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Pastoral and Worship Excellence: Becoming more like Christ

A feature story exploring Pastoral and Worship excellence. David J. Wood and Paul Ryan offer a biblical framework for cultivating congregational conversations about pastoral excellence and standards for worship excellence.

Talking about excellence in church can be risky.

People often meet God in well-crafted sermons, thoughtful congregational prayers, or compassion for the socially awkward. Yet you may know someone who’s felt bludgeoned by “excellence.” It might be the pianist who can’t master calypso rhythms, a pastor running on empty, or the youth group leader who’s great at establishing rapport but dismal with details.

“There’s an inborn impulse in Christians toward an egalitarianism that wants not to make distinctions between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ in pastoral vocation or worship life. That’s why the notion of excellence strikes a nerve,” says David J. Wood, an ordained American Baptist pastor who served several congregations, directed Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry program, and now pastors Glencoe Union Church in suburban Chicago.

However, as Wood and worship consultant Paul Ryan explained at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, excellence can be a joyful word that prophetically calls pastors and congregations from mediocre worship into friendship with God.

Excellence is a process

Excellence is a process of becoming better than we once were, author Harold M. Best often explains. Reading his definition through the eyes ofAmerican Idol, ESPN, or the Fortune 500 might lead you to understand excellence as becoming better than you once were compared to other people. But Best and Wood caution against importing one-up cultural meanings into Christian excellence.

Instead, Wood suggests that churches “move away from focusing on exemplary performance. Performance is crucial but it’s more helpful to understand performance as a portal into excellence.”

Performance, after all, is what you do. And what you do, Wood explains, flows out of who you are. “We become who we are by habits and virtues. We don’t, in our North American culture, have a strong notion about how character is so defining. Excellence is an art won by training and habituation,” he says.

Habitual training toward excellence only makes sense when “the primary referent for excellence is God.” That’s according to a highly diverse group of pastors invited by Duke Divinity School to dialogue about pastoral vocation. Their findings are recounted in Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry by L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong. They say that “this way of love…and life with God and others” helps pastors and congregations become more fully themselves and more like Christ.

Pastoral imagination and holy friendship

Pastoral imagination and holy friendship are essential for pastoral excellence. Resurrecting Excellence describes pastoral imagination as seeing and hearing “the beauty of God’s grace and love in our lives and in the lives of those around us.” It means letting love transfigure your perceptions so you can look into a dysfunctional family or prima donna musician and see people who God is especially fond of.

Pastors grow in imagination by paying careful attention to Scripture, creation, the church universal, and the life of the congregation. A pastor can practice attentiveness by pausing to ask individuals or groups during the week, “What should we be praying for in the prayers of the people this next Sunday?” Wood says that excellent pastors expand their congregation’s ecclesial imagination about “what the church is and ministry can be.”

Growing in pastoral imagination sounds overwhelming…especially to pastors who depend on their own resources to perform well. But true pastoral imagination asks for and depends on the Triune God's power, evident in both repetitious tasks and surprises.

Pastors need friends to develop pastoral imagination and excellence. Rather than spending more time alone to pray, meditate, or journal, Wood asks pastors to reclaim a Christian understanding of friendship as formative. The theme of friendship runs from Aristotle through the Gospels, Augustine, and Aquinas yet is at odds with contemporary individualism.

“God is intrinsically relational. Relationship is who God is, not just what God does. If you don’t know how to spend time alone, you’re in trouble. But without friendship it’s really hard, almost impossible, to cultivate excellence,” Wood says.

“As a pastor, I need people, besides my spouse and family, to be transparent with and vice versa. As we’ve learned through Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, at least some of a pastor’s friends should be pastors. These friendships become the context of how I know who I am with God and how I know God.

Eugene Peterson, a friend of mine, is an exemplar for me. His pastoral life was who he was. I never feel like Eugene performed one way and lived another,” he says.

How congregations cultivate excellence

Experience shows that growing in pastoral imagination and holy friendship cultivates what Wood calls a “culture of collaboration. This congregational collaboration forms a shared notion of pastoral life and ministry. Congregations begin to think of themselves as a place where pastors are formed.”

For example, several Lutheran congregations, many in rural areas, committed to be first call congregations that receive and help new pastors grow into ministry. Larger congregations in several denominations accept pastoral residents who serve for two years between seminary and their first call.

Wood describes several marks of pastoral excellence in multi-staff churches:

  • “The senior staff is intentional about creating a congregational culture that is more articulate in talking about excellence.”
  • “There’s a level of generative, honest, passionate, humble, non-defensive reflection built into the rhythm of staff life.”
  • Senior staff provides younger pastoral staff not only mentorship but “credibility and authority, so they preach often, not seldom,” apply their ideas, and get considered for senior level job openings.
  • “The staff work is genuinely shared and there’s less talk about my competency, more talk about our ministry.”
  • “If a staff is to exemplify pastoral excellence, then that should lead to friendship, leisure, openness, and trust.”

Congregations of any size should ask pastors, “ ‘How are you doing? Who are your friends? Are you spending any time with them?’ They should also set aside time and money so pastors can pursue holy friendship and continuing education. There’s no better way for churches to signal their understanding that friendship leads to excellence, which leads to good ministry,” Wood says.

Leading Excellent Worship

When he spoke about standards for excellence in worship at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship, worship consultant Paul Ryan noted that God calls every person and group to excellence—from singing and playing skillfully (Psalms 33:2-3) and doing things with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10) to doing unto the Lord whatever is true, lovely, excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).

But how do you talk about excellence in worship without sliding into skirmishes about worship styles or who’s better than someone else?

Ryan leads the Sunday evening student-led worship service at Calvin College and edited Contemporary Songs for Worship. He has worshiped in nondenominational, charismatic, Episcopalian, and seeker-sensitive churches and knows better than to hold up just one type of worship as excellent.

Instead Ryan offers broad general standards that apply to excellence in any area of worship, whether music, preaching, visual arts, or hospitality. He discusses four standards of excellence and outlines a simple process for pursuing excellence in worship. Here’s how these standards apply to prayer in worship.

Technical, aesthetic, and functional excellence

Technical excellence refers to skills that we practice. “Developing technical excellence isn’t always fun. It takes work, discipline, and correction,” Ryan says. Just as musicians must master scales, rhythm, chords, and reading music to become technically excellent, so those who lead prayers need to learn the basics.

“We’ve all heard prayers where we wish someone had spent more time with their grammar,” Ryan says. He suggests thinking of prayer in terms of form. A worship prayer needs (at least) an address to God, a name for God, and a final acclamation, such as amen. You can pursue technical excellence by studying polished ancient prayers or using a common prayer pattern, perhaps adoration-confession-thanksgiving-supplication.

“Aesthetic excellence is a lived beauty. It involves wonder and appreciation and is something you have to experience. That’s why music teachers ask students to attend concerts. Beautiful prayers are learned through listening or reading historic prayers,” Ryan says. You might compose an aesthetically excellent prayer according to a metaphor, theme, or repeated phrase. You could pray a psalm.

Functional excellence refers to how a worship element functions within a community. Worship leaders often focus on technical or aesthetic excellence without thinking about how to help worshipers participate:

  • fully, with their whole selves, doubts, beliefs, joys, and laments
  • consciously, so they understand how the prayer fits within the service plan and whether it’s a prayer of confession, praise, dedication, or something else
  • actively, such as kneeling, cupping or joining hands, voicing a communal response, or silently offering people or situations to God

Ryan says that functionally excellent worship is authentically communal, reflecting and connecting with who the congregation is as a local body. “We use the gifts and talents within our body, doing the best we can do with what we have…and then asking how we in our community can rise to the excellence that is just beyond us,” he explains.

Making a prayer more communal may mean…asking different people, including youth or those with disabilities, to lead prayers…naming shut-ins…praying on behalf of those who struggle with depression, middle managers ordered to lay off employees, or children who have trouble learning.

Worship that reflects God

Theologically excellent worship reflects who God is, what God does, and who we are in relationship to God. Ryan suggests asking how worship can better reflect God, God’s creation, and God’s church.

Rather than always praying “ambiguously to ‘our Lord’ or ‘our God’,” Ryan advises composing or using prayers with Trinitarian content. “God acts as Trinity. All three members of the Trinity were active in creation, in the ministry of Jesus, and now in redeeming God’s people. The Father invites us into our worship. The Son perfects it and makes it holy and righteous before the Father. And the Holy Spirit empowers us to be actively involved in worship and opens up our hearts and minds to hear God’s Word.

“When we come into worship, we don’t make God present by our prayers or songs or anything we do. God is already present. The Father has invited us to come into worship. That’s a very different feeling than thinking we worship leaders need to do something, by prayers, chord changes, or certain music, to lead people into God’s throne room or make the Spirit show up,” he explains.

Theologically excellent prayers can reflect the fullness of redemption by praising the Creator for specific things we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear…asking how to respond as Christ would to certain injustices…lifting up persecuted Christians…or confessing our own blindness to the Spirit’s wooing and creativity.

Pursuing a cycle of excellence

Ryan talks about pursuing a cycle of worship excellence because it’s a process in which there’s always room for improvement. Remembering that word process helps guard against fears that if worship doesn’t feel dramatic, then it’s not excellent. “Worship is excellent not because wesee the Holy Spirit but because we pray for the Holy Spirit. Most of the Spirit’s work happens over time. We worship in prayerful hope, expecting to grow together, and flourish in love,” he says.

You can enter the cycle of worship excellence at any point:

  • Expose yourself to excellent things. Come to the Worship Symposium. Visit other churches. Find a mentor, maybe in a community of worship leaders who get together periodically. Experience excellence outside worship at lectures, art museums, and concerts,” Ryan says.
  • Discern whether you can translate an excellent work or idea into your worship context. Ryan recalls being wowed by a Charles Ives variation of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” He says, “Even though we explained it before using it in church, it was totally lost on everyone, because it wasn’t authentic to our community.”
  • Put into practice a new worship technique, and see how it works in your worship setting.
  • Reflect on how well the technique or worship element helped your congregation worship more fully, consciously, and actively (i.e. discuss functional excellence). Ask whether or how it is theologically excellent. Ask what else you need to expose your church to.

Learn More

David J. Wood gets straight to the heart and uses real-life examples in explaining pastoral excellence, improvisation in ministry, ministry transitions, and recruiting and using young pastoral leaders. He’s found that teaching church history in a congregation can help people be more open to the Holy Spirit’s work as they learn about how the Spirit has been creatively active in worship of other times and places.

Gather a group of pastors to explore experiences in developing pastoral imagination and holy friendships. Any of these books will spark good conversations:

Experienced pastors and beginning pastors explain how friendships with other pastors renew ministry. Kathryn Palen offers a guided meditation to help church members imagine the obstacles that prevent people from living fully as ministers. Baylor University produced this group study guide on Christian friendship.

If this brief address by Harold M. Best on worship excellence piques your interest, then you’ll enjoy his books Music Through the Eyes of Faith andUnceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts.

Listen to 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship presentations:

If you are interested in helping people new to the ministry, then check out Becoming a PastorFirst Call Congregations Project, and Transition into Ministry. To help your pastors strengthen their imagination and friendship, use ideas from Congregational Resource Guide, Faith and Leadership, Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, and Howard Vanderwell’s presentation “Good Preaching Takes Good Elders.”

Apply John Witvliet’s tips for practicing pastoral excellence in worship. Use resources from the Center for Excellence in Preaching. Improve your ability to plan and lead worship. Read Reformed Worship stories about developing excellence in leading worship, learning to rest, and mentoring musicians.

Browse related stories on embodied preaching, the Holy Spirit’s role in worship,mentoring church musicians, and pastoral renewal.

Start a Discussion

Talk about pastoral excellence and worship excellence:

  • Where do you see God’s power and presence in your congregation’s life, worship, or leadership? How does your response shift your perception of excellence in your congregation’s life, worship, or leadership?
  • What do you think about the idea that friendship is an essential school for developing pastoral excellence and good ministry?
  • Our culture’s tendency toward individualism and polarity teaches us to pit groups against each other—young vs. aging, educated vs. unschooled, business owner vs. homeless mom, and on and on. Which polarities are strongest in your church? How might you invite opposites together to find the crucial intersections that lead to renewed worship?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to talk about pastoral or worship excellence?

  • Did you develop a template, class, or other means to give your staff and congregation the language to talk about excellence in pastoral life and worship? If so, will you share it with us?
  • What have you found most effective in helping church staff and congregation members reclaim the language of friendship with God or friendship as something that helps us grow to be more like Christ?