Excellence: Burdensome expectation or gracious gift?

Is “excellence” just one more task for already overburdened pastors?

Editor’s note: This article previously appeared on the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence website.

“What is this talk about excellence in ministry? I am trying as hard as I can to be faithful. Most days I am happy just to get the tasks done. I can’t be excellent in everything. This whole thing feels like another burden being laid on us.”

The frustration and even anger in this pastor’s comment are evident as she reported the plans of her supervisor to hold pastors accountable for excellence in ministry.

Excellence often implies achievement accomplished through striving, hard work, and determined effort. Its measurements popularly include exceptional statistical growth, extraordinary test scores, and a higher rung on the success ladder. Skill development strategies, accountability structures, and external rewards are looked to as primary means of fostering excellence.

Is excellent ministry achieved largely through skill development, accountability systems, and reward incentives? Or, is excellence a gift to be celebrated, nurtured, and shared? Is the summons to excellence a command to be obeyed and enforced? Or, is excellence an invitation to share in something that transcends our own achievements, aspirations, and abilities?

Excellence in ministry certainly involves personal initiative and accountability, skill development, and continuous formation and learning. But those qualities spring from a source deeper than mere self-discipline and external expectations and rewards.

The wellspring of excellence in ministry is this: God, who creates this magnificent world and in Jesus Christ reconciles and renews all things, graciously invites us to share in Christ’s ministry by being reconciled and becoming agents of reconciliation. Excellent ministry, then, is God’s gift rather than a human achievement.

At the heart of the biblical story is a God who liberates from bondage and gifts the liberated with the law as the way to preserve and pass on the liberation. And, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is more than a set of criteria of faithfulness or the Lord’s commands to obedient followers. The Sermon on the Mount describes life formed and shaped by continuing friendship with the One who incarnates the Divine excellence.

Excellence in ministry surfaces anew the age-old tension between law and gospel, command and invitation. The God who calls us empowers us to fulfill that to which we are called. Christ’s invitation to “Come, follow me” includes the promise “I will be with you, even to the close of the age.” Christ’s commands are covered with Christ’s promises to do in us what is commanded.

How might we talk about pastoral excellence as invitational, formative, and life-giving rather than as another burden that further demoralizes and isolates clergy? Perhaps offering the gift of friendship—with Jesus, with one another, and with the stranger—is one way to receive, nurture, and share God’s excellence.