The elusive goal of excellence in ministry can be challenging to define and therefore, difficult to achieve. In their book Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry, Gregory Jones and Kevin Armstrong write, “’Excellence’ is too often interpreted as the capacity to come out ahead, to exercise strength at the expense of weakness – indeed, to leave encumbered 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.” The subjective nature of measuring “excellence” is complicated by the many definitions of “ministry.” The meaning of both words can be wide and varied rendering the phrase impotent apart from clear a definition.
For some, excellence can be defined and measured by a set of objective metrics: How many people were in church this week? How does that compare to last week, last year? How much money was collected this week, last week, last year? Some may recall attending a church with a “score board” in the foyer or perhaps in the front of the sanctuary. These boards listed the attendance and offering numbers for all to see. While not as common today, such boards were an attempt to define and measure excellence in ministry. By “ministry,” of course, one would mean the ministry of corporate worship. These score boards were unable to measure what may or may not have been done for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. They were limited to one narrow definition of excellence in one specific context of ministry.
Ministry for the Christian must be defined in broader terms than corporate worship alone. Paul advises Christians in Colossae that “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” He goes on to say, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth-century Carmelite monk, adhered to Paul’s advice. Spending most of his life washing dishes in a French monastery, Brother Lawrence understood ministry in the broadest terms possible: “That we ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” We hear in this quote a strand familiar in the biblical witness. Ministry is defined as service to God and others, and excellence is defined not by an outward measurement, but by the inward condition of the heart. The life of a Christian becomes their ministry as more and more of their thoughts, routines, actions, and reactions are surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Eugene Peterson captures this idea in his paraphrase of Romans 12:1: “So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
The Church should measure excellence in ministry by the lives of individual Christians who reflect the image of the only truly excellent One, Jesus Christ. This means, while our definition of ministry is broadened to include each member of our church along with every aspect of his or her life, our target for defining excellence is narrowed to the life of Jesus Christ. Jones and Armstrong discuss this view of excellence in ministry “as it is patterned in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And we focused on ‘resurrecting excellence’ in order to place the primary accent on the hope and new life of Easter. The image also reminds us of the perennial call to discover in God’s excellence a vocation for the life-giving character of Christian discipleship and, more particularly, the vocation of pastoral ministry.” This definition invites pastors, individual Christians, and congregations to pursue an excellence not measured by the masses, but by the individual lives and stories of people being transformed by the resurrecting power of Jesus Christ.
In 2008, I moved to Florida to serve as senior pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Jacksonville. I was greeted by a congregation that had experienced a fifty percent decline in attendance over the previous three years. Morale was low and numeric growth was not only an expectation, but a necessity for survival. Those expectations were not all external, however. My personal expectation for the growth of Southside was fueled by a drive to succeed. Success meant more people and bigger revenues, a common definition of excellence in many ministry environments. Such goals, however, may or may not always equate to ministry excellence as defined through the lens of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. There was no shortage of programs, books, conferences, and seminars to offer assistance with situations like those we faced at Southside. The more I read, the more I felt driven towards a success I believed ran counter to the basic teachings of Jesus.
To battle my unhealthy preoccupation with a flawed scorecard that threatened to reinforce a poor definition of ministry excellence, I implemented a “numbers fast.” We simply stopped reporting the weekly attendance for worship and Sunday school as well as the week’s offering total. Not only did we stop publishing these numbers to the congregation, we stopped presenting them to the staff, and I no longer spent my Mondays evaluating the previous day’s scorecard. This was a bit like weaning an addict from his drug of choice. The congregation, staff, and I were all equally uncomfortable, yet agreed such a season would help change our focus.
In the absence of the old scorecard, several good things began to happen. First, morale began to improve. Regardless of steady weekly growth and many truly excellent examples of ministry, there was always the reality we still had not made it back to previous numeric heights. With the removal of the old scorecard, we were able to eliminate the weekly reminder of the church’s recent decline. People began to focus on the positive direction in which we were moving as reflected in stories of individual ministry successes. The numbers fast also forced our leadership team to concentrate exclusively on individuals, their stories, and the real time impact our ministry environments were having. The weekly pressure to show increased attendance was replaced by a desire to seek excellence in every ministry environment. We filled the vacuum left by the old scorecard by implementing the Natural Church Development (NCD) Health Survey developed by Christian Schwarz and Church Smart Resources. The NCD gave us a new scorecard rating the health of eight key areas of church life. Once we identified our area of greatest weakness, we were able to focus efforts on improving the health of that specific area. We have followed this process for four years. Although the numbers fast officially ended in December of 2009, we find little interest in old scorekeeping that reinforces a flawed definition of ministry excellence. We have instead seen the benefit of focusing on the health of our church and striving for ministry excellence as exemplified in the person of Jesus Christ. The leadership team of Southside Baptist Church is dedicated to excellence in ministry by a commitment to creating and sustaining a healthy church. As we have concentrated on church health, God has been faithful to bring both spiritual and numeric growth. Christian Schwarz describes how church growth occurs “all by itself” as leaders shift focus away from church growth toward church health:
There are many churches that are interested in growth … They are happy with any kind of growth, whether it is human or divinely generated, whether it occurs as the fruit of their own energy investment or “all by itself.” However, this difference is of utmost spiritual and strategic importance ... We can, in fact, experience growth by constantly increasing the human energy that we invest into the church. The problem with this kind of growth is that it doesn’t have any sustainable power. As soon as we reduce our energy investment ... there is the danger that the whole ministry will begin to stagnate. In order to experience ongoing growth, this approach demands a constant increase of our energy investment.Schwartz goes on to argue that church leaders who focus on excellence through church health rather than church growth not only achieve growth, but a sustainable growth that doesn’t leave the bodies of exhausted ministers, pastors, and lay leaders in its wake.
This journey toward ministry excellence has not only benefited the church, but has been a crucial element in my spiritual formation and development as a pastor. Brian Williams addresses issues of pastoral formation in his book, The Potter’s Rib: “Our habits and ways of being and thinking are set deep within us … Digging new channels of thought and new avenues of response and reaction cost no little toil and consume no little time. This requires the slow care of inside affairs that is of the essence of substantive formation.” By accepting a position requiring numeric growth for survival, I was confronted with my own limitations and flawed definition of successful ministry. “New channels” would have to be dug if I was to achieve an excellence reflecting the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The problems I was called to solve became the tools for God’s work in me. Would I depend on my own limited abilities or would I instead focus on the sufficiency of Christ? The challenges I faced in my new position became an intersection in my own spiritual journey requiring faith and a greater commitment to my own spiritual formation and professional development. While my instincts kept telling me to reach outside and work harder to achieve success, God was inviting me inward to a deeper level of intimacy and a greater dependence than I had previously known.
Excellence in pastoral ministry begins with a personal understanding of the inner workings of Christ in the pastor’s private life. The pastor is a child of God before he is anything else. Greater self-awareness is augmented by an ongoing commitment to professional formation which is then reflected in the practice of excellent ministry. This organic approach to excellence is echoed in Timothy Geoffrion’s book, The Spirit-Led Leader:
Excellent leaders are more than masters at achieving results; they have outstanding personal attributes as well. These qualities are often summed up as personal character, a distinguishing mark of the highest level of leadership. Many students of leadership believe that what is even more important is the source of these attributes: a vital spiritual life. ... Followers want to experience the wisdom of leaders in their relationship with them, and not just hear it from them or read about it.As a congregation sees and experiences the integrated excellence of their leader they are provided a model for their own Christian formation. This is the basis of the bold invitation Paul extends to his followers to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” This seemingly arrogant statement is actually an invitation every pastor seeking ministry excellence should be able to extend to his or her congregation.
Excellence as defined by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and reflected in the lives of faithful Christians is then magnified through the ministry and influence of the local church. As the church serves and loves the broken, individuals are healed and drawn to the source of this excellent ministry which is Jesus Himself. This helix of life, death, and resurrection has been propelling the church through two thousand years of history. While the results of ministry excellence may be demonstrated through numeric growth, it is better reflected through the stories of individuals as they experience the personal transformation of the resurrection. These stories can be found in what Jones and Armstrong call “intersections,” places “we often otherwise turn into false alternatives – youth and age, strength and weakness, joy and suffering, abundance and sacrifice, tragedy and hope, community and solitude, church and world. Churches that live in these intersections are likely to manifest a commitment to resurrecting excellence ...”
Southside Baptist Church found itself at just such an “intersection” several years ago as a growing number of Burmese refugees, known as the Karen (Kuh-ren´) people , began attending. Attracted to Southside by after-school tutoring and English as a Second Language programs, the Karen population at Southside quickly grew from a couple of families to several dozen people. The church was without a pastor and experiencing steady decline, and many feared the increasing number of refugees would further alienate the few American guests finding their way into worship. The congregation was divided between those who believed the church should continue to minister to the Karen and those who believed the church was not healthy enough to do so.
By the time of my arrival as Senior Pastor in October of 2008, there were approximately thirty Karen attending worship. A Karen language worship service was started and the Karen children were mainstreamed into American Sunday school classes. Rather than seeing the Karen people as an obstacle to the church’s survival, a dedicated group of leaders prayerfully began to see the church’s ministry to them as a source for unity and healing. Projects like food and clothing drives drew American church members together. Families were encouraged to sponsor newly arriving Karen in order to assist with their transition to life in America. Furniture was regularly needed by the Karen and donated by Americans. As the economy began to falter, jobs became scarce and many Karen were suddenly unemployed. Special offerings were collected to assist their families even as many Americans were themselves facing unemployment.
By the summer of 2012 more than two hundred Karen were worshipping at Southside Baptist Church. The American congregation had also doubled in size and together they officially launched the Southside Karen Baptist Church. What was once the false alternative of ministering to a group of refugees or rescuing a declining urban church became an intersection in which excellence was discovered and reciprocal salvation experienced. Again, Jones and Armstrong:
There is a paradox to the excellence we commend, a both/and rather than an either/or. We affirm that the Christian life can be both awful and beautiful, both tragic and hopeful, both joined with the saints and engaged with the world. Resurrecting excellence is cultivated by Christians and their communities who determinedly live at these intersections and are willing to be interrupted by the people, sacraments, and Christian practiced that remind us of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love for the world.Another opportunity to enter into a ministry intersection occurred when a church three miles from Southside was about to close. This small congregation had been without a pastor for many months and no longer had the money to pay the utility bill. The Paul Avenue Baptist Church was started by Southside in the late 1940s in a bedroom community known as Larsen. Built to offer affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II, today Larsen is home to many low-income families. This community is literally and figuratively on “the other side of the tracks” from Southside’s campus in the wealthy historic district of San Marco.
The members of Southside welcomed the members of Paul Avenue into their family and began the work of transforming the Paul Avenue campus into what has become known as the Larsen Outreach Center (LOC). Today, members of Southside from Larsen, along with other members of the church, coordinate a worship service at the LOC on the third Sunday evening of each month. After worship, neighbors are offered boxes of food designed to provide a family of four a four-day supply of food for only four dollars. Within the first few months of this effort, eighty-six boxes of food were distributed to more than fifty different families. Many families come each month and at least two people have made professions of faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Attendance in the monthly worship service has grown steadily so that by the fifth month the small sanctuary was filled to capacity. A Spanish-speaking congregation was started on Sunday mornings to minister to the Hispanic members of the Larsen community. By the end of its first year of existence, Igelsia Cristiana de Jacksonville averaged forty people in attendance.
What was once a dying church is now a vibrant part of its community. The LOC is touching the lives of neighbors, but it is also impacting many people at Southside who never knew this neighborhood existed. By serving in the Larsen community, people are given the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to “the least of these.” This ministry experience serves to grow the Kingdom by welcoming new members in and growing existing members as they exercise their faith through service.
Since 2008 Southside Baptist Church has successfully launched two new churches, created an outreach center in a low-income neighborhood, and re-established a vision for ministry in their own community. Attendance has more than doubled and the church is no longer facing financial insolvency. The dramatic growth at Southside Baptist Church is not, however, what makes these stories examples of ministry excellence. The growth is the result of ministry excellence that began to take place long before the numbers reflected any change. As individuals embraced the call of Christ to practice a sacrificial love, they became agents for excellent ministry in and through this local body of believers. The personal spiritual development of individual Christians then contributed to the overall health of the church, which in turn became a more accurate reflection of the excellent God we serve. This principle may be magnified through programming, reflected in statistics, exemplified in leadership, but finds its origins in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Armstrong, L. Gregory and Kevin R. Jones Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.
Geoffrion, Timothy C. The Spirit-Led Leader: Nine Leadership Practices and Soul Principles. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2005.
Lawrence, Brother. The Practice of the Presence of God (Hendrickson Classics). Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message, large print numbered ed.. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2007.
Phan, Zoya. Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. New York: Free Press, 2010.
Schwarz, Christian. Color Your World with Natural Church Development. St. Charles, IL: Churchsmart Resources, 2005.
Schwarz, Christian A. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches. St. Charles, IL: Churchsmart Resources, 1996.
Sider, Ronald J. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. New ed. Lanham, MD: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Williams, Brian A. The Potter's Rib: Mentoring for Pastoral Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Regent College Publishing, 2005.