Paul WILKES and Marty MINCHIN, editors, Best Practices from America's Best Churches. New York: Paulist Press, 2003. pp. 276. $16.95 pb ISBN 0-8091-4135-3 .
Reviewed by John TROKAN, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio

This edited work by Paul Wilkes and Marty Minchin is a collection of twenty -three essays adapted from the 2001 Pastoral Summit presentations in New Orleans. It is designed to assist pastoral ministers in their efforts to seek new ways to reach and serve their congregations and communities in an increasingly complex and diverse climate of spiritual seeking.

The authors of the twenty three pastoral articles in this text were chosen from among the churches that were featured in two previous ground breaking books by the editors: Excellent Protestant Congregations: The Guide to Best Places and Practices and Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices. These books featured hundreds of churches nationwide that demonstrated church excellence. This latest text moves beyond the presentation of common traits of excellent churches, to providing a benchmark forum for outstanding church leaders to share their hands-on effective strategies for serving their congregations.

In a church climate of declining attendance, dwindling participation, shrinking resources, progressive-conservative tensions, struggles over maintenance or mission focus, lay verses ordained leadership, and scandals, this book appears as balm for wearied and disillusioned ministers. This is indeed a book of hope presenting the best pastoral leadership strategies in practice. The articles are organized around five major categories: Inreach: deepening faith commitments; Evangelizing; Lay Leadership; Church Dynamics; and On the Edge: radical church models.

This collection of short articles is concise and readable. It provides a hopeful vision of pastoral practice for all ministers. It might be especially useful to parish staffs, parish councils, parish renewal planners, and disillusioned ministers to stimulate new and creative ideas from some of the best practitioners in ministry today. The authors in this text present an inclusive experience of church, documenting the leadership of Catholic and Protestant ministers, women and men, lay and ordained in a diversity of urban, rural, and suburban multi-cultural congregations. Particularly noteworthy is the underlying ecological assumption that church is a dynamic force in the building of sustainable neighborhoods and communities. The section on evangelizing is strong in developing a missionary versus maintenance model of church ministry. The collection of articles in the sections on lay leadership and church dynamics address the paradigm shift in ministry from a hierarchal to a collaborative praxis of empowerment. The sections on deepening faith commitments and radical church models capture creative approaches to ministry in a seeker sensitive and spiritually hungry and eclectic culture.

In the midst of this book's hopeful ideas, this reviewer found unaddressed the theological dimension of the pastoral practices outlined in these articles. Unarticulated are the underlying theological assumptions of these ministry leaders in creating their vision and practice of vibrant faith communities. The experience of "excellence" in church ministry practice is deeply rooted in the community's operative theology of church, Jesus, and the Spirit. What is the ecclesiology, Christololgy, and Pneumatology that roots these visionary and cutting edge pastoral practices?

A second dimension that appears underdeveloped for the ministerial reader is the systemic dimension of leadership and change in these faith communities. These articles are a documentary witness that collaboration and empowerment work. How to create such an environment, the system design and dynamics, the spiritual renewal and discipline, and the change intervention skills required are not specifically outlined and discussed. One might be left with the illusion that church leadership relies upon the charismatic personality.

Wilkes and Minchin deliver on their intended purposes with clarity and creativity. We can hope for another sequel to address the theological and systemic issues.

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