Why I Kissed Excellence Goodbye

I recall arriving at my new Technical Director position in late 2007. I scanned all the material that the church had communicated on my new team from the website, in brochures, and training materials. One word kept appearing: excellence. This is true for many churches. I’m pushing back.

Words have meaning. Let’s put excellence under the microscope.

ex•cel•lence |’eksələns| noun
the quality of being outstanding or extremely good. from the Latin verb excellere ‘surpass’ (see EXCEL)

ex•cel |ik’sel| verb
be exceptionally good or proficient in an activity or subject

Are you excellent?

First of all, one cannot answer this question without having a standard or measurement of normalcy. If you are going to be extremely good, you must know what good is. If you are going to be outstanding, you must stand out, or above, something else.

One cannot have excellence without comparison to something else.
I reject excellence because I reject comparison to other ministries and venues as a core value of my team.

This next point might be hard to swallow, but hold on. Let’s be clear:

  • Our sanctuary does not have outstanding acoustics.
  • Our volunteer vocalists, band members, sound engineers, and tech volunteers work diligently and skillfully. But our talent, as a whole, does not surpass that of professionals.
  • Our equipment was purchased under the umbrella of wise stewardship. It is not extremely good, because we did not have an extremely good budget.

This might be true in your setting as well. Why should the tech team be held to a standard of outstanding, when the room we are working in is not, the equipment we work on is not, and the team itself, though good, is not extremely good [the highest degree of good]?

Don’t misunderstand me, some churches do excel. They are outstanding in the design of their facilities and their equipment and the talent of their team members. They not only surpass the ability of the average church, they are extremely good when compared to any venue and environment. The highest standard of quality permeates every area. They are the best of the best.

Most of us do not live there.

  • Our gear is second hand or entry level versions.
  • Our sanctuaries are converted stores, school cafetoriums, and multi-purpose gymnasiums.
  • We are housewives, receptionists, doctors, salesmen, computer programmers and school teachers (and I wouldn’t have it any other way).

The ugly truth

I know the importance of the technical area. Mistakes are costly and can ruin the moment and the momentum.

  • It is distracting when we miss a light cue.
  • It hinders worship when we are late on lyrics.
  • It ruins the flow if we cut to the wrong camera.
  • Audio feedback is unpleasant.

In order to eliminate these distractions, we push our teams to excel. I appreciate the tension and desire to be better and better. We should improve, but excellence has become synonymous with perfection.

In many circles, we have inadvertently created a performance driven standard that does not allow people to be human. We demand mistake-free service, which actually prevents development and growth.

Ultimately, this is a worldly standard. Excellence smells of pride and has more in common with pharaoh demanding bricks without straw than anything Jesus modeled with the disciples.

That may be a bitter pill, and you may not agree, but I ask you to consider the outcome of your desire to be the best of the best and your goal of being outstanding: is effectiveness in the Kingdom of God a result of being better than everyone else or Spirit empowerment?

An objection

Am I missing the point?
Can’t we have an internal standard of goals and objectives and measure whether or not we are extremely good at achieving those?
Aren’t we just trying to be the best that we can be?

I don’t think that will do. Excellence is a quality that is true everywhere or not at all. To have an internal standard of excellence that makes excuses when compared to the larger world is actually damaging to the church’s reputation.  Examples are myriad. I can think of many Christian movies that are simply horrible. How strange if one found out that the makers of those films honestly believed they were excellent when most of us think they are dreadful.

I really hope I am not creating a straw man argument.
If something truly excels, it does so when compared to anything, not just an internal measurement.

In an effort to avoid this trap, some have attempted to redefine excellence. For example:

Excellence is doing the best you can with what you have.
Nope. Neither of the definitions above carry that sense. My best may not be exceptional.
Excellence is about proficiency and exceptional skill.
I agree that we should do our best, but that’s called… doing your best.

Serve with an attitude of excellence.
Nope. Excellence is an actual, measurable quality, not an attitude.
Outstanding thinking or feeling does not automatically translate into outstanding results. Sorry.

If not excellence, than what?

Service = Worship

Worship is more about bringing our true selves to God than it is about bringing our best efforts to God. Authenticity is more important than perfection. Tread lightly on this ground, this is Cain and Abel territory.
I consistently encourage our team to intentionally worship in their tasks. By adopting that posture, we come prepared and stay focused and attentive.

I have a practice that helps me in this. I purposefully move into my serving position (step up to a camera, step behind the mixer, slide my chair up to a computer) and repeat a chorus of one of my favorite songs as a prayer in a brief moment of silence:

Here I am to worship. Here I am to bow down.
Here I am to say that you’re my God
(sometimes I add the second part if I am stressed!)
You’re all together lovely. All together worthy.
All together wonderful to me.

This is my confession. I emphasize the second phrase of this song. I’m not serving for my agenda or to exert control (two issues for me). I submit to His will, confident that He can do more in a moment than I can do in a thousand lifetimes.

Development, not perfection

The primary task of the church is to make disciples. As disciples, we never arrive. We are always in process. I am not creating a culture of excellence, I am creating a culture of development. I want people to feel empowered to try, not afraid to make a mistake.

When I read the Gospels, I see the 12 disciples in process. Peter is everyone’s favorite example of this:

  • He says and does the wrong things, at the wrong time.
  • He has moments of clarity followed by completely missing the point of everything.
  • He walks on water, but sinks moments later (tech teams can relate to that demand!).
  • He ruins the moment (like on the Mount of Transfiguration).
  • In the garden, after 3 years of service, Peter cuts off a guys ear and Jesus fixes it even though He is already dealing with enough trouble that night.

This is not excellence. This is discipleship.

If those bullet points sound like your team, you’re doing it right.
(Although I hope no one is literally cutting off anyone’s ear–metaphorically, maybe, with a less than stellar mix. If so, step in and fix it!)
Development implies learning and growing and improving. Part of the process is not being satisfied with our current state.

I don’t always slow down to worship, just like I sometimes get angry at mistakes. But I am striving towards these standards.

Conclusion

In many churches, if the tech team makes an error, the entire church turns around and stares at the sound booth wondering what happened. And why not. The pastor has repeatedly made excellence a hallmark of their ministry, and mistakes ruin the moment!  Often the team is berated from the pulpit, or they know that a tongue lashing is coming immediately after service.

A church that scolds a tech team for mistakes is a church that creates self-righteous pharisees. It is a ministry of judgment, not grace. That philosophy of ministry is flawed. It’s upside down. It’s a ministry more concerned with appearance and reputation than living the love and grace of the Kingdom. That’s pride at work. Friends, this is not the heart of Jesus.

A ministry of worship, that expects honesty before God and others, rejects the emphasis on human effort and makes room for the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

A ministry of development, that practices grace towards mistakes, effectively communicates the Gospel in a way a perfectly executed technical task never can.

That’s why I kissed excellence good bye.

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12 thoughts on “Why I Kissed Excellence Goodbye

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you because comparison can lead to pride or inferiority and neither is glorifying to God.

    Sadly many church leaders can be very competitive or have unrealistic expectations, which puts horrible pressure on the staff and volunteers who feel like they never measure up.

    From my perspective, each person using their gifts with a heart to grow and develop in order to serve others is the perfect balance.

    Wonderful blog post Mike!

    1. Thanks, Bridget, well said.
      The burned out tech who will never work in church again is becoming axiomatic. I know far too many.
      Our ministry philosophy is wrong if we are destroying people to support it.
      People must come first

      1. As a former Media Director at a large church, with high expectations of perfection….I mean excellence, I truly could not agree with you more. It would be my prayer that every pastoral staff on the planet read, if not you entire post, at least the Conclusion – straight up truth!!

  2. Nice analysis on a topic most fear to address. Church and excellence are two words that should never equate with the other. Our mission is to “only know one things, the formation of Christ in the hearts of those seeking him,”… not how excellent our humanity is.

  3. I know Mike fairly well. This was written out of a heart of excellence. So, good job Mike! Keep maximizing excellence!!

  4. “Ultimately, this is a worldly standard. Excellence smells of pride and has more in common with pharaoh demanding bricks without straw than anything Jesus modeled with the disciples.” I think this is true, but I also think another example is the Pharisees. Those dudes thought they were doing God a favor by expecting everyone to live a life of “excellence” and what they really became were Jesus’ arch enemies because Jesus wanted to help people grow and develop rather than alienate them and push them away from the Lord. We must be careful in the church to allow people to make mistakes and develop them rather than chastise and alienate them because they didn’t do something right.

    (Can you tell I recently finished reading “Accidental Pharisees” by Larry Osborne?)

    1. Thanks for this addition to the discussion, Jason.
      Once we appoint ourselves the keepers and carriers of the system’s standards, we can make people cogs in the machine.
      I admit to liking it when things are done well for God.
      But that seems to be a self righteous trait of the Pharisees and a main component of Cain’s rejected sacrifice.
      Jesus cares about authenticity not appearance.
      Thanks!

  5. Thank you Mike; this is an encumbrance that I’ve observed and wrestled with this entire year and come to the conclusion that I’d rather not continue being a part of subjecting people to “standards of excellence” at the expense of their discipleship journey. I pray the Holy Spirit enlighten any who feel the need to exert excellence above people.

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