My Resistance to Excellence as a Value

my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK) was published in the current issue. here’s what i wrote:

One of the wonderful tasks that make up my work is a yearlong coaching program for youth workers. In the four years since its launch, we’ve had about 200 people go through this program, in cohorts of 10. I currently have five cohorts at various points in their journey, meeting in various locations around the States.

Central to this coaching program is a focus on leading from values. Participants develop both ministry values and personal vocational values during our time together, and I’ve seen the process be revolutionary in helping people be more intentional.

I see values as the ship’s rudder, providing an ability to steer, hopefully in the direction toward becoming the ministry that God has dreamed of for your context. Values should be spiritually discerned (ideally in a collaborative setting), and should flow out of mission. Mission is the answer to the question: Why do we exist? Values, then, are the answers to the question: What are we called to embody in this season? Once values are in place, we can think about strategy and identify goals. But without values, goals are nothing more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (For the record, Strategy is the answer to the question: How will we best live into our values? And Goals are simply the measurable action steps toward that end.)

Taking 200 youth workers through the process of developing their ministry values, I’ve regularly seen a particular value pop up that makes me squirm a bit: Excellence. Because I require my coaching group participants to state their values as complete sentences, this value often shows up as something like: We are passionate about doing everything with excellence, or Everything we do will be done with excellence.

I’m not anti-excellence. It’s not that I desire the opposite: everything we do will be done poorly and in the shoddiest manner possible. No, of course I’m not suggesting that. Excellence is a good thing. I’m just not convinced it’s a great thing.

Too often, what I can read between the lines is a commitment to programming excellence. In my mind’s eye, I see a youth worker with that value slaving at her computer to make extra-stunning PowerPoint slides. I imagine a youth worker combing the Internet and spending way too much time assembling the props for games with that extra-special wow-factor. I get a little depressed picturing the youth worker who drools over better technology for a snappier show.

I realize there’s a semantics issue at play here. Sure, we can commit to doing relational ministry with excellence. Of course, we can embody excellence in our listening, and in our encouragement, and in our patience and love. But that’s not usually, from my experience, what those excellence values are meant to imply, if the value-writer is being honest.

I get uncomfortable with excellence as a value because it all-too-often reveals a subtle wrong-headed thinking that our very best programming will change lives. Honestly, the number of teenagers who owned their faith, or deepened their understanding of Jesus, or asked the questions most deeply on their hearts as a direct result of the design quality of a PowerPoint slide has to be pretty close to zero.

I like sharp-looking graphics. And I’m all for technology helping us connect with teenagers. Planning and creativity and thoughtful programming are good things. But as an elevated value–a focus on the excellence of those things–they can quickly become a seductive distraction from our true calling. And at worst, those focuses can supplant the transformative role of the Holy Spirit, working through and around us in the lives of teenagers.

I’m more interested in leaning into a value of being responsive (to the Holy Spirit, to the needs of teenagers) and present. I want to value responsiveness over proactivity, and discernment over planning.

Dream of a ministry approach that lifts up those values, and you just might find yourself on the road to some truly amazing results.

3 thoughts on “My Resistance to Excellence as a Value”

  1. Thanks Marko. Excellence can become sinful when we believe that it is our efforts that save (either others or our selves). Excellence is also so culture bound and therefore reflective of class assumptions. Keep preaching brother.

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