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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:

  • develop theological models of excellence

  • identify examples where they are embodied in the life of the church, and

  • examine various institutional systems that currently inhibit or even block altogether the practice of excellent ministry, including how pastors are evaluated and compensated.

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.

Steps to Pastoral Excellence

What can pastors do to help develop and sustain excellence in ministry? In his book God’s Potters: Strengthening Pastoral Leadership and Nurturing Excellence, Jackson W. Carroll, Williams emeritus professor of religion and society, offers these suggestions:

  • Develop regular spiritual disciplines.
  • Develop a pastoral imagination through ongoing habits of reflection about the practice of ministry.
  • Be a lifelong learner, paying special attention to learning that is appropriate to one’s particular career stage.
  • Nurture “holy” friendships, both within and outside the congregation.
  • Maintain appropriate, though not rigid, boundaries between personal and family life and work.
  • Be diligent about physical and emotional self-care.
  • Avoid the “culture of complaint” that besets many clergy.

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.

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