Perfectionism is the killer

The subtle danger of perfectionism is that it hides behind a position that is ostensibly good. Surely, it insists, we want things to be as good as they can possibly be. On one level, that is right. Nobody wants things in church to be purposefully terrible. Naturally, we do want things to be as good as they can be. The problem is that perfectionism mistakes something being as good as it can objectively be with how good it could possibly be under the circumstances in the real world.

The preaching being as objectively good as possible – that is, compared with all other preachers in the world, this being the best – is not the same as expecting the preaching to be as good as it can be given the people we have and the circumstances we are in. The music being as objectively good as possible – that is, concert pianist level, professional performance group good – is not the same as the music being as good as it might be under the circumstances with the people we happen to have with us. The evangelism being as good as it could objectively be isn’t the same as it being… well, you get the picture.

And, of course, the pursuit of perfection leads us down some very odd paths indeed. Those multisite churches that insist on piping in the preacher on screens do so on the grounds that we want the very best preacher in the pulpit. But that perfectionist tendency means fewer people are ever given opportunities to train because we can’t bear the thought of a dip in the preaching. If we can’t handle any drop in excellence in the preaching, we will find that we never give opportunities for people to get any better.

The pursuit of perfectionism in music tends to lead to turn away those who would serve because they aren’t ‘good enough’. It can have the unintended consequence of stopping people from serving because we have raised the idea of excellence above the need to involve God’s people in service. We could (because we have the technology to do it) get rid of all our musicians and play all our music through specialist apps. It would make picking songs easier and the competence of the music far better and more consistent. But to choose that may be evidence of disordered priorities, insisting on perfection above service.

But even in those areas in which we will serve, perfectionism stops us serving elsewhere. When people are so perfectionist over their particular area, they pore over all aspects of it and then feel so overburdened they cannot do anything more. The further that perfectionist tendency pushes to other aspects of our lives, it strangles our ability to serve anywhere else.

The issue is that perfection is rarely, if ever, possible. In the real world, we have to balance competing priorities. Excellence is great if we can hit it, but when it becomes the very thing that stifles us doing anything else it doesn’t look so excellent after all. If we have to spent all our time making sure our specific area of concern is perfect, we will soon find we aren’t able to do much else. Ironically, if we pursue perfection we will find that it is the very thing that keeps us from even being adequate.