Resurrecting Excellence

Resurrecting Excellence; Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (L. Gregory Jones & Kevin R. Armstrong; ©2006 by William B. Eerdmans)

In “Resurrecting Excellence”, Jones and Armstrong make the case that excellence in ministry is not only about “our expectations and our achievements” — nor is it about lowering our “expectations in order to resist cultural standards of excellence.” For them, excellence in ministry has to do with a focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nurturing discipleship among God’s people.

Excellence in ministry takes place when a congregation enters in to the pain and struggles of individual believers. In the author’s words:

Resurrecting excellence in ministry calls us to work at the intersection of tragedy and hope, death and life, without diminishing tragedy’s reality or obscuring the pain of death.

In our weakness, we discover the strength of Christ, and the strength of Christian community.

One dynamic of resurrecting excellence is to work outside the boundaries of our strengths and interests — to allow God to build on our weaknesses. Rather than stay within the safety of what we do well, we are encouraged to take the risk of engaging our weaknesses, and allowing God to transform them.

Maintaining excellence requires an intentional focus on Sabbath time.

Excellence in ministry can be found in large, program-focused congregations, as well as in small, family sized congregations. It requires excellence in pastoral leadership, and excellence in discipleship among members of the community.

Jones and Armstrong write:

...excellent pastors can flourish for only so long in mediocre or destructive congregations, just as excellent congregations can remain so for only so long under mediocre or destructive leadership. Such imbalance inevitably disorders our life together.

The authors emphasize "Christian practices" [what we describe, at Saint Peter, as "habits of discipleship"]. When we enter into them, we are connected with contemporaries who do the same, as well as saints throughout history who have tended to them. It is as important for pastors to engage these practices as it is for members to do so.

Developing “holy friendships” is a critical aspect of faithfulness [what we describe, at Saint Peter, as "faith partnerships"]. We are called to practice love for the neighbor with one another, and we are called to encourage (and challenge) one another to grow in Christian life and practice.

Clergy, in particular, tend not to engage in holy friendships. Loneliness and isolation are often identified among clergy. Engagement with peer groups, and with intentional Christian friendships, can address this.

The vocation of Christian life is learned, lived, and sustained through holy friendships and faithful practices that open us to God’s grace.

Excellence in pastoral leadership is enhanced when the pastor has a healthy understanding of ministry as rooted in three perspectives: calling (an awareness that God has selected one for pastoral ministry), profession (emphasizing standards of excellence, study, and service to community) and office (in preaching, teaching, and presiding at the Sacraments, representing Christ in the community). Differing traditions may emphasize one of these three perspectives, but the strongest models emphasize one of these, while drawing on the strengths of the others. Calling can be distorted and turn into therapy, profession can be distorted into careerism and office can be distorted into hierarchy and bureaucracy. But a healthy consideration (and balance) of these three understandings can lead to a strong ministry, marked by attentiveness (calling), practical wisdom (profession) and wise administration (office).

Christians (leaders and followers) who are committed to excellence are also committed to a lifelong journey of learning. This calls for a "rich interplay among congregations, seminaries and other religious and social institutions." The church needs strong, imaginative theologians, who can connect the ancient story with today's reality.

The strongest pastoral leaders are interpreters, visionaries and reconcilers. The core qualities of these three characteristics are basic to all Christian discipleship.

God provides rich treasures that make ministry possible. Formative and imaginative treasures include Scripture, theology, hymns, prayers, literature, arts and community. Institutional treasures include congregations, schools, foundations, hospitals, publishing houses, daycare centers, homeless shelters. Economic treasures include salaries, grants, tithes, and subsidies.

Questions for Saint Peter Lutheran Church

  1. The Christian practices commended in this book seem very similar to the “Habits of Discipleship” that we promote at Saint Peter. How can we increase our efforts to help every member of our community engage these habits more intentionally?
  2. Saint Peter has a strong commitment to lifelong learning (adult eduction; continuing eduction for staff; Sabbatical leave for clergy...). How does this benefit our congregation, and its ministries?
  3. What treasures underwrite the ministries of our congregation? How can we discipline ourselves to be most faithful with what has been entrusted to us?