Lately, it seems that everything needs to be excellent: Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, Sustaining Congregational Excellence, and Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching. In fact, the focus on excellence over the last years is not uniquely Christian Reformed, but is prevalent throughout our society in workplaces and institutions of learning. At first glance, a focus on excellence seems excellent! It encourages significant effort, attention to detail, a striving to be all that we can be. It encourages stretching ourselves, reaching beyond mediocrity, and the discipline necessary to reach new levels. A focus on excellence reminds us of the Olympic motto: “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”
But I wonder if an uncritical acceptance of excellence as a goal, or as a “goal-den standard” could be blessed by adding some shades of nuance. How does an average preacher survive in a culture where only excellence will do? And, for that matter, how do congregations endure?
There are at least three cautions. First, are we excelling ourselves into exhaustion? More and more frequently, we encounter exhausted leaders: full-time pastors and committed church members who volunteer significant time, energy and giftedness to ministry. Churches seem compelled to keep up with the level of programming, ministry opportunities and the “worship experience” offered by other churches. Adapting, keeping up, employing the latest technology—these are exciting, daunting and draining challenges for the pool of volunteers, and for those paid personnel expected to communicate and lead by setting the pace. Driven by the goal of excellence, and desiring to be all that we can be—for God’s glory and also for our own survival—(there is the reality of comparison shopping for the consumer public), we are working and volunteering ourselves to the bone. Excellence can unwittingly become a tyrant. Donald Trump is reported to have answered the question, “How much is enough?” with these insatiable words: “A little more.”
Secondly, a focus on excellence has a corresponding focus on achievement. When achievement is tied to excellence, it can lead to a rather restrictive definition of excellence. Is excellence defined by level of accomplishment and polish of performance? Or is it defined by strength of effort and purity of motive? How do we know when we are witnessing that which is excellent?
In recent months, I attended three significant church anniversaries, ranging from a grand concert hall setting to a modest community banquet room. It was powerful to see musical gifts offered, enjoyed and celebrated. By certain standards, only some of these offerings could be considered excellent. But by a standard which does more than measure achievement, all were excellent. They acknowledged the Giver, offered what they could with what they had received, and the measure of excellence was one which placed these gifts and persons in the context of communities in relationship with God. Standards of excellence neither inhibited the cheerful offering of gifts, nor challenged the joy of knowing that imperfect gifts could bless God and his people. The intimidation factor which a standard of excellence can foster was conspicuously and wonderfully absent.
Thirdly, a focus on excellence can nibble away at a spirit of thankfulness. It can keep our attention on what we have not yet attained, rather than on what we have received. It can remind us unhelpfully of our inadequacies, distracting us from giving thanks and embracing the persons we are, the gifts we have received, and the contentment we may enjoy. A focus on excellence can unwittingly sabotage our experience of God’s grace.
Excellence is not a bad thing. In fact, excellence is lovely and pure and it can beam! But excellence without grace is a tyrant. Excellence without the shine of joyful offering is tarnished. And excellence without the anchor of humble thanks lacks heart. Somehow, excellence needs to be able to embrace the reality of imperfection!
The God who commands us to love him with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) is also the God who chose twelve imperfect disciples as his trainees. He chose a people named Israel, rather than an established, competent nation like the Egyptians or Syrians, who might learn faster, reach higher, and were certainly stronger than the Israelites. Mount Zion does not see eye to eye with Mount Olympus: it’s not higher, faster, stronger, so much as lower, slower and weaker.
In any and every quest for excellence, there needs to be a dollop of hospitality: a making room, and creating space for others and their flourishing. And there needs to be room for the puzzling, counter-intuitive ways of God, who seems to delight in doing exactly what we would not.
After speaking at length about giftedness in I Corinthians 12, Paul says, “And now I will show the most excellent way.” Excellence isn’t over-rated. But it does need this qualifier.