Imagine a race that pits a runner named Excellence against one of identical size and skill named Perfectionism. If you’re sitting in the stands watching them run, it may be almost impossible to tell the difference between the gait of someone pursuing her best and someone being driven by the desire to win every race in record time. Perfectionism may win many of her sprint-length races against Excellence by a split-second, but she never celebrates those victories. There’s no room to celebrate when she’s being hounded by anxiety and the elusive “best” is looming in the distance, always just beyond her reach. Perfectionism refuses to accept a victory if there is even the remotest hint of a flaw in that success.
I learned that perfectionism is a harsh, unflinching coach when I helped to produce worship services at a church. The pastor, worship leader, and I were supposed to plan every element so the service was intentional, worshipful, and accessible to both visitors and longtime members. It was an honor to work together, prayerfully imagining how we could involve people, welcome the gifts they were offering to our congregation, and point the congregation toward reverent, meaningful worship.
But I grew to dread the Tuesday morning debriefing session during the staff meeting. Some of the feedback on the service was constructive. But there were a couple of people who seemed to relish acting as though they were judges on a reality TV competition show. They never seemed to have a positive word to say about anyone:
“Didn’t you think Keith went on too long when he led us in corporate prayer? After all, we all know how he can get.”
“Why was Danita given a solo again this week? She’s had too many lately, don’t you think?
“Why did you have Tracy make the announcement about the women’s retreat? She’s not a very dynamic speaker. It sounded as if she was inviting us to a funeral.”
The constant refrain during these meetings was that it was our job to pursue excellence during worship services. Because we all affirmed that value, there was an unspoken rule that it was bad form to challenge those critiques, no matter how negative the words were. After a particularly punishing session, the pastor said to the group, “What I hear in your words is that our services can never be good enough. We always have to keep striving for excellence.” His perceived affirmation gave critical staffers a green light to dissect every service, sniping in a “Christian-acceptable” way about every person who didn’t perform up to their standards. And their “pass-fail” grading system didn’t seem to leave any room for growth.
Perfectionism can lead to fabulous performances and gold medals. But its achievements are rooted in the acid soil of fear and can’t produce life-giving fruit.
Many of us have experienced poorly executed church services where the piano accompaniment was full of clunker notes, the PowerPoint slides seemed to have a mind of their own, or the marathon-length sermon never seemed to make its point. In reaction to sloppy, uninviting services, some mega-church programmers began to highlight the value of excellence in corporate worship gatherings. This brought the gift of heightened intentionality to those planning worship services in many congregations. But in some of these churches, it also unleashed an unhealthy focus on performance each Sunday morning instead of focusing on the worth of our God. In my own experience, the toxic perfectionism at work among us during that time tapped into my own perfectionistic tendencies. And as a result, I burned out on the job after less than two years. It took much longer than that for me to begin to reclaim the beauty of imperfect worship.
Perfectionism can lead to straight A’s, fabulous performances, Instagram-ready looks and lifestyles, and gold medals. But its achievements are rooted in the acid soil of fear and can’t produce life-giving fruit.
Sports psychologist Dr. Chris Stankovich noted, “While it may sound impressive to call yourself a perfectionist, what you are actually doing is raising the bar so high that it is virtually impossible to ever truly be successful … Sport psychology studies show that anxiety increases dramatically as we try to be perfect, and when this occurs, the nervous physical energy experienced (i.e., rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, tense and tight muscles, etc.) actually disrupts the mind-body synchrony needed for successful sport movements.”
Of course, anxiety can disrupt a perfectionist’s well-being in every area of life, including the classroom, the workplace, the internet, and yes, church. Perfectionism can fuel intense, even obsessive religious behavior. We can see it at play in the apostle Paul’s life, when he was still known as Saul. We first encounter him in Acts 7 at the trial of Stephen, a Jewish leader in the early church, whose words and works provoked unbelieving Jewish leaders. The ardent young Saul sought to be of service to the Pharisees, the men who were discipling him. As the religious leaders rose up in rage against Stephen, declaring him guilty of blasphemy and dragging him out of Jerusalem so they could stone him to death, young Saul served his elders by watching their coats (Acts 7:57-58). This coat-check duty seems a small detail, but it highlights Saul’s deep commitment to those whom he recognized as exemplars of religious performance. He was a company man through and through.
When Saul joined the wave of persecution that was unleashed against Jesus’ followers in the wake of Stephen’s execution (Acts 8:3), he was absolutely convinced he was serving God. Later, he even described himself with these words: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6). His lineage and spiritual training put him among the Jewish religious elites of his day, and his zeal and scrupulous adherence to the law point to a life driven by the desire to live without error.
Traveling to Damascus to continue his “holy mission” of persecuting believers, Saul was apprehended by the risen Jesus and found his religious performance orientation turned upside down. It took some time for other believers to trust this stunning change of direction. Not long after the life-changing encounter, those who’d once been among Saul’s spiritual mentors turned their sights on him, seeking to put him to death (Acts 9:23-25; Acts 9:29-30). He later reflected that after he met Jesus, the things that had once driven his behavior were as valuable to him as trash (Phil. 3:8).
Over time, Paul moved away from the religious perfectionism of his earlier years to the kind of humility that recognized he was no longer the potter of his own life but a very human jar of clay God was filling and using for His glory. (See 2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV.)
In fact, it is the language of potter and clay that points to the healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s no mistake that this metaphor is used throughout Scripture (Job 10:8-12; Isa. 45:9; Jer. 18:1-23; Rom. 9:20-21; 2 Timothy 2:20-21). Excellence is the superlative descriptor we use to signify the very best version of a person, place, or thing. It is the result of a process of seeking, striving, practicing, and pursuing a goal, in contrast to perfectionism, which describes a disordered process of the pursuit of excellence. The steps a potter takes to soften, mold, re-mold, dry, fire, and glaze clay illustrates for us how excellence emerges from our lives.
My daughter took piano lessons from a woman named Diane, who specialized in teaching beginning students. That meant Diane sat through a lot of pretty terrible piano playing every week. She was a gifted musician but once told me that her own musical skill didn’t have much to do with her thriving business. Instead, its success was in recognizing the value of the learning process and celebrating each student’s growth from week to week. “My reward comes from remembering where they started,” she once told me. “Yes, I prepare my students for recitals every spring, because that experience creates goals and teaches them about poise and public performance. But my real reward comes from working with them each week. A performance might last for three minutes, but lessons they learn through practice last for a lifetime, whether they continue with music study or not.”
Diane’s attitude reflected for me something of the delight God has in our learning process. Where a perfectionist focuses on presenting a flawless product—even if that product is the person herself—God is at work bringing us to holy completion. The Greek word teleios captures the purpose of excellence, which describes the process of maturing in the faith as a believer walks with Jesus. Interestingly, teleios is often translated “perfect: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But this verse is talking about something else: Teleios is a call to follow, pursuing maturity, as we journey toward our whole, holy, perfect Father in heaven. Excellence emerges as a by-product of this Potter-and-clay process in our lives. The elusive prize of perfection isn’t our goal. Completion is.
It is said that skilled Amish quilt makers, who create some of the most stunning fabric art in the world, intentionally stitch some sort of mistake into one of their quilt blocks to remind themselves that no one is perfect except God. When my anxieties cause my inner perfectionist to make an unwelcome appearance, it can be helpful to stitch a “humility block” into my thoughts: God has begun an excellent work in me, and He will be faithful to complete it—and me.
Photography by Ryan Hayslip