Sustaining Pastoral Excellence
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Excellence and Prophetic Ministry

A veteran pastor, whose ministry began in the turmoil of the 1960s, asked if I thought Amos, Micah, Isaiah, or Jeremiah would fit the definition of excellence in ministry. 

“It seems as though ‘excellent ministry’ is being defined primarily in terms of growing and managing efficient and prosperous religious institutions,” he said. “I don’t hear much attention being paid to challenging the injustices and violence in the world. So, I doubt any of the prophets would make the list of excellent ministry.”

How would you respond? My immediate inclination was to remind him that the prophets he mentioned didn’t serve as pastors of congregations and that excellence in ministry includes a variety of contexts and expressions. But the questioner is a pastor, and he would argue that prophetic ministry is integral to the role of every pastor.

I admit my own resonance with the pastor’s question. I, too, began pastoral ministry in the 1960’s and am troubled by the pervasive silence of the contemporary church on such vexing topics as preemptive war, torture, racism, poverty, insidious consumerism, environmental destruction . . .

But the question itself may be too simplistic and even misleading. “Prophetic ministry” is as difficult to define as “excellent ministry.” Both concepts carry baggage in the contemporary context.

“Excellence” gets identified with the corporate business world, athletics, or marketing, and as a result, takes on images of self-generated achievement and elitism. “Prophetic” is typically associated with the political world and conjures up images of strident advocacy on behalf of legislation or denunciation of particular governmental policies.

While excellent ministry learns from the business world and requires personal gifts and effort, its foundation and fundamental character are derived from God’s presence, power, and purposes. While prophetic ministry includes engagement with politics and public advocacy, its foundation and fundamental character are grounded and formed in God’s vision for the whole of creation.

Prophetic ministry involves incorporating God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy into personal values and actions, institutional structures, and governmental policies. It includes leading congregations to be alternative communities that look and act like God’s reconciled and redeemed community where “the orphans, widows, and strangers” are welcomed at God’s table of  peace and abundance.

When excellence is used in relationship to Christian ministry it inevitably includes prophetic. Ministry without attentiveness to God’s vision for humanity (the prophetic) is not Christian ministry. And, prophetic ministry that fails to embody grace and competence falls short of Christian ministry.

Forming communities that embody God’s vision for the world is at the heart of all Christian ministry. In a politically and religiously polarized world, communities of civility and hospitality are prophetic communities. A world torn apart by violence and war pleads for an embodied message of peace and reconciliation.

When poverty and preventable diseases threaten the human family, policies and practices that care for “the least of these” are in the lineage of the prophets and Jesus. And when the eco-system is threatened with destruction, excellent ministry calls for stewardship of the creation God loves.

Would the Old Testament prophets make our list of excellent ministers? Perhaps a better question is, do our ministries and congregations include the vision, courage, and faithfulness embodied and proclaimed by the likes of Amos, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah…and Jesus?

Kenneth L. Carder is professor of the practice of pastoral formation at Duke Divinity School and a senior fellow with Pulpit & Pew: The Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry. He was bishop of the Mississippi Area of the United Methodist Church from 2000 to 2004 and the Nashville Area of the UMC from 1992 to 2000.

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The Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc.