Why excellence?

Posted Jul 11, 2013 | Pastoral Excellence Network

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By Willie Sordillo


Willie SordilloAt a recent denominational gathering we asked the question, “What does pastoral excellence look like?” People were invited to respond in a few words on a Post-It note, which they attached to a cardboard human silhouette. Answers ranged from “good listener” to “calm in the midst of conflict.” But how comfortable are you, as a pastor, in thinking of yourself as “excellent,” and what do we mean by excellent anyway?

The framers of the Lilly Endowment Sustaining Pastoral Excellence grants chose this word deliberately. When they did, they were clear that “excellence” and “perfection” are not synonyms. While setting a high standard, they also intended something which is not only desirable, but achievable.

My teenaged daughter, when we’re engaged in a project together, often admonishes me to be a little less exacting, saying, “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” My usual response is, “Believe me, I’m so far from perfect there’s no danger of that; but I’d like to do the best I’m capable of.” It seems to me that in so striving we may, through effort, study, guidance, support, cooperation, and experience reach ever higher levels of success and achievement, leading toward excellence, if not perfection. As Paul tells us in I Corinthians 12, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

Working against this are countless pressures, internal and external. Go to amazon.com and search for “good enough parenting,” and you will find about a dozen resources. The thrust of this movement is an intention to help parents relieve guilt at not being perfect as they seek a balance in meeting the needs of parent and child. But I wonder if catch-phrases like this, which become disseminated in the culture among many who have never read the books, have the deleterious effect of sanctioning mediocrity. And I wonder about the effect of accepting “good enough” on the health of our churches.

In a time of diminishing membership across mainline denominations, I wonder if our desperation to fill the pews doesn’t sometimes lead to a culture of mediocrity. I wonder if we’ve lowered expectations for membership under the false notion that more people will join if we don’t ask much of them, and in the process, diminish the value of membership and the commitment of these members.

I once observed a rehearsal for a church Christmas pageant. It was fairly chaotic, as these things often are, but in addition, there were low expectations for rehearsal attendance, as well as for learning lines. With Christmas Eve rapidly approaching, the prospect of this coming together looked slim. The parent in charge, though well-intentioned, laughed it off, saying, “Well, whatever we do will be good enough.”

My immediate thought was, “Good enough for who?” “Doesn’t God deserve our very best?” And what about the self-esteem of the children? Isn’t it in their best interest to experience the satisfaction and confidence won through hard work leading to a job well done?

I don’t believe most pastors strive for or easily accept mediocrity in themselves or the churches they serve. But some may hesitate to go so far as to claim an identity of excellence. Through embracing this understanding of their ministry, pastors can strive for the best they have to offer, and in so doing inspire their congregations to set a similarly high standard for themselves. Instead of accepting “good enough,” let’s demand of ourselves and our congregations the best we’re capable of. The next time somebody asks you, “What does excellence in ministry look like?”, tell them, “You’re looking at it!” After all, like my new barbeque apron proclaims, “God likes it well done!”

Willie Sordillo is Administrator of the Pastoral Excellence Network and Music Director for Jazz Worship at Old South Church in Boston.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact wsordillo@cts.edu.

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