May 10, 2010

Pursuing Excellence

Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong have authored a significant study on what constitutes “excellence” in ministry. Working with the Pulpit and Pew project at Duke University Divinity School, this professor and pastor duo have outlined how to “resurrect” excellence in the practices that form ministers for congregational life. [They don’t just play basketball at Duke!] Too often words like “quality,” “value,” and “excellence” are used only in corporate culture and rarely in the practice of ministry. Their text urges a deeper engagement with the “treasures of ministry,” e.g., Holy Scripture, and the self-emptying trajectory of Christ.

Ministry does not rank high in the list of preferred vocations, as a recent Christian Century reports. When Harris Interactive took its annual poll measuring the prestige granted different professions, the top three were firefighters, doctors, and nurses. Clergy came in eight, behind scientists, teachers, military officers, and police officers—among others. (The Christian Century, January 23, 2007).

Is this because of too many Elmer Gantry-like parsons, too much snake-oil, too little self-giving, too much personal and denominational scandal--or just numbing mediocrity? Seminaries must address this crisis in professional identity in creative ways or be consigned to irrelevance.

In my judgment, excellence in ministry depends upon excellence in theological education. [Of course, you would expect a seminary president to suggest such.] These are unusually challenging days for seminaries as old economic models, pedagogical methods, curricular divisions between theoretical and practical studies, and decaying infrastructures compromise future flourishing. Daniel Aleshire of ATS has observed that schools must “focus on strategies that have greater sustainability.” The next generation of congregational leaders depends upon our nimble stewardship of resources.

At Central we are pursuing excellence in each of these areas of concern. Through instructors who wed scholarship and practice of ministry, our courses are organized around the life and mission of the church. We pursue efficient business practices and have even moved our location so as to fund mission rather than maintenance. We are pursuing excellence in educational delivery methods, seeking to honor internship models of learning as well as technologically mediated courses. And, as I write this blog, steel is being unloaded outside my window that will provide the skeleton of our new chapel and strengthen the structure of the library. Deferred maintenance is a long way off for Central due to the excellence of new architecture.

Molly T. Marshall

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