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Jones challenges participants to examine what call to ordained ministry, congregational excellence really means

Jones challenges participants to examine what call to ordained ministry, congregational excellence really means

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Jones challenges participants to examine what call to ordained ministry, congregational excellence really means

Dec. 14, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0587}

NOTE: This story is a sidebar to “Conference Table scrutinizes ins, outs of clergy excellence,” FUMS #0586 at:

An e-Review Feature
By J.A. Buchholz**

The Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones, dean and professor of Duke Divinity School, gives insight into the calling, profession and office of clergy during the Conference Table on “Excellence for Ministry — A Focus on the Agenda for the Center for Clergy Excellence.” Photo by J.A. Buchholz, Photo #06-485. Web photo only.

TAMPA — The Rev. Dr. L. Gregory Jones implored and encouraged clergy attending a recent Conference Table to reach their full potential for the sake of advancing the Kingdom of God. He also reminded both laity and clergy of a congregation’s responsibility to strive for excellence in order to be part of reaching that goal.

Titled “Excellence for Ministry — A Focus on the Agenda for the Center for Clergy Excellence,” the Conference Table was held Nov. 28 at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa.

Jones, who is dean and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, was the facilitator and guest speaker. He was invited to participate after the Rev. David Dodge, executive director of the conference’s Center for Clergy Excellence and chairman of the event’s planning team, read a book Jones co-wrote with Kevin R. Armstrong called “Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry.”

Citing Paul in Philippians 2 and 4, Jones told participants excellence in ministry is possible if clergy are first ambitious for the gospel, which is not to be confused with selfish ambition. Quoting a friend Jones said anything less in the church is degeneration into “mediocrity that masquerades as faithfulness.”

“We are called to be Easter people and as such being ambitious for the gospel ought to be a given for us as disciples of Jesus Christ because if you are serious and really believe and understand in your thinking, in your feelings and your actions, that God has brought Jesus from the dead and freed us from sin and freed us for new life in the Spirit, then what else do we have to do than be ambitious for the gospel?” he said. “We ought be able to share that with everyone we meet. People should be able to see it in the way that we live.”

While acknowledging that’s also true for laity, Jones said clergy must alone reclaim the proper order of ministry — as a calling, profession and office.

Jones said there is a deep, rich understanding of what it means to be set aside for ordained ministry and described “calling” as a sacred process a person can’t quite avoid, a nudge or sense there is a provincial call to care for people.

“When the ecclesiastical element confirms the call, it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “But we must never presume it’s the same thing as being called to be a Christian.”

Jones said there have been times when he has had to talk people out of attending divinity school. He said he must discern if a person is truly being called or has instead experienced an awakening of Christian discipleship and feels the only way to articulate that is by becoming an ordained pastor.

When he senses the later is true Jones says he tells the individual the Kingdom of God still needs him or her to be a really gifted physician, teacher or businessperson.

That distinction can be confusing after participating in spiritually changing events, such as Walk to Emmaus or “Disciple Bible Study,” where many people are asked to identify for the first time where God is at work in their lives.

Sometime, however, he encounters the opposite — the call to ministry emerges and eclipses another path.

Jones described a colleague who initially arrived at Duke University seeking a degree in engineering. People were constantly telling him he was called to preach, an instinct he continued to deny. He finally realized what others had seen, and after 40 years of ordained ministry everyone is convinced he made the right decision.

But it took two years of uncertainty — what his friend described as a war raging for his soul — before he came to that realization. Jones questioned whether there is any other vocation that causes that conflict.

In terms of a profession, Jones said ordained ministry emphasizes certain skills and highlights the importance of knowledge. He said it is through educational programs, such as the Course of Study, that clergy learn how to interpret the doctrine of faith.

Sometimes there are what Jones referred to as “learned people who don’t know what’s at stake” in terms of instructing clergy.”

“There are teachers who teach people how to swim, but would drown themselves if ever put in water,” he said, adding those individuals are typically people who want credentials, to get in the system, aspiring to climb the ladder.

Jones said reclaiming the order of clergy as an office is often identified with the early church. He said it requires clergy to be representatives of Christ and Christ bearers in their ministry — to be holy and of holy character. That expectation is what causes scandals involving clergy to be even more devastating than those of corporate leaders, such as those involved the WorldCom or Enron corruption cases.

Jones said divinity students are sometimes overwhelmed when the calling, profession and office are all packaged together. The challenge, he said, is taking them into consideration each day over the course of a lifetime with the ultimate goal of making disciples for Jesus Christ and transforming the world.

Challenge to congregations: be excellent

Jones identified five areas that indicate excellence in congregations: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith formation, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.

He said churches must be able to reach out to whomever walks through their doors, and if they don’t have a plethora of people visiting their churches they must go out and find them. Most importantly they need to be open to the opportunity of welcoming.

In terms of passionate worship Jones said it doesn’t matter if the music is traditional or contemporary. The most important thing is that people sense God is present and at work.

Jones said the third element, intentional faith formation, is the life-long learning process that enables people to think, feel, act, live and learn as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Risk-taking mission and service involves stretching and pushing the boundaries. He said churches know they are in it when they feel like they are out of their comfort zone. “If you’re in your comfort zone, you’re not risking enough,” he said.

The last factor, extravagant generosity, is more intricate than stewardship, according to Jones. “It’s a way of opening our hearts, minds and pocketbook,” he said. “It’s a fruit of the spirit. It’s a whole way of life. It includes money, but that’s not all.”

Marks of excellence in pastoral ministry

Excellent congregations need excellent pastors. A characteristic of that excellence is agility and the ability to be charitable. Jones said there are times when a pastor has to visit a dying child and care for his or her parents and then call on the parents of a child about to be baptized, all while being aware of the emotional context of both circumstances.

Being charitable means having the ability to relate to people at various levels. A new member class may include the CEO of a company and a homeless person. A charitable pastor must have a broad community of heart, listening to each of them on their terms.

Jones said clergy must also have a Christ-centered spiritual presence and the ability to draw people to them.

The third concept is centered on visionary story telling and the difference it can make in the life of a congregation. Jones said a friend who grew up in an African-American church tells the story of how, as a child, he literally expected to see the Bible’s Ruth and Naomi at family reunions because the pastor had made scripture come to life.

Just as congregations must excel in risk-taking mission and service, so too must clergy, telling the story of the past in the present and drawing on it to chart a course for the future, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did.

The last dynamic is having a grasp on the task of administration, which is frequently misunderstood. Jones said it is not busy work, but a gift giving form and structure to the lives of clergy. He frowned on seeing it as “a necessary evil” and encouraged clergy to consider it a way of encouraging the good things done in the church.

Jones concluded by inspiring clergy to have a light and warmth that can be felt throughout the Florida Conference and around the world.

After the event, the Rev. Roger Watts, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Coral Springs, said Jones “has a scholar’s head and pastor’s heart.”

Throughout his 30-year ministry career Watts said he has noticed clergy are called on one set of criteria, trained on another and asked to perform on yet another set of criteria. He said the times are changing for the culture of society and ministry, adding, “I thought today was excellent, pertinent and appropriate for the seriousness of ordained ministry.”


This article relates to Clergy Culture/Conference Tables.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.