Changing the standards for pastoral excellence: A call for theological conversation

Posted Jul 24, 2014 | Center for Pastoral Excellence


By Robert C. Saler

We have embarked on a series of blog posts submitted by a wide array of pastoral leaders. Each guest blogger is exploring one question about what pastoral excellence is today. Read more about the series and consider submitting your own.

Robert C. SalerThe question of whether pastors should strive for “excellence” in ministry seems as though it would have a straightforward enough answer: of course! To the extent that pastoral ministry is a profession, and “excellence” in the professions is recognized as a good thing, then it seems obvious that pastors (and congregations) would value it.

However, there are very real reasons why pastors in particular tend to become uncomfortable with the language of excellence. As with so many issues in theology and church life, questions of “good” and “bad” tend to be caught up in the larger question of “who gets to decide?” Or, put more specifically: by what standards does one measure excellence in pastoral ministry, and who adjudicates whether or not those standards have been met?

In the North American church, we are familiar with the fact that there are intense and fascinating shifts happening in terms of how churches relate to various strands of culture. While it is perhaps premature to declare, as many have, that we have entered fully into a “post-Christendom” era, it is certainly the case that the landscape of congregational ministry has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Such changes have produced marvelous opportunities for witness to the gospel, but they also inevitably produce anxiety on the part of congregations and their leaders.

Much of this anxiety, in my view, stems from the fact that churches (at both the congregational and judicatory levels) are coming to grips with their increasing suspicion that previously honored standards of “success” in ministry are no longer the most effective indicators of excellence. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would highlight the following two examples:

1). Quantitative data, or “numbers:” Put bluntly, it has been far too common to assess a pastor’s success by the sheer amount (quantitatively determined) of capital that she or he marshals in the church. How many are in worship? How many young people are confirmed? Are financial contributions up or down?

While we would certainly not want to deny the existence of any connection between excellent ministry and church attendance/healthy finances, we also need to recognize that truly faithful and excellent ministry takes place in settings that do not command large amounts of material resources (human, financial, or otherwise). Indeed, to the extent that the church is called to take unpopular stances, there have been and will continue to be times in which focus on “success in numbers” actually detracts from pastoral effectiveness.

2). Community influence: Another common measure of pastoral excellence is the extent to which the pastor is seen as exercising prominent moral leadership in the community. Is she or he consulted by major power brokers? Is the congregation featured in the news regularly?

Here again, it is certainly the case that there will be many contexts and occasions in which pastoral excellence will indeed involve community leadership. However, such leadership can no longer proceed on the basis of the implicit assumption that congregations (particularly Christian congregations) can function as the primary moral centers of the community. Particularly in more secular locations, the moral advocacy provided by congregations and their pastors might well take place at the “margins” of mainstream community discourse; however, the advantage to this is that—as in most social configurations of power—the margins provide the sort of critical distance necessary in order to critique power when it does not exhibit the sort of civic virtue on behalf of those without power.

If this is at all true, then the main thing to conclude is that ongoing discernment about the standards for what counts as “success” in ministry in a given context is one of the most important theological conversations that churches at all levels (congregations, judicatories, seminaries) can have. As followers of the same Jesus Christ whose teaching and life radically redefined what “success” in God’s kingdom looks like, such conversations are themselves a kind of devotional practice; indeed, it may be that this practice itself fosters new levels of excellence among those called to carry out God’s mission in this world.

Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

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