Excellence in pastoral ministry depends upon dependence

Posted Sep 18, 2014 | Center for Pastoral Excellence


By Howard Cassidy-Moffatt

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.

Howard Cassidy-Moffatt“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” contended G.K. Chesterton. By that he meant we shouldn’t hesitate to undertake some daunting thing just because we may not achieve grand success or may not be fledged experts (fully or otherwise). He also wanted to assert that amateurs—in the strictest sense of the word (people who do what they love to do)—are apt to fail from time to time but that the efforts themselves are worthy.

But doing things badly probably shouldn't be our ministry target, even as we love the ministries to which we are called. Excellence in pastoral practice is our target, as both the title of this piece and the very name of the Center posit.

A full definition of excellence is a post for another day. Succinctly here we might describe “excellence in ministry” as “maximizing our effectiveness for God in a particular ministry setting.” As an aside, I do not think that excellence in ministry is linguistically coterminous with the word “success.” Identifying characteristics of a path toward excellence is this post’s object. However, it’s likely that pursuit of excellence according to the schema below may, as a byproduct, open our eyes to a more divinely driven notion of success.

I think we often aim for excellence primarily from a baseline of academic preparation and practical skills training. As a seminary adjunct professor, I embrace the need for ministry preparation. Skill set development is important, and lifelong skill set refinement is essential, lest we become stale in our practice.

But ministry is more than the sum total of even the most finely honed skills. At its core, ministry requires, I believe, a deepening sense of dependence in order to achieve anything like what we might recognize as excellence.

“Dependence" is, incidentally, a word that may stroke our fur the wrong way. Ours is the era of personal sufficiency. Even as we bathe in social media, surrounded by everyone's “likes” and “favorites,” we're often only in it together as long as the community profile very much reflects our own. Still, even given that societal bias against dependence, let’s consider that this call to dependence is anchored by at least three things:

First is a profound, daily, and ever-deepening dependence on God. Mine is not the first voice to call ministers to a deep reliance on divine power. Brother Lawrence's words still ring true: “I cannot imagine how religious persons can live satisfied without the practice of the presence of God. For my part I keep myself retired with Him in the depth of center of my soul as much as I can; and while I am so with Him I fear nothing; but the least turning from Him is insupportable” (The Practice of the Presence of God).

But words like Brother Lawrence’s must be rung with regularity, via our spiritual practices and disciplines,,until we internalize the steadying truth that our efforts are only effective as we swim in the sea of dependence upon the very presence of God. The God who creates, sustains, and empowers generally must also be allowed to create and sustain and recreate and lead in each of us as we seek to serve Christ and serve others on his behalf. This is, not coincidentally, a bit of a call to humility as we again encounter Jesus’ words, "Apart from me you can do nothing." But certainly, with him, we "can do."

From that basis of dependence on God there flows a necessary second aspect of dependence: a dependence on those other ministers around me. Much contemporary leadership material centers on team development. While we often assent to the notion of team, the reason the "team drum" is beat regularly is that it runs counter to the tendency we have, as mentioned above, to go it alone. Dependence is, however, more than mere partnership for tasks. Dependence is a recognition of need for others in the journey we call ministry.

Jesus calls us to dependence on God even as he models our need for dependence on each other: "Couldn’t you…keep watch with me for one hour?" All along in his ministry, and particularly as he approached his Passion, Jesus holds out the inherent need for personal connection with others who serve him. He gathered a band of twelve. He sent the 70 out two-by-two. He cloistered himself with his friends in times of both triumph and trauma.

Finally, there is at least one more aspect of dependence as fuel for ministry excellence. There is that dependence on those who have struggled with ministry throughout the millennia. We do, indeed, (cliché alert) stand on the shoulders of giants. And this is perhaps more urgent because of the infatuated-with-all-new-things age in which we live.

What do Augustine, Aquinas, Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and (insert your own faith mentors here) have to say about excellence and progress and success and failure as we move through our days of ministry? Regularly hearing the voices of this larger community can remind us that we do not pass through anything that is markedly new or different. Clothed in contemporary devices; transmitted via Tweet or text, ministry challenges and opportunities are, at least categorically, nothing new under the sun. As we contemplate the words of those who have ministered before, we realize that the path toward excellence has been well-marked and well-traveled.

Ministry settings are profoundly personal and idiosyncratic. Wherever we find ourselves, the notion of dependence can animate increasing excellence as we seek to serve Christ and his people and could also point us toward a more divinely inspired sense of success. How might a deepening sense of dependence affect your practice of ministry and lead you toward excellence?

Howard Cassidy-Moffatt is Lead Pastor at the CrossRoads Community Church in Worcester, MA. He is adjunct professor of Practical Theology at Bethel Seminary of the East and adjunct professor of Moral Philosophy at Lasell College. He co-ministers with his wife, Laura Cassidy-Moffatt, at the CrossRoads.

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 centerforpastoralexcellence@cts.edu.