Slacken off & be a better generalist for the sake of the church

My children came home with their school reports yesterday. Don’t worry, this isn’t a post where I cack on about how awesome my kids are. I’m not about to publicly shame them either. Frankly, educational attainment has never been particularly high on my agenda. My children will do what they do and I have no particular designs or concerns about whatever that is.

But one element of one of the school reports caught my eye. The section about fulfilling potential. It seems many teachers are concerned that children fulfil their full potential, even if they seem to be doing better than adequately across the board. There is a push to get children to do the very best they can even if they are exceeding expectations already. Essentially, if there is more fuel in the tank, we better burn it up, even if that comes with added costs.

Now I don’t really see a problem. Someone is exceeding the levels they are expected to be at, they are doing pretty well, and they are doing so at a canter. That strikes me as specifically the intelligent thing to do. Two students both sat on A* grades (or whatever the new level thingies are). One busts a gut to get the best marks possible whilst the other coasts along and gets a few marks into the A* grade. But when both end up with the same fundamental grade, what difference does that really make? Surely we are all aiming to do as well as possible for the least amount of effort, right?

Others argue this something of a problem. Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to do their best? Shouldn’t we be helping them fulfil their full potential? Well, maybe. Let’s be honest, some people’s full potential isn’t really so great and so it probably is important to encourage them to fulfil it as maximally as possible. But if your half or three-quarter potential still puts you quite far ahead, does it really matter if you could have forced yourself to get a little better? Maybe there is more you could give, but if you are pretty good without the added stress of busting a gut to get there, isn’t it smart to just enjoy your life and settle for still being pretty good?

Of course, the reason I am sympathetic to this is because it is exactly how I have always operated. I wanted to get the work done, off my plate, and onto the next thing. I learnt, by and large, I could get stuff done quickly to a tolerable standard and – whilst I probably could have given it more time and effort improving it somewhat – I was fine with it being pretty good without the added stress-levels of trying to make it excellent. Why bust a gut to make something outstanding, I figured, when the standard I deemed adequate would do perfectly well and was still ahead of most of the field?

This probably means, on paper, I didn’t fulfil my full potential. It means, in practice, I had plenty of time to relax on computer games and go out to play with my mates whilst still getting everything I needed to go on and do the things I wanted to do. Did I occasionally come acropper? Yes. I sometimes misread the ratio of work required to get the results needed and thought I would coast things that I turned out not to coast at all. But by and large it was a process that worked out alright for me. My parents weren’t really ones to push education – we either did our work or we didn’t and they were happy to let us suffer whatever consequences came along with those choices. Do the least required to get the best outcomes possible seems a credible calculation to me.

What has this got to do with anything? As an approach to work, I think this is largely sensible. In the church, for instance, I could spend all day, every day trying to fulfil my preaching potential. I could aim to be the best preacher I can be. But, of course, in pastoral ministry – especially in small churches in deprived places – if that’s all I did, not very much else would happen. A lot of pastors seem to want to do something like this – they hang everything on the quality of their preaching (which is ironic given so many of us really aren’t great shakes if we’re honest) – but this is to the detriment of almost everything else in the church. What we need in the church are generalists. Not people who can deliver perfect, amazing sermons every week (nice if you can get it of course), but people who can do a range of things competently. In other words, we need people who are prepared to say, that’s enough to be credible so that I can do the other things competently that I am here to do as well. 

There are, no doubt, jobs in which we want people to try and perfect what they’re doing. There isn’t much point in making art that is merely competent. Trying to enter the Olympics as somebody who probably hasn’t reached their full potential is a bad idea. I accept that sometimes, not fulfiling your full potential can be a problem. But for most of us, let’s be honest, we’re not going to be the best in the world at stuff. We’re going to be one of a number of other people – none of whom are necessarily the best – all trying to be competent at what we’re doing. And when you need to be competent across a range of areas, suddenly slackening off (and, key to this, knowing exactly what areas you are gifted in so that you can ease up a little and still be competent) is key to giving yourself the room to competently achieve everything else you need to do too.

This is what we need in the church. We need people who can be generalists competently. There are no doubt people who are gifted in certain areas who can specialise, and excel, for the good of the church. We surely need those sorts of people too. But one of the killers in ministry, it seems to me, is a perfectionism that insists on doing everything to the best of my ability. That is typically the fast track to getting nothing done at all or, at best, excelling in one area to the detriment of all others. Instead, we need people who are able to say, this was enough. This is good enough. I may be able to do it better, but this is adequate. Only then will we find the bandwidth to do all the other things that pastors seem to find added to their ever-increasing ministry schedules.