By Eddie Pipkin
May 7, 2016
If you are like me (and prayers if you are, bless you), you are gloriously driven to strive more. Each success is merely a jumping off point to the next potential success. Each triumph is merely the launching pad for the next triumph. And the successes and triumphs have to be Big. And they have to be Now.
Some folks have been known to criticize this kind of relentless commitment to excellence as “perfectionism.” (It is frequently unsatisfied with anything less than capital B Big results.) It wants to push farther, faster, with more intensity, and it is obsessed with analyzing and fixing all the tiny blemishes in the thing we just did. It is a restless impatience that keeps us accountable to fresh ministry initiatives done with excellence (that is, no resting on our laurels or getting caught in a rut) but can become a debilitating pattern of its own that exhausts our ministry partners. As Michael Horton writes, in his meditation on our obsession with “the next big thing” in his book, Ordinary, “All sin is a warping of God-given impulses – taking what is good and warping it into something unhealthy.”
We can get so caught up in winning – so focused on success – that we bulldoze the victory garden. I am writing this as a confessional blog, since I recently found myself falling into this (not unfamiliar) pattern. I have been working with a church that really wants to build strong community connections exactly like the ones we stress here at EMC3. Many of the folks in their key leadership positions see this vision for community engagement and believe in it (both as a faithful ministry pursuit and as a strategy to strengthen their local church), but they are struggling to figure out the on-the-ground options that will bring such deep engagement to life. They recently hosted a very popular event with a well-known ministry at which they assembled food packages for shipment to hungry people. It was an exciting couple of hours, kinetic and engaging, not too demanding schedule-wise, truly multi-generational in participation, and some 80 people showed up, had a blast, and felt like they had made a difference.
It was a win. But in the after-report I kept harping on, “Okay, so how do we take that enthusiasm and transfer it to doing something meaningful right here in the community?” I kept making observations like, “You know, this is kind of an expensive ministry option as these things go. Are there other ways we might use that money?” Or making blanket statements like, “Well, you know people turned out for this because it really didn’t take that much effort. Making a lasting difference in the community is going to take real commitment.” In short, I was being a buzzkill. Nobody likes a buzzkill.
The win was that 80 people got together do an outreach. Eighty people (diverse people of all ages) got together to serve others, to feed Jesus’ sheep as it were. Can that be a jumping off point to a more regular and engaged commitment to have an impact on the local community? Of course it can, in good time and with intentional leadership. But what a wonderful jumping off point. Everybody had fun. They felt good about serving God, and many forged new relationships. In addition to this celebration-worthy Sunday afternoon, there had been several other small but significant victories for this church in the past couple of months. Each is building towards a more deeply engaged community of disciples and each is worthy of a few moments of gratitude and positive reflection. It reminded me of another excellent blog I read recently, Rebekah Simon-Peters’ “The Genius of Slow Change”.
Slow, deliberate, natural steps (thoughtfully taken in the right direction) keep us from burning out (and from burning others out who perhaps have a slower ministry metabolism). They can help us stay grounded in scriptural purposes and more positively connected to our ministry partners.
Keep these strategies in mind:
• Celebrate each ministry event for itself. Don’t compare it to everything else, and don’t compare it to the imaginary perfect event that lives in your head.
• Count the right things. Data is good, and I’m making no excuses for the narrative trap we fall into in which one good story translates into a success no matter whatever else was a train wreck. But it is all about relationships, and there is a general vibe associated with any event that is critical (often referred to as a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit). Measure things, seek feedback, but be sure your focus is God-and-other-centered (not a slave to your own expectations).
• Call a time-out for celebration. Bask in the success (even if a small success) before ramping up into full-on evaluation, critique, and “how can this be better” mode. There will be time for that. Leaders have a terrible habit of evaluating things meticulously before taking such a time-out. (I know plenty of worship leaders who are busy evaluating worship even while it is happening!)
• The expression of gratitude empowers celebration. Use social media and every communications resource available to celebrate successes. This builds a narrative of excitement and vision moving in the right direction. Write thank-you notes. Thank people publicly for their leadership and involvement. This is great groundwork for what comes next. It cements strong relationships and makes people want to work with you (not just dread the arrival of “Mr. Buzzkill”).
• Use the successes you are celebrating to be the narrative foundations for expanded vision. Talk about what God is calling you to do next by referencing the things God is doing now. Anchor your visions of the future in the reality of what people have positively experienced.
Have you struggled with being a Mr. or Ms. Buzzkill? Or have you struggled to work with someone else who has been? What strategies have you employed to be more patient in celebrating incremental change? Share your own stories and leave your comments in the space for that purpose below. All comments shall be appropriately celebrated!