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The Problem with Excellence

This weekend I learned to finish drywall. For some time I thought painting—cutting in, specifically—was the only activity more frustrating than golf. But then my dad handed over a roll of sticky yellow tape, a bucket—roughly the size of Lake Michigan—containing joint compound (i.e., “mud”), a sanding block, and shiny spatulas of various widths. “The basic idea,” he explained, “is to make the seams between the drywall sheets disappear.” Apply mud over the tape and then, after it dries, sand away the rough spots. Do that again. And again. No problem!

Actually, yes problem. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

I have two teenagers, both of whom are bright and talented. Since their first day of formal education, teachers have told them that they shouldn’t focus on their grades; what matters is that they do their best. Two years ago, one of my girls became suicidal and was hospitalized. Why?

Same problem as with the drywall. I’ll come back to this in a moment. (Bear with me. This really is going somewhere.)

For five years, I served as the director of communications for a vibrant, fast-growing, community-oriented church. About four months ago, I made a decision that was simultaneously horrible and right: I resigned. Why? Same problem as with the drywall: Excellence. Yep. There’s a problem with excellence.

Now, some of you are thinking, “Oh no, she di’int.” Well, yes I di’id. I know that excellence, or some derivation thereof, is likely listed among your church’s values, so please hear this: I’m not saying that offering God our best is wrong, and I’m certainly not saying that the church should be okay with mediocrity. However, I have some questions for you and for your church:

1. Is excellent a euphemism for perfect? With regard to drywall and me, it is. My right shoulder is sore, I’ve inhaled six metric tons of dust, and I’ve spent hours attempting to de-lumpy my new walls. I’ve been stuck in that room, working on the same thing, for days. Jim Collins says, “Good is the enemy of great.” But Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

  • How is a striving toward excellence paralyzing you?
  • How is an expectation of excellence paralyzing the people around you?
  • Is your church so polished that flawed people feel intimated? Unacceptable?
  • What opportunities have you missed because what you had to offer wasn’t good enough?
  • By whose standards? Is striving toward excellence becoming an excuse for workaholism, procrastination, and missed deadlines?

2. Is excellence spreading you too thin? My daughter is capable of achieving excellence in every school subject, and so she felt pressure to “do her best” at everything, all the time … and she imploded. “Do your best” is often a reachable goal, but it’s rarely a sustainable goal.

  • What matters enough to demand excellence? (Some things do matter that much. The trick is figuring out what things don’t, especially if you lean toward perfectionism.)
  • If you have staff members and volunteers who are great at a lot of things, are they given permission to exercise boundaries?
  • Are you clear enough on your mission and vision to know the handful of activities and programs that will benefit from the energy excellence requires?

3. What’s motivating your desire for excellence? One of the reasons I resigned from my staff role is that I did an excellent job. At least, that’s what people told me—and I became addicted to their approval.

  • Are you trying to be more excellent than the other churches in your community?
  • Are you striving for excellence to glorify you or to glorify God? This question sucks. Answer honestly.

It bears repeating that I’m not saying churches shouldn’t be concerned with quality. It’s also not my intent to engage in the apparently en vogue practice of church bashing (regarding either my home church/former employer or the capital-c Church). I hope, though, that I’ve frustrated you enough to think and consider, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

By the way, if I’ve annoyed you by presenting a “problem” without also offering some solutions, stay tuned for part two: coming soon.

After serving for five years as Director of Communications for Morning Star Church, one of the 100 Fastest Growing Churches in 2010 (Outreach magazine), Kelley now partners with churches through her communications consulting firm, March Hare Creative. This article series originally appeared at ChurchMarketingSucks.com