Striving for excellence: A testimony

Posted Jun 26, 2014 | Center for Pastoral Excellence


By Kenneth W. Wheeler

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.

Kenneth WheelerMinistry pushes us to do our best. That’s the bottom line for me—and I think for all pastors who love what they do, who love God and the people we are privileged to walk with. I never went to the office lamenting about being there. I looked forward to each day. I was excited to see what God had in store for me that day, what new learning and insight might be opened to me in a way that would allow me to do what I was called to do and inspire others to be their best selves.

I was privileged to serve 30 years in active ministry in institutional and congregational settings. I sought to bring my best self to each of those settings every day. I was especially aware of the importance of bringing my best self to those congregations in which people brought with them a multiplicity of needs and hurts.

I served in several congregations where the pastoral trust had been violated by clergy sexual abuse, and when I entered those settings I knew that I had to sharpen my listening skills, and sometimes I needed to get help to do that well. I was also clear about the importance of the preaching task and how critical it was to reconnect the community with the message of grace and the unconditional love of God.

I read something early in my ministry that helped shaped my understanding of pastoral excellence.. It was a simple statement but powerfully profound: "Remember that God did not give all of the wisdom to you but to the whole community." I never forgot it. Therefore, a large part of my ministry was to call forth, equip, and allow others in the community to use the gifts that God had given them.

In 1983 I was called to a congregation in a large city on the West coast. The congregation had experienced some rough moments, which had resulted in declining membership. I began each day in prayer, asking God to give me strength, energy, courage, and patience. I spent the first three months visiting with all of those who were still active members. During the next three months, I visited with all of those we could identify who were no longer worshipping. Within nine months our attendance grew from 40 to 120. We grew in numbers, but more importantly we grew in spirit.

I was never satisfied with mediocrity, especially in myself. I never took my call for granted. I never wanted to be accused of cruising through without working hard. The people in the pews can tell when pastors and leaders are not giving their all. They can also tell when pastors are lazy. There may have been those along the way who did not always agree with everything I did, but no one could ever say that I was lazy or ill-prepared.

Indeed, we ought to give our best in service. When we do, we give glory to God and are able to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that is meaningful and relevant. I learned over time that this ministry belongs to God. I began each day in prayer and study, reading everything from the latest theological work to a variety of news publications. I continue to do that because I want to be fresh in my thinking and I want to understand what young people are thinking about faith and the world.

The image displayed in this post is an edited version of a photograph of Rev. Kenneth Wheeler leading prayer at a midweek prayer lunch and is used with the permission of Our Savior's Lutheran Church ELCA in Milwaukee, WI. Photo copyright belongs to Our Savior's Lutheran Church ELCA in Milwaukee, WI.

The Reverend Kenneth W. Wheeler is an ordained ELCA clergyman who recently retired.

The Center for Pastoral Excellence at CTS addresses the long arc of ministry from discernment to training to sustaining excellence ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact