Resurrecting Excellence
By Bob Wells


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.

Detail from “May powers be as incense... Psalm 141,”  a stained glass window in the Jones Prayer Room, Westbrook Building, by artist Les Wicker. The offering of incense as a metaphor for prayer occurs in several scriptures as well as Psalm 141. Wicker began witha a vertical shape and created colorful upward movement to heavenly and starry blues symbolizing the ascent of our prayers to God.
Chris Hildreth / Duke University Photography

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.

Transition into Ministry

The Revs. David King D’04 and Amy Grizzle D’05, like other recent seminary graduates, write and preach sermons. They teach Bible studies and other classes. They visit the sick in hospitals and homes. They perform weddings. They conduct funerals.

But unlike most of their classmates in parish ministry, they’re neither solo pastors nor associate pastors. Instead, they’re a whole new creature, one that offers great promise for transforming the way pastors are educated and prepared for ministry.
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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:

  • 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.”

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.

Resurrecting Excellence

“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.”

  Kevin R. Armstrong  L. Gregory Jones
Kevin R. Armstrong (l) and L. Gregory Jones are the authors of Resurrecting Excellence, one of two capstone books from a four-year study on pastoral leadership by Pulpit & Pew, a Lilly Endowment-funded research effort at Duke Divinity School.

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:

  • 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.

Courage to Serve

Next fall, 24 United Methodist pastors from rural churches across North Carolina will travel to a scenic retreat center for Courage to Serve, a program offered by the Center for Continuing Education at Duke Divinity School.

Unlike a generation ago, when continuing education for pastors perhaps meant brushing up on preaching techniques or taking a refresher course in Scripture, these pastors will have different work ahead of them. They will dig deep into their own beings, plumb the depths of their souls, and explore questions of meaning, purpose and calling.

This program illustrates the changing nature of continuing education for pastors, says Janice Virtue, associate dean for continuing education and strategic planning. Rather than being about the development of certain skills, Courage to Serve is a program of spiritual and personal formation that helps pastors tap into their own deep well of passion for ministry.

Under the program, the pastors will take part in a series of quarterly retreats over 15 months. Based on the groundbreaking work of Parker J. Palmer, who pioneered the use of a retreat-based, small group model of formation with teachers, Courage to Serve is rooted in the belief that effective service, leadership and ministry flow from the identity and integrity of the individual.

“It’s about creating a safe learning environment where clergy can get quiet enough to hear the stirring of their own souls and where they can hear God speak,” says Virtue.

Underwritten with a grant from The Duke Endowment, Courage to Serve follows a successful pilot program conducted by the divinity school over the past two years. It joins a growing list of “lifelong learning” options offered by the divinity school, including the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, weeklong study leaves, and sustained learning seminars, which bring together pastors and laity with divinity faculty for in-depth study over the course of a year.

The new direction of theological education reflects the changing nature of both the church and seminaries, says Virtue. “The world isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago. The church isn’t the same and neither are clergy. And that means the theological education we deliver, and how it is delivered, must be different.”

Seminary can no longer be just about earning a degree, but must also include learning for a lifetime.

“No pastor can serve well without ongoing engagement in his or her own development and formation,” says Virtue. “When our graduates get their diplomas, they are not certified for all time as excellent. That is only the start.”

— Bob Wells

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:
  • The Duke Youth Academy, now in its sixth year, brings high school students to the campus for two weeks every summer to study with divinity faculty and live in an intentional Christian community.

  • The Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life, the Duke Center for Reconciliation, Caring Communities, and the Program on Theology and Medicine are efforts to engage the seminary with the broader world.

  • Courage to Serve, the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, clergy study leaves, Laity Weekend and other new programs are transforming what had been a traditional continuing education effort into a program of “lifelong learning” for both clergy and laity.

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.”

Transition into Ministry

The Revs. David King D’04 and Amy Grizzle D’05, like other recent seminary graduates, write and preach sermons. They teach Bible studies and other classes. They visit the sick in hospitals and homes. They perform weddings. They conduct funerals.

But unlike most of their classmates in parish ministry, they’re neither solo pastors nor associate pastors. Instead, they’re a whole new creature, one that offers great promise for transforming the way pastors are educated and prepared for ministry.

Both King and Grizzle are pastoral residents, basically post-seminary pastors who are continuing their education and training in a congregational setting, with supervision and support from lay and clergy mentors. Like medical residencies, which transition young physicians from medical school to medical practice, pastoral residencies are a bridge from seminary to the practice of pastoral ministry.

“My Duke education was second to none, but the chance to build on that and learn in a local church, to learn by doing, was very important to me,” says King. “It’s a great way to test your pastoral skills, especially worship and pastoral care. It’s a bridge that provides avenues for success to long-term ministry.”

King and Grizzle are serving residencies at Wilshire Baptist Church , a Dallas congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 1,200 to 1,400. The Rev. George Mason, senior pastor, created the program in 2002. With grant support from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Transition into Ministry Program, coordinated by the Fund for Theological Education, the program has expanded. Wilshire Baptist is currently one of 15 congregations in the nation with the two-year pastoral residency programs.

Mason said the program offers seminary graduates a safe and supportive place to practice ministry, hone their skills, take risks, and make the inevitable mistake.

“This is a great confidence builder,” says Mason, who serves on the divinity school’s Board of Visitors. “New pastors want to be effective, but you can’t do that without practice. Unfortunately, in many churches, members have only so much forgiveness for someone just out of seminary.”

At Wilshire, members fully understand that these young pastors are literally “practicing” ministry, taking two years to grow in their craft and sharpen their edges.

Wilshire’s four pastoral residents serve a two-year rotation, spending time in every aspect of the church’s life including worship, discipleship, fellowship, witness, ministry and stewardship. Each resident is assigned a lay mentoring team of five to six congregation members who covenant to be present whenever the resident is preaching, teaching or engaged in some other public aspect of ministry. This team meets regularly to provide feedback and encouragement for the resident. Each is assigned a host family, which provides invitations to Sunday lunch, holiday dinners and a “home away from home.”

The residents work closely with the church’s pastoral staff. In addition to receiving supervision and feedback, they attend two weekly seminars, one on preaching, led by Mason, and another on pastoral theology.

“This has been one of the best experiences of my life,” says Amy Grizzle. “It has been absolutely incredible. I have been enabled, empowered and equipped to do pastoral ministry, to preach and teach and visit in the hospital. And I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself first, like many of my colleagues have to do.”

One of the best parts of the program has been working and being with the other pastoral residents. Together, the four form their own pastoral peer group.

“They are true friends and colleagues who challenge me and value me as a woman and as a minister,” she says.

Both King and Grizzle turned down job offers as pastor or associate pastor to take the two-year residencies.

“It’s been worth it,” says Grizzle. “Wilshire has given me a new vision of church and shown me what a healthy Baptist congregation can be like.”

The program has had seven residents in its four years. Of those, three have been Duke graduates. The Rev. Jake Hall D’03 completed the program last year and now pastors a church in Atlanta. Blake Kendrick D’06 will become the fourth Duke graduate when he enters the residency program in August.

— Bob Wells

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