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Resurrecting Excellence
By Bob Wells

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Excellence.

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.   full story >>

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.

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