Should Christian ministry strive for excellence?
Excellence has become the Holy Grail of American culture. The discouraged mourn its loss while the ambitious seek its recovery. Almost everyone agrees there isn’t enough of it. Books, workshops, and even office accessories aim to inspire excellence and identify its characteristics. Excellence is the benchmark of industry, the aspiration of the athlete, the criterion for organizational achievement, and the essence of research centers and personal coaching. Despite this fervent pursuit of excellence—or perhaps because of it—many Christians are reluctant to describe a faithful pastoral ministry, a commendable congregation, or a well-lived life as “excellent.” Why? After all, haven’t you encountered a variety of faithful Christians and vital congregations that embody “the more excellent way” Paul commends?
For several years a group of us—pastors, academic theologians, and lay persons—from around the country have gathered twice a year at Duke Divinity School to probe the theological and practical understandings of excellence. Is it an appropriate word for Christians to use to describe a well-lived life? If so, how is excellence identified and nurtured? Is there a structure of relationships and practices unique to excellent ministry that is lacking in ministry that is other-than-excellent?
We struggled over the current images of excellence as something competitive, individualistic, and achievable. We pointed to the emergence of consumer industries that promote excellence through office products, books, seminars, and coaching techniques. This “successories” mentality seems to promote individual achievement, privilege exceptional personal effort, and put a premium on competence and skill. Surely this was not what we wanted to promote. (In recent months I’ve been fascinated that one cynic’s response to these products has been to create counter-products. Despair, Inc. now has calendars, desk pads, and screen savers with satiric jabs at the “excellence industry.”)
We began to ask whether a modern American culture can reconcile its notion of excellence with a theological understanding of a life that follows a crucified and risen Christ who seems to have favored the poor, lame, blind, and crippled. Christine Pohl, a member of our group and professor of Christian ethics at Asbury Seminary, reflected that “excellence is closely related to human effort, achievement, and perfectly crafted outcomes.… How do we take into account issues of sin, weakness, and dependence on God’s grace? What distinguishes the excellence of which we speak with the market-driven excellence that is associated with effectiveness, efficiency, and survival of the fittest [or fastest growing]?”
In our search for a theologically responsible way to relate weakness and excellence, humility and ambition, dying to oneself and being raised up in Christ, certain patterns and principles began to emerge in our conversation:
- The primary referent of excellence is God. God shapes Christian ministry in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the ongoing work of God’s spirit in and through the church.
- Excellence may be revealed in an event but it very likely is grounded in a life of attentiveness to Paul’s “more excellent way.” Christians who are described as “knowing what to say” or “being in the right place at the right time” are likely people who have developed life-long patterns of prayer, who have remained attentive to God and holy scripture, and who participate regularly in those activities that have come to be called Christian practices. Their excellence is not episodic but organic.
- Ambition is not a bad thing. Paul challenges the Philippians to renounce “selfish ambition” (Phil. 2:3) implying that there is something of an unselfish ambition. That is, an ambition for and in the gospel.
- Excellent ministry is always marked by discipleship that is deeply communal, shaped by love, and focused on strengthening the whole community. The recognition of our weakness makes us better hosts. We become attentive to the necessity of God’s provision on our lives. And, of course, excellence is seldom an intentional aim and more a product of faithfulness and love. (Beware the person who arises each day saying, “Good Morning, God. I think I’ll be excellent today.”)
Let me very quickly identify four themes we believe are integral to the understanding, practice, and sustaining of pastoral excellence. The first area is vocation. Most pastors believe ministry is a highly satisfying vocation, and yet, they feel beset by challenges and frustration with themselves, with each other, and with their families, congregations, and judicatories.
Sustaining pastoral excellence means restoring a notion of vocation that understands the Christian life not simply as a doctrine but as a way of life to which we are called, educated, and shaped to live as disciples who desire to know and love God truly and faithfully. This requires an integration of soul, mind, heart, and strength. (Read Michael Jinkins’ paper, “Loving God with Our Minds: The Vocation of Theological Education in the Life and Leadership of the Church.” (Journal of Religious Leadership, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 2003). Read it quietly as devotional material and read it together with other pastors and with members of your congregation.
As we encounter more fully and deeply the contours of our vocation, we discover how learning the Christian faith is analogous to learning a craft such as music, masonry, or athletics. Key by key. Brick by brick. Swing by swing. Together with other Christians and in the light of God, we discover that “a more excellent way” of living requires teachers and apprentices who help each other learn and grow through the thoughtful, careful, and often tedious acts and gestures of Christian living. We come to learn—and hopefully master—certain movements and practices that allow us to become more fully ourselves.
It is tedious to play the piano scales over and over, but no one becomes an accomplished pianist until the basics are mastered. So it is with Christian life. Alone, we are not smart enough, skilled enough, even honorable enough to live and grow as Christians. But by God’s grace, the mentoring of others, and the patient practice of seemingly mundane disciplines and practices, we grow into our vocation as Christians.
The second important theme that has emerged in our conversations is holy friendship. “No longer do I call you servants,” Jesus said in his farewell to the disciples, “but now I call you friends.” Christian friendship begins with being a friend of God. Moses was known in the scriptures as a “friend of God”(Exodus 33:11). God reaches out to us, and our friendships with others are a reflection of the love of God and bear witness to God’s friendship for the world.
While it is not possible for every Christian to know every other intimately, it is our conviction that holy friendships are awakened with the splashing water of the baptismal font. The church often becomes a school for unlikely friendships. Here we can be introduced to a variety of people with whom we might never have come into relationship except for our gathering to live into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To be sure, friends can malform us as well as transform us. We must be on guard that Christian friendships do not become exclusive friendships.
Pastors seem to have a particularly difficult time creating and sustaining friendships. We are reluctant to develop friendships because a move will only bring the pain of separation. We don’t want to be seen as “playing favorites” by privileging certain relationships. We are afraid of becoming vulnerable. There is much we pastors need to learn about friendships that are born of God, christologically shaped, and Spirit-inspired. I suspect as we lean further into a “resurrecting excellence,” we will discover that holy friendships present the greatest challenges and the most life-giving rewards.
Very briefly, two more themes: Excellence is shaped by life-sustaining practices. Singing, praying, and reading scripture together are staples of our gathered life. But so are the practices of honoring the body that lead to healthful habits of the body and the Body. Those in bivocational ministry know, perhaps better than any of the rest of us, how important the practice of Sabbath keeping is. You will have nothing to offer to your congregation, your family, your God without the personal commitment and community practice of receiving times of Sabbath as assurances of God’s sustaining presence. There are many other practices. The recovery and nurture of these practices make us a peculiar—and powerful—witness in the world.
Finally, in order to live a life of cruciform excellence, we require particular treasures. Treasures are the material goods necessary for a well-lived Christian life. For pastors, this can mean everything from one’s salary to one’s insurance to the music, movies, and poetry that sustain our home, health, and hope. We must continue to discern how much is “enough” to sustain a well-lived life in different contexts and at different times of our ministry. Two of the most vulnerable times for pastors are at the beginning of their ministry and at the time when their children are going off to school. What does this tell us about the ways we structure support? How do we understand the matters in light of the gospel and our particular communities? And what are the other, often overlooked, treasures that are non-monetary but sustain faithful living: literature, rest, educational enrichment, peer support, others?
As Christians, excellence does not have to be about competition, selfish ambition, or personal achievement. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we discover a way of life that is deeply communal and ambitious for the gospel. As Paul urges us, I hope you’ll think on these things. I believe God’s hope and our joy are to be found in Resurrecting Excellence.
Kevin Armstrong is pastor of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Ind. He was formerly the director of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Coordination program at Lilly Endowment Inc. This essay originally appeared in Volume 1 of Communitas, a publication of the College of Pastoral Leaders at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.