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As human beings, we long for excellence in our lives and in those with whom we interact. We hope to be treated by an exceptional physician. We desire to learn from a master teacher. We relish the opportunity to hear a gifted musician. We also long for what the Apostle Paul calls "a still more excellent way" in our Christian life and witness.
For Paul, this way of excellence is a way of love patterned in Christ. It is an invitation to a journey, to a way of life with God and others shaped by a love that "is patient ... kind ... not envious ... or arrogant"; that "does not insist on its own way." A love that "never ends" (1 Cor. 13).
This way of life is very different from the world's way, in which excellence is gauged by competition and achievement. Excellence for Paul does not focus on what "I" can do over against others, thereby creating "winners" and "losers." Rather, Paul calls us - as he did the Corinthians - to a way of excelling by embodying God's love manifest in Jesus Christ.
Regrettably, we often lose our way by uncritically adopting worldly understandings. Excellence has become the Holy Grail of American culture. It is the aspiration of the athlete, the benchmark ofbusiness and industry, the essence of personal coaching. This culturally conceived excellence is strongly oriented toward success, as evidenced by the thriving "successories" industry that celebrates - and markets - its pursuit. Such "excellence" promotes individual effort and puts a premium on exceptional competence and skill.
In a world of make-or-break rankings, mission statements, and business plans, "excellence" is too often interpreted as the capacity to come out ahead, to exercise strength at the expense of weakness - indeed, to leave encumbering weakness behind. Such interpretation has crept into the church without any adaptation or translation into Christian terms, leading even pastors we would characterize as excellent feeling frustrated. Heidi Neumark writes: "It seems that every time I open a church magazine, I am instructed to raise my expectations, higher and higher. But over the years I have lowered my expectations, and it has made me feel freer and happier. I am more accepting of my limitations and more aware of the grace of God working when I cannot."
If excellence in Christian life is only or even primarily about our expectations and our achievements, then we would agree that there is something dangerous and even perverse about commending excellence. But we also do not think that we are called to lower expectations in order to resist cultural standards of excellence. The alternative to uncritical adoption of cultural standards of excellence is not to reject excellence altogether, nor is to settle for "mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness." Rather, it is an appropriately Christian understanding of excellence.
Ironically, business leaders have recently been mining insights that have long been known to Christians but that we have too often allowed to become obscured by the accretions of contemporary culture. So, for example, business leaders are beginning to talk about the importance of "spirit" in leadership and to pay attention to the good of the larger community rather than individual self-interest. One former CEO, pioneering Dollar General leader Cal Turner Jr., noted to a group of church leaders that he longed for the church to reclaim its insights into Christian leadership and standards of excellence rather than always assuming that it has to learn from business.
Indeed, in our culture it is some business leaders who are helping the church reclaim our understanding of and emphasis on excellence. Jim Collins, for example, begins his important and provocative book Good to Great by stressing that the only way we will discover and sustain excellence is if we continually highlight its significance. "Good is the enemy of great," he writes. "And that is one of the key reasons why we have so little that becomes great." Too often our sights are set too low, in business as well as in the church.
We might think that Collins would recommend a significant dose of external pressure or competition to create high standards of excellence. But that is to miss the point. On the contrary, Collins suggests that the desire for excellence comes from within: "Those who turn good into great are motivated by a deep creative urge and an inner compulsion for sheer unadulterated excellence for its own sake. Those who perpetuate mediocrity, in contrast, are motivated more by the fear of being left behind."
Collins notes that the best leaders are people who combine a personal humility with a passion for the welfare of the larger organization. And it is at this point, perhaps, that Christians begin to recognize the contours of our own forgotten understanding. We are reminded here of Paul's admonition to the Philippians that, in living lives "worthy of the gospel" (Phil. 1:27), they must look not to their own interests but to the interests of others, must have their passion shaped by witnessing to the extraordinary power of God's inbreaking reign. Paul tells the Philippians to renounce "selfish ambition" (2:3) - that is, self-interested ambition that diminishes and destroys life - suggesting that there is a different kind of ambition - a kingdom-shaped ambition - to which Christians should aspire. And indeed, Paul goes on to describe it: we are to aspire to a life shaped by and patterned in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2:5-11). We are to be ambitious for the gospel.
We will return to this passage in a later section to explore in more detail its implications for the life of Christian excellence. For now, however, let us pause to consider its larger claim. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are both the basis and the goal of our summons to excellence. We believe that the resurrection rightly focuses our attention on the hope to which we have been called and shapes our sense of excellence in the light of God's glory as revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. The worthiness - the excellence - of our lives is to be patterned in Christ, and specifically the hope and new life we discover in the power of the resurrection. Our ambition for the gospel is a call to the resurrecting excellence of the Triune God.
We use the term resurrecting excellence in this way throughout the book. But there is also another sense in which we use it. We believe that in addition to being resurrected by and to the excellence of Christ, we can participate in the work of "resurrecting" excellence in Christian ministry, for the sake of shaping and nurturing life-giving discipleship and bearing witness to the light of Christ in the world. The task of resurrecting excellence in Christian ministry is a daily renewal of our vocation to bear witness to the new life of Easter. It is also a particularly important task in our culture, where a variety of forces has led us too often to lower our sights and to turn away from being ambitious for the gospel. In order to be about the work of resurrecting excellence, we cannot afford to settle for less than the best that God has entrusted to us. If there is any excellence in Christian life and Christian ministry, anything worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8) - as indeed there is - let us think on these things.
How Do We Measure Christian Excellence?
Christine Pohl challenged our theological colloquium to think carefully about what excellence might mean in a Christian context. She challenged the culturally influenced preoccupation too many have with "human effort, achievement, and perfectly crafted outcomes." By contrast, she offered this wise counsel about Christian excellence:
Within faithful Christian communities ... understandings of excellence and practices of excellent ministry will often be complex and somewhat ambiguous given at least the following factors. First, at the center of our proclamation and our hope is a crucified Savior. ... Second, the Kingdom of God privileges "the poor, crippled, lame, and blind," and faithful followers of Christ have a distinctive call to welcome "the least" to our tables and into our congregations.... Third, while pursuing holiness (or excellence), Christians recognize the persistent reality of human sinfulness. We all depend on God's forgiveness and healing as our struggles with sin or its consequences are part of daily congregational life. And finally, our own motives and efforts in ministry are often a strange mixture of sin and grace, skill and frailty.
Pohl suggests that a Christian understanding of excellence will require distinctive judgments and coherent, theologically grounded standards of evaluation if we are to measure Christian ministry faithfully and well.
Excellence in Christian ministry is perceptible and palpable. Yet it requires a capacity for measuring life by the complexity of judgment and grace as well as the more standard measures of "bodies, budgets, and buildings." The number of people reached in evangelistic efforts and average attendance in worship are certainly important measures of vitality, and so also is the community's rich life in Christ. Excellent ministry may be revealed in the number of mission trips and outreach projects and the amount of money spent in ministry efforts, and it is also revealed by the power and presence of God reflected in signs of forgiveness and gestures of reconciliation.
How do we calculate the effect of reconciling forgiveness, the value of deepened prayer life, the impact of passing on faith to a child, the quiet presence of sitting with a dying parishioner or hammering nails to help provide housing for a homeless family? Such activities are crucial to the way of discipleship, yet they often seem less significant when measured against the ways of the world.
In his memoir Open Secrets, Richard Lischer offers an eloquent description of resurrecting excellence in ministry. In particular, he points to his own struggles in reconciling his pastoral ministry in a small congregation in southern Illinois, where very little seemed to be happening, with the televised Watergate hearings in the summer of 1974 that had transfixed the American people. John and Mo Dean seemed to represent real significance, real power in comparison with the Lischers' rather ordinary, prosaic life in ministry in rural Illinois. Lischer struggled with John Dean's power because Dean seemed to have achieved cultural status without ever excelling at anything. Even so, Dean's status had fascinated a nation, and it made Lischer wonder about his life as a pastor. Yet, upon reflection, Lischer affirms the quiet, hidden faithfulness of a pastor's calling:
A minister may drive twenty-five miles to a hospital in order to recite a thirty-second prayer and make the sign of the cross over a comatose parishioner. Who sees this act and judges it to be good? The pastor may devote years of conversation and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in order to promote reconciliation among factions in the community. The preacher may invest fifteen hours of biblical research and reflection on a fifteen-minute speech for no other purpose than to make God a little more believable to the congregation.
Place this near-quixotic pursuit of souls beside the creamy power of people like John and Mo, and even a saint will doubt his or her vocation. Does the work of ministry really have the significance we attach to it? What is more important, the political power that openly rules the world, or the kingdom of God that secretly consecrates it?
Perhaps if we articulated a more robust understanding of resurrecting excellence, of genuinely faithful living measured by a sense of what constitutes God's excellence, we would be less likely to doubt our own vocations - whether as laypeople or clergy.
To be sure, the criteria by which we ought to measure Christian life will be qualitative as well as quantitative, and thus difficult to summarize. What if excellence were articulated as a response to the question, "Where is the presence and power of God being manifested in this congregation's life, in this person's life, in this person's pastoral leadership?" In some circumstances the response may draw attention to numerical growth, to new programs and outreach, to expanding financial stewardship, to new and renovated buildings. Yet in other circumstances the response may refer to a pastor's hard work of reconciliation among factions in a community, to a congregation's willingness to care for those who are dying, to a community's persistence in resisting injustice and fostering practices of justice and mercy.
Christian excellence is found in diverse settings and circumstances: in settings of significant numerical growth and evangelistic outreach as well as in quieter settings of faithfulness exercised day by day, week by week. It is found among those who display extraordinary gifts and talents as well as among those who cultivate more limited gifts and talents in the very best ways possible. There is no one standard or criterion for measuring excellence, other than fidelity to the crucified and risen Christ.
We suggest, then, that the focus should be fixed on how congregations and pastors are bearing witness to the presence and power of God. To be sure, even with such a focus on God there will inevitably be debates and disagreements about the best images of excellence, the appropriate criteria for excellence, and whether particular congregations, laypeople, and clergy merit identification as excellent. Yet while such disagreements and debates are to be expected, a focus on resurrecting excellence will enable both the understanding and the practice of Christian life in general, and of pastoral ministry in particular, to grow in grace and purpose and in beauty in relation to God. We would submit that this last attribute - beauty - may offer the richest understanding of the true measure of Christian excellence.
Excellence as Aesthetic
Christian ministry, lived faithfully and well, is beautiful. This is as true for congregations as it is for the pastors who lead them. It is beautiful to experience or observe the joy, grace, love, mercy, justice, and power that shine forth as people praise God in singing, as they offer hospitality and draw into new life those who have been outsiders, as they pray fervently for one another and for the pains of the community as well as the world, as they learn Scripture and Christian doctrine with one another, as they offer and receive forgiveness, as they resist injustice and foster justice, as they bear witness to the abundance of the Triune God in their vocations in the world.
In order to understand and experience such beauty, we need the "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" that Jesus describes to his disciples in Matthew 13 (vv. 10-17). They are eyes and ears that see and hear as the Triune God sees and hears the lives, hearts, and circumstances of this world that God created and loves so much. As the nineteenth-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God."
The Reverend John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, believes that God sees us in aesthetic terms and that we can see God in like terms if we cultivate the capacities to do so. Ames, now in his mid-seventies and reflecting on a lifetime of ministry, has come to the conclusion that beauty is at the heart of our relationship with God: "Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense."
Ames recalls an old Pentecost sermon in which he proclaimed that it seems as though the Lord occasionally "breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation," turning it briefly to radiance before it recedes back into itself. He now observes, "The Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than [that] seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?"
Who could have the courage to see the world charged with the grandeur of God, to see the world shining like transfiguration? It would be people who have cultivated the wisdom and skill to have eyes to see and ears to hear the beauty of God, the beauty of this world, and the beauty of a congregation's life together. Such wisdom and skill are learned and lived in the friendships and practices of Christian life - because the beauty we are called to see and hear is not culturally defined but rather shaped by the Triune God's abundant, gracious, loving engagement with us and the world.
Excerpted from Resurrecting Excellence by L. Gregory Jones Kevin R. Armstrong Copyright © 2006 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
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