The Problem with Excellence Part 1

The Problem with Excellence Part 1

August 8, 2011 by

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, check out part two!

Photo by Roland Tanglao
Post By:

Kelley Hartnett

Kelley Hartnett spent a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. Currently, she’s focused on writing, volunteering for organizations that care for vulnerable populations and making progress on her journey toward minimalism. Kelley is also the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site.
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24 Responses to “The Problem with Excellence Part 1”

  • Ethan
    August 8, 2011


    great points. It’s something I had to learn the hard way back in college. Now I’ve learned it’s perfectly fine to not be excellent at everything and it’s also great to be bad at many things. I know my limitations and when to bring in others to round out my weaknesses. And sometimes things just need to get done, even if it means it’s just basic work.

  • Michael Buckingham
    August 8, 2011

    I think Wikipedia has a nice definition of excellence: Excellence is a talent or quality which is unusually good and so surpasses ordinary standards.

    I don’t believe that God, the way we worship God or the way we tell God’s story deserves anything less. It makes me cautious whenever I hear the church should be excellent but…

    No we can’t confuse excellence with perfection, but from my experience that’s usually just an excuse. I think we tend to find ways to get off the “excellence” hook and I believe it is time that how we do things reflects how we feel about things. If we take the message seriously, why would we bring anything less than our best?

    • Kelley
      August 9, 2011

      Michael, thanks for your honest thoughts on this. A good friend and long-time colleague of mine challenged me–pretty vehemently–on this post yesterday. He was surprised that I would, as someone trying to affect change in church communication, come down so heavy against excellence. What I discovered between writing this post and writing the forth-coming Part 2 is that unreasonable expectations are the real problem . . . not excellence itself. As my friend said, I “attacked the wrong EX.”

      You’re right: We shouldn’t bring anything less than our best. If we truly believe in the life-transforming power of the message of Jesus Christ, we ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to share it . . . and share it excellently.

      AND (not but), I maintain there’s a slippery slope.

    • Robin
      August 11, 2011

      > I think we tend to find ways to get off the “excellence” hook and I believe
      > it is time that how we do things reflects how we feel about things. >
      > If we take the message seriously, why would we bring anything less than our best?

      This and some other posts seem to be equating “our best” with “excellence”. For many folk, our best may not actually be very good. What then? Do we give up and go home?


      • Michael Buckingham
        August 11, 2011

        In my experience that means you have to let go of it and let someone that is gifted in that area take it. That can also mean pulling budget from one area and moving it to another.

  • Eric Granata
    August 8, 2011

    This is a fantastic post with some important points that I think the creatives in our field should hear more often. Looking forward to part two!

  • Gene
    August 8, 2011

    Great post.

    Re: finishing drywall and lots of dust, try wet sanding. Use a damp sponge instead of sanding blocks.

  • Paul Clifford
    August 8, 2011

    I think if you’re doing so much that it causes burnout or suicidal thoughts, it’s not your best. Doing your best means you can keep doing it.

    To paraphrase Jesus, “What good does it do to create the best art only to kill yourself as a result?” I think most churches would prefer you make art that continues than to sacrifice things that you’re not called to sacrifice — your life, your children, your marriage, etc.


    • Kaleb
      August 8, 2011

      Great thoughts, Paul. Also, I think there is a big difference between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence.

      Excellence openly and constantly asks questions and seeks constructive criticism. Excellence humbly admits perfection is impossible, yet is never satisfied with the status quo or “good enough”.

      Perfectionism is not being honest with yourself about your faults and limitations. Perfectionism is told, “do your best” and only hears “be the best”. Key word here is “your”. Perfectionism focuses on the end result rather than the process.

      One of Jim Collins’ principles in the pursuit of greatness is “confronting the brutal facts”. Excellence requires a commitment to a process that works around and even leverages weaknesses once they are confronted. I believe this process is indeed sustainable. Perfectionism is an uphill struggle and is neither reachable nor sustainable.

  • Kelley
    August 8, 2011

    Kaleb, you’ll appreciate Part 2. :)

  • JP
    August 8, 2011

    Great thoughts. I especially like the question “•Is your church so polished that flawed people feel intimated? Unacceptable?”

    I have see this over and over. In our desire to have a polished, controlled image, people don’t feel room to be authentic. “Excellence” must always be merged with “humility” and “honesty.”

  • Michael
    August 9, 2011

    Another great thing to remember is that God’s plan is to use the imperfect to accomplish His goals . . . after all, He uses people like us! :)

  • Michael Buckingham
    August 9, 2011

    So true Kelley, expectations can be the killer. As I look at different churches and how they are communicating though…they don’t need to worry about perfection. Looong way off from that. Mediocrity is still, overall, the standard in too many churches. I just see too many that hide behind “we can’t be perfect” as an excuse to not tell the story of Christ with our best.

    And… When we start to cry out because it’s too much, too taxing or overtaking our vacation to Maui…look at our examples within scripture. Paul’s efforts landed him in prison. That could’ve produced burnout, but instead it caused him to have increasing faith and fervency to share Christ.

    • Kelley
      August 9, 2011

      My friend offered the same appalled argument . . . that most churches have a much bigger problem with low expectations than with high. I’d like to think that the readership of CMS doesn’t have that issue, but maybe that’s an overly optimistic hope.

      And . . . I know. I could get my whine on about Paul not having to balance his ministry with his spouse’s work parties and kids’ dance lessons and t-ball games and . . . but I know that’s not your point, and I appreciate what you’re saying.

      (As a point of clarification: the people in my world who are crying out under the weight of unrealistic expectations aren’t complaining about lost vacations–to Maui or anywhere.)

  • Patrick
    August 9, 2011

    If we are indeed of attacking the wrong EX here – I would offer up the very definition of Expectation: The Act of Expecting, Eager Anticipation, Something Expected, Prospects, especially of success or gain.

    The very definition of expectation offers the ideal of excellence itself – you can’t exactly achieve excellence without an expectation of success or the idea of gaining. Excellence equates to something be superior – higher then another, or a gain, to close a gap or increase a lead.

    That is the problem I see with modern church to begin with – we are all striving for what we believe is excellence and we are comparing ourselves to society, trends and even other churches. Also, I agree with JP from above – “I have see this over and over. In our desire to have a polished, controlled image, people don’t feel room to be authentic. “Excellence” must always be merged with “humility” and “honesty.” If we are being truly authentic (which is such a church word these days) or real – then why do we feel the need to constantly tweak, polish and rehearse? Where is the room to breathe and let go?

    Having served on staff and leadership for 3 separate churches, I had built up a false ideal of what I thought excellence to be. I found it only to be false because it was the expectation of what others began to think. At the end of the day, we create, change or formulate our ideals of excellence based on what other peoples opinions have become defining our work and based on their expectation of excellence. When we change who we are to mold into others expectations to achieve their idea of excellence we loose the very essence of ourselves. Burned out, disappointed and hurt.

    What defines excellence in the church? Simple – leading people to a relationship with Jesus Christ, allowing them to know God, loving all people and serving all people. It doesn’t matter how we get them there – as long as we get them there. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”

    *Sorry for the long post.

  • Jennifer
    August 9, 2011

    I recently heard a quote “Expectations are premeditated disappointments.” I’m not sure I’d say you were attacking excellence – but the motivation for excellence. So in a sense, the underlying EX, expectations, is driven by our motivation. If we are passionate about communicating the gospel with the beautiful excellence it deserves, we know that coupling our strategies with fervent prayer and humility puts the expectations where they belong – that God is the One who does the communicating. But if our excellence is driven by the expectations of the staff – or perhaps more dangerously, the congregation – then we have fallen down the slippery slope. I think this is a necessary discussion and can’t wait for part 2. Thanks!

  • Seth Muse
    August 10, 2011

    Wise words. Andy Stanley has this phrase he kicks around that I like called “sustainable pace.” It’s the idea of pushing yourself to the limit, but to a limit that can be continued and not burn out. Church life has ebb and flow, and recognizing it and riding that wave is the best solution. So many times, we are expected to take our inner tube into the water and make the waves ourselves to ride. How do we do that well when we are in an ocean?

    I too was part of a church committed to excellence and resigned due to an unsustainable pace. My family was regularly put up on the altar, sacrificed to ministry, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. They didn’t necessarily ask me to do that, but made me to feel as if that were noble because the cause was so great.

    Sharing Christ IS the most important job on the planet and we should treat it as such (and get paid as such! wake up church!) but there are many and better ways to do that than make graphics, banners, and videos. And I LOVE those things being in church! Honestly, the thriving churches of the upcoming generation are striving for excellence in relationships, not just programming.

    Said the creative arts, programming, and worship pastor.

    • Mike Johnson
      August 10, 2011

      “sustainable pace”… I’ve heard that from AS before. Do you know if AS has a book on the topic of “sustainable pace”?

  • Eric Wakeling
    August 10, 2011

    Maybe the existence of this post negates the need for a blog entitled “Church Marketing Sucks.” Have we become too excellent in response to everyone bashing the church for “sucking” at marketing?

  • Kelley
    August 10, 2011

    Eric, if that’s the most logical conclusion to be drawn from my thoughts, I shouldn’t have thought aloud.

  • Miss Bible
    August 13, 2011

    Maybe the problem isn’t with excellency, maybe, if I can say this is a nice way, the problem is with those who are striving for excellency.

    Ephesians 4: 13 says:
    Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ

    and in the amplified version of this scripture says:

    [That it might develop] until we all attain oneness in the faith and in the comprehension of the [ full and accurate] knowledge of the Son of God, that [we might arrive] at really mature manhood (the completeness of personality which is nothing less than the standard height of Christ’s own perfection), the measure of the stature of the fullness of the Christ and the completeness found in Him.

    So in the scriptures, it seems that perfection is really just talking about maturity. …the standard height of Christ’s own perfection, is what it says in parentheses.

    But then in Romans 3: 23 it says:
    Since all have sinned and are falling short of the honor and glory [b]which God bestows and receives.

    In other words, we all sin. We’re not perfect. We don’t try and sin on purpose (most Christians don’t), but we all fall short.

    I don’t know if this helped any.

    The other thing I was thinking about is pride. Maybe the reason why people “implode” or give up on things is because they are too proud to pray to God and ask for some help, and/or go to people and ask for some help.

    The bible says in James 5: 16:
    Confess to one another therefore your faults (your slips, your false steps, your offenses, your sins) and pray [also] for one another, that you may be healed and restored [to a spiritual tone of mind and heart]. The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working].

    So in other words, if we confess to the Lord and/or even to people, someone we may be able to trust, that we are having problems and we need some help…whether it be trying to manage things, trying to do everything, trying to be perfect, maybe the person we are confessing to can help us, and if they can’t help us, at least they can be a place to vent and get those things that are weighing heavily on our minds, out.

  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    August 15, 2011

    And this is why we need a little frustration sometimes. Is excellence a bad thing? Certainly not, but there are some pitfalls that come with pursuing excellence. The problem isn’t with excellence itself, but some of the issues and dangers surrounding it.

    Thanks to Kelley for bringing these to our attention. And if you haven’t read it yet, do check out part two.

    • Kelley
      August 15, 2011

      Hey, I just wanted to thank everyone for weighing in on this conversation. Those of you who extended a “Hear hear!” offered some welcome “I’ve been there” validation. And those of you who disagreed offered some important “Careful now, girlie.” I appreciate each and every comment!

  • smorgan
    September 9, 2011

    Wow, quoting the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (who once wrote that Christianity “without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most bloody to ever infect the world”) to prop up your argument against seeking excellence? Really?

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