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When Excellence Isn’t Excellent

“Excellence honors God and inspires others.” If you’ve served on a church staff, you’ve probably heard this mantra.  Made famous by Willow Creek and adopted by many churches, it sounds amazing, but is it always? 

I’ve served as a coach and consultant to dozens of churches and have served on two church lead teams. I want to say that from my experience, excellence isn’t always excellent. What I have seen often, and experienced, is that there is a direct connection between the battle cry of excellence and the burn-out of staff and high-capacity volunteers. And I’ve been a guilty party to the process.

My dad used to say, “There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and you have to walk it carefully.”  The same is true for excellence and perfection. In the name of excellence, I have seen many church leaders push for perfection and in return, their team members confide in me some version of, “I just can’t keep going like this anymore.”

For team leaders who perhaps find themselves stumbling along the excellence/perfection line, let me offer four keys to keeping yourself and your team on the right side of that line. It’s all about working at a sustainable PACE

Protect The Sabbath

For your and your teams, both your paid staff and lay leaders. In reality, your high-capacity volunteers are not sabbathing on Sunday… they are working their tails off. Your tech people are first in/last out. Short-staffed children’s workers may not even get to join in corporate worship or sit under the teaching of their pastors. Your admin staff can’t fully worship where they work. And a check of many church calendars finds Sunday filled with newcomer lunches, evening team dinners, elder meetings, special event planning and more. Assuming your people – both staff and lay leaders – work Monday through Friday, and we know their Saturdays are packed full with youth sports, yard work, family commitments, trips to the DMV, house projects… there is simply little to no opportunity to adhere to the Biblical call for rest. So, talk about this as a team, and do the hard work to protect some time of sabbath-like rest during the week. If your staff has the opportunity to to take a weekday off, that’s awesome, but help your volunteers by scheduling “No-Meeting-Sundays” – even one a month, when your entire staff knows that after the soundboard is turned off and the nursery diaper pail is emptied, there are zero church meetings the rest of that day. How might this impact your staff? Your planning? Does it feel like a step toward restoring sabbath rest for your people?

 

Accept Reasonable Limitations

You know that mic that wasn’t turned on at just the right moment or that slow graphics change? Before you ding your tech team, reflect on every single live TV sporting event found on any major network or streaming service. Trust me, even the Super Bowl will have a miscued mic, momentarily unframed camera shot or a sideline announcer unaware they are live at that moment. The occasional spelling error, the finicky children’s check-in system, the volunteers that didn’t give themselves quite enough time at Starbucks… cut them some slack. Repeat and chronic poor performers call for coaching, but keep in mind, for every speck in the eye… you get it. So, accept reasonable limitations from the people on your teams and encourage them even in their errors. They know they could have done better.

 

Consider Simple Approaches

Have you been there? It’s the Christmas season, and the special musical event calls for a totally different stage set-up than the Sunday service, so with a Saturday and Sunday performance, the stage has to be reconfigured between event set-up, then worship set-up and back to event set-up. Or the big outdoor tent event calls for truckloads of rental equipment, barbecue grills, an outdoor stage, petting zoo and more. As a recovering over-the-top-big-idea addict, I know events like these are amazing outreach opportunities, unifying for your people and often worth doing, but in the planning, we have the opportunity to dream big, and then scale back to the more simple approach that can be done with excellence. Keep in mind, the scaled back version which was delivered with excellence and allowed your people to maintain sanity, is better than the stretch idea that teeters on coming up short while burning your people out.

 

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

If your church has the skill set, time and resources to measure lots of things, do it, and use those measurements to guide your planning. Keep doing what’s having the best results, but be bold enough to end those events, programs and ministries that require much of your people but don’t deliver Kingdom impact. At the risk of quoting my dad twice in one post, remember you have to consider, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” If your church doesn’t currently have sophisticated means of measurement, do an honest face-in-the-mirror gut check, and bring to an end the poor performing activities and bring fresh life to the events and ministries that stay on the list. 

 

Make it Practical:

Share this blog post with your staff. Bring in an outside facilitator for this discussion. Disrupt the normal leadership dynamics and allow someone else to create room for the deep discussion  your team needs to have. Consider these discussion questions:

  • Protect the Sabbath
    • How are we doing with protecting the sabbath? 
    • When was the last time each of us had a 24 hour period of rest?
    • What might it be costing us to “Just. Keep. Going.” 
    • What changes would we need to make to find more rest? 
    • How do we (as staff) help our lay leaders find rest? 
    • What do we think could be outcomes of being more sabbathy?
  • Accept Reasonable Limitations
    • How do we respond when minor errors are made?
    • What about our systems or workload contribute to those errors?
    • What is a time when you experienced a small error from a business or restaurant… Did you extend grace?
      Can we expect our people and our visitors to extend grace?
    • How does the occasional bobble make us more or less approachable?
    • What are the losses and gains associated with how we respond to an error?
    • How do we encourage our people in the midst of an “aw-crap” moment?
  • Consider Simple Approaches
    • Are there times when we over complicate things in our program or event design?
    • Do we have the people, teams and expertise to do “over the top” or are we currently better equipped to deliver more simple approaches?
    • What would we have to do to knock it out of the park without complications?
    • What event or program do we currently have in the works or in planning that might benefit from being simplified?
    • Can God be honored in a simple approach? 
    • How will people respond?
    • Can you think of a time you had a positive experience with a simplified approach from a business or restaurant? How was that for you?
  • Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate
    • Do we take time to honestly debrief after an event or program? 
    • Do we celebrate? Do we critique? Do we give evaluation serious attention?
    • Face it, something we’re doing is a dud. What is it? (Be bold). 
    • How much time, effort and resources are we putting toward that thing (those things) and what would happen if we ended them?
    • Would it be better to apply that energy to something we’re already doing or start something new? 
    • What’s the thing you tell your spouse, family or friends that needs to be brought to an end? Share that with the team.

 

What might happen to your team’s level of joy, passion and longevity if you took this conversation seriously and made real changes?

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