church’s future in the United States.
These books, God’s Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations by Jackson W. Carroll and Resurrecting Excellence by L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, are the capstone publications from a recently completed four-year study on pastoral leadership conducted by Pulpit & Pew, a Lilly Endowment-funded research effort at Duke Divinity School.
Though they take different paths—the first is a sociological analysis of pastoral leadership drawing upon Pulpit & Pew research and the other a theological reflection on excellence—the books end up in the same place.
“We’re talking about an excellence that is not measured only by numbers but, more determinatively, an excellence patterned by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,” says Jones, dean of the divinity school. “Despite all the problems in the church today, a lot of people are already embodying that kind of excellence in lots of different places, and what we need to do is to raise that up, celebrate it and help nurture more of it.”
Indeed, the two books are part of a much broader effort at the divinity school and elsewhere to do just that—to find, cultivate and nurture excellence throughout the church today. Nationwide, numerous programs focused on excellence in ministry are already underway. Typically funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. or other foundations, in many instances coordinated by or involving the divinity school, these initiatives aren’t exactly a movement—at least not yet. But they are a promising start on what many hope will be a broad cultural shift that transforms the church and the very way in which pastoral leaders are identified, called, educated and sustained in ministry.
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:
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.
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.”
Too often, the contemporary church trivializes God, making God a rhetorical phrase or a justification for political agendas. Authentic religious faith becomes marginalized into a set of privatized feelings held by individuals, or political agendas, or simply a utilitarian means of becoming successful or wealthy, says Carder.
“What is lacking is the kind of passion that would be commensurate with ministry being about ultimate realities, about life and death matters,” he says.
In many ways, that is exactly what this nascent movement around excellence is about, say Jones and Carder. It’s about taking Christian claims and practices seriously.
Make no mistake, excellent ministry happens all across the country, Jones and Armstrong contend in Resurrecting Excellence, and they cite numerous examples. When you see excellent ministry, the two authors say, you know it. It has its own aesthetic.
“When you see the Christian life being lived well in a community with effective leaders, it is beautiful,” says Jones. “People are drawn to it. Lives are touched. People are held and carried through tragedy, and joys are celebrated. New life is found and sin is unlearned. When we find people living in communities shaped by Christian practices, it is tremendously life giving and cultivates a sense of joy.”
That kind of “resurrecting excellence”—an excellence that makes new life possible—can happen in any kind of church, Jones says, big or small, liberal or conservative, rural or urban. Excellent congregations tend not to be defined by those labels but are instead lively places of discernment and disagreement among people bound together by their commitment to a rich vision of Christian life. Arguments over worship style, church size and political bent are misguided, according to Jones. The future of the church, he insists, will not turn on issues such as mega-churches or small churches, red states or blue states, traditional hymns or praise music. Instead, the future lies in excellent ministry wherever it is practiced.
While the word “excellence” carries a lot of cultural baggage, Carder believes it is about as good a word as can be found. He acknowledges that it can smack of elitism, suggesting a perfectionism that undermines the very excellence that this new and growing movement is trying to accomplish. The concept of “resurrecting excellence” isn’t defined by consumerism, upward mobility or institutional success, but by God’s presence in the world, says Carder.
“Whatever our definition of excellence, it has to be measured against the life, the teaching, the death and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who wrote no books and built no big churches, but who continues to transform the world through the foolishness of a cross,” says Carder. “Sometimes excellence in ministry might look a whole lot like failure to the world.”
But a Christ-centered excellence, an excellence that is not based on the world’s standards, does not mean that careless or unimaginative pastoral leadership is acceptable, cautions Carroll.
“All clergy need to do ministry well, communicate well, and have a clear vision of what ministry is about,” he says. “The church is not in the business of condoning mediocrity.”
It’s one thing, of course, to talk about excellence in ministry. It’s quite another to translate such talk into changes in the real world. And to quantify and reward it.
After researching and diagnosing the state of pastoral ministry, Pulpit & Pew is now focusing on strategies for advancing pastoral excellence. Much of the project’s ongoing work will be to:
Carder believes churches should have some way to measure how well pastors and congregations actually exhibit who God is and what God is doing in the world.
Likewise, denominational deployment systems can perpetuate mediocrity and deplete passion for ministry. Too often, compensation systems become the determining factor for how clergy are assigned rather than how well such appointments serve the mission of God.
The new emphasis on ministerial excellence has particular implications for theological education and the ways pastors are identified, called, educated and formed. In their book, Jones and Armstrong contend that the current system has broken down.
Traditionally, they say, the system worked like a relay race, with a series of institutions—churches, colleges, denominational offices and seminaries—each running its own discrete leg and then handing off the baton to the next runner.
But today, the baton has been dropped and too often the various parties are engaged in mutual finger pointing. Congregations complain that seminaries don’t prepare pastors for the real work of local church ministry.
Seminaries, in turn, say that congregations don’t care about theology and are failing to give their members even the most rudimentary instruction in Scripture and other areas. As a result, many seminarians arrive at school needing remedial instruction.
Jones and Armstrong challenge these entities to work together, focusing on the overarching goal of cultivating and sustaining excellent pastors and excellent congregations across lifetimes. Pulpit & Pew’s national conference in Indianapolis, held May 3-5, was aimed at cultivating these kinds of linkages among institutions.
“What we need is a rich ecology of people and institutions that are mutually supportive in overlapping ways,” says Jones. “Rather than being a relay race, it should be pilgrims on a journey together.”
On that pilgrimage, over the course of a pastor’s formative education and then continuing on through years of pastoral ministry, congregations, seminaries, and other religious and social institutions engage in a “rich interplay,” says Jones.
Formal theological education needs to be coupled with a greater use of apprenticeships, patterned after the model of medical education. “Seminaries can help form certain habits of mind and heart and the initial experience of theological imagination,” says Jones. “But that, in turn, has to be transformed into pastoral imagination, which is best learned and lived in the company of the people of God.”
At the same time, on this new pilgrimage, the seminary’s educational role is not limited to the three or four years of an M.Div. degree. To sustain pastors throughout the course of their ministries, seminaries need to develop deep and ongoing connections with congregations, denominational offices, pastors and others. They also have a role to play in encouraging young people to enter ministry.
“According to this model, seminaries will be institutions of lifelong learning, becoming involved with people at younger ages, with laity in other vocations and with pastors throughout their ministries in a way that will be deeper and richer than the common contemporary model of continuing education,” Jones and Armstrong write.
Duke Divinity School offers one of the best examples of this evolving model of theological education. Building on its historic strengths in the classical disciplines of theological education, the school has added a variety of new programs in recent years that are creating a network of relationships with those outside the academy.Among them are:
Carder applauds efforts to link the academy more closely with the parish and the world. It is essential, he says, that excellence in ministry be embodied in concrete ways.
If it doesn’t then it risks lapsing into what he calls a kind of “ecclesial Gnosticism”—a lot of specialized knowledge about ministry disembodied from the actual world of ministry.
At the same time, he hopes that this new emphasis on excellence does not become yet one more burden laid on already overworked pastors. It’s very easy for such talk about excellence to be misinterpreted to mean that pastors just need to work a little harder and a little better. Excellence, he says, is not ours to achieve—certainly not alone.
“If excellence is truly about God, then it doesn’t all depend upon us,” he says. “I am convinced that excellence is God’s call, but it is also God’s gift. Excellence isn’t an achievement, it is a gift of grace that we receive as we participate in who God is and what God is doing in the world.”
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