Beauty as a mark of excellence

Beauty is a mark of excellent ministry, says L. Gregory Jones.

Throughout the course of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program, two questions are consistently raised by grantees and the participants in their programs: what is excellence and how can it be measured? Judicatory leaders and other denominational personnel are anxious for our answers and hope that we will finally carefully define pastoral effectiveness and its teachable components. The long history of theological inquiry and biblical interpretation ought to have already persuaded us that characterizing God and measuring God’s work through the lives of pastors and congregations is an imprecise science, at best. And yet, there are markers along the way that provide descriptions, or at least glimpses, of excellence in pastoral ministry. I am convinced that one of these markers is beauty.

Christian ministry, lived faithfully and well, is beautiful. This is as true for congregations as it is for the pastors who lead them. Intrinsic to Christian ministry is a way of life that calls forth beauty. It is a manner of following Jesus that shines forth with abundant grace and love, of bearing witness to the overflowing love of the Triune God.

To be sure, beautiful ministry has implications for other ways, such as truth and goodness, by which we measure our lives. But whereas modern Christians are used to thinking about truth and goodness, we do not often enough attend to the importance of beauty for Christian life, especially for the life and work of pastors. This is especially true for protestant Christians.

In Marilynne Robinson’s elegant portrait of ministry, her Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead, Pastor John Ames suggests that beauty is a central way in which God sees us. He reflects, “Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.”

Thinking in this way is disorienting, because most of us are not very skilled in using theological standards of beauty to assess the quality of our own lives or others. Yet it is also inviting, because in church cultures where we have worn ourselves and each other down with polarizing moralisms, this offers a fresh way to think about faithful, well-lived Christian life.

I want briefly to suggest four implications of attending to Christian life through beauty. The first, suggested by John Ames, is that we need to attend to God’s expectations of, and reactions to, what is beautiful. In American culture, beauty is too often defined by Madison Avenue or a majority white, middle-class culture, rather than the Gospel. There is a Christological shape to beauty that requires attention also to the work of the Spirit who is making all things new.

Further, biblical stories and images begin to reshape our imagination, but we cannot forget that learning to see beauty through God’s eyes involves disciplines of practice, substantive time spent in God’s company. Such learning also involves an openness to discover the beautiful shape of ministry in barrios and farming communities as well as cathedrals, in reggae and jazz as well as oratorios, in children’s drawings as well as Renaissance paintings.

Hence, secondly, as we learn to attend to God’s beauty and God’s judgments of the beautiful, we will develop deeper eyes to see and fresh ears to hear the world around us. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins notes that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” So it is, but how often do we see such grandeur, such beauty, in the world that is God’s good creation? John Ames has learned to see such grandeur even in ordinary life, as his description of a young couple strolling along a street in his little town displays:

The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

Attention to God’s presence in the world, a gift for seeing water as blessing before it is used for anything else – Ames sees the grace of God in the ordinary beauty of daily life.

Thirdly, beautiful ministry is inspired by, and inspires, standards of excellence. Learning to attend to God’s beauty, and to see and hear through God-inspired eyes and ears, calls forth our best. But it is an excellence that is not dependent on our effort, much less on culturally-defined expectations. Rather, it is an excellence that is shaped by the new life in Christ to which we are all called.

It is an excellence that links our appreciation of beauty to judgments of truthfulness and goodness. Unless we attend to questions about the truth of God and the truthfulness of our lives, we will find ourselves in distortions and corruptions that will lead us away from the light of the Triune God’s grace and love. We also learn that such moral categories as the virtues are intrinsic to a beautiful life, as we need courage to love our enemies and to resist injustice, just as we need faithfulness to fulfill our vocations as well as to nurture relationships over time.

Fourthly, beautiful ministry is nurtured most faithfully through the dynamic interplay of congregations and their leaders. In American culture, too often we apply standards of beauty to isolated individuals. While there is nothing wrong in saying of a well-lived life, “she is a beautiful person,” we should never forget either the importance of congregations – and more specifically, friendships and communities within them – that helped to shape and sustain such beauty, or the beauty of those congregations themselves. Such congregations are diverse in size and character and location and practice, but they share in common a beautiful way of life that draws, sustains, and nurtures a way of life filled with the abundance of grace, love, and holiness.

I recently gave a lecture on beauty and sustaining pastoral excellence. At the end of the lecture, one of the people – a young person setting out on the vocation of ordained ministry – posed a question. What would it look like, he wondered, if we were to reflect on congregational life in the context of a theological aesthetic shaped by God’s beauty revealed in Christ – how might that affect how we think about attracting people to the Gospel, and the shaping of Christian ministry?

A beautiful question, indeed.