By Eddie Pipkin
It had been a few years since I had participated in a legitimate multi-day backpacking trip, so I had to dig deeply in my mental files (and on my garage shelves) to remember exactly what gear to take. Once you’re miles deep in the woods, it’s too late to pull an extra sweatshirt out of the closet because you’re cold or order a pizza from Papa John’s because you can’t get your cookstove working. I made my lists and checked my lists against those of my young proteges. We planned; we coordinated; we reviewed. But one thing will not surprise you, since we were, after all, human beings doing what human beings do: mistakes were made. We missed some things and messed up some others. It would have been easy enough to be grumpily focused on those mistakes and the ways they impacted our adventure, but we were too busy enjoying the magical moments to do more than laugh at our folly. Ministry presents the same dilemma: no matter how thoroughly we plan, mistakes will be made. When can get caught up in the negativity of dwelling on our misjudgments and blunders, or we can celebrate the joy of the beautiful parts. There are no perfect trips – only perfect moments.
Let me write that mantra again, giving it the prominence it deserves:
There are no perfect trips – only perfect moments.
And let’s add in some of its relevant corollaries for you, intrepid ministry leaders and thinkers:
There are no perfect ministries – only perfect ministry moments.
There are no perfect leaders – only perfect leadership moments.
There are no perfect sermons – only perfect sermon moments.
There are no perfect events – only perfect moments within those events.
There are no perfect small groups – only perfect small group moments.
And on and on. . . .
The principle is paramount. Perfection is unattainable, but the earnest pursuit of perfection does lead to extraordinary moments in which everything comes together in ways that break through, astonishing and delighting us.
On the other hand, we diminish our own hard work and the work of our teams when we get so focused on perfection that we dismiss beautiful breakthrough moments as insufficient reward for our efforts.
And we miss the opportunity for those breakthrough moments altogether when we refuse to undertake an endeavor because we can’t envision a path to perfection.
Perfectionism is a known problem among ministry professionals and volunteers. It is a source of frustration and burnout, because it leads to a constant state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. When we are obsessed with every detail being perfect, we don’t have the bandwidth to enjoy the special moments where God’s grace shines through. We would be much better served by pausing to fully enjoy the gifts that those moments bring and recognizing that all our hard work is the seedbed for those moments to sprout and flourish. Such moments may be the direct result of a plan we have carefully cultivated, but the reality is that most often they happen around the edges of our plan – happy side effects of that plan – or sometimes they happen in spite of the plan. Be at peace with that. Some things in the plan will go according to plan, and some things will not, but whenever God’s people get together with good intentions and open hearts, good things happen – some predictably and on purpose and some unexpected.
For you lifelong Methodists, it is helpful to remember that, although John Wesley was focused on “moving on towards perfection,” that rarefied state was achieved by growing greater and greater in love – one becomes so filled with love that the love displaces all misguided motives and suspect behavior. So, too, should our emphasis as leaders pursuing perfection be leading with perfect love – love should guide our motives, our words, and our decisions. Such love-led leadership will inevitably spin off more perfect ministry moments.
Here is one of my favorite aphorisms to live by:
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
We should always strive for excellence – we should always do the best work we can do – but when we make excellence a false idol, we sabotage the process by which grace reveals perfect moments even in the midst of less-than-perfect conditions.
Of course, if our fear of being less than perfect infects our thinking early enough in the process, it’s possible that we may never even embark on a project. The risk seems too great. The task seems too daunting. We can’t see a way to guarantee a perfect outcome, so why bother? This is a tragic attitude that has undermined many nascent creative ideas in far too many local churches. Someone is inspired by the Holy Spirit to pitch a project, and the naysayers leap into action, noting the many ways the proposed project is sure to be short of perfection. The project dies on the vine. And maybe it was imperfect in conception and quite possibly it was going to be imperfect in execution, but lots of perfect moments are missed because the thing never even gets started.
Here’s a canard from that ol’ positive thinker, Dale Carnegie:
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.
Go out and get busy.”
I like that one. It espouses action as forward movement that leads to good things. People getting together inspire one another. People undertaking projects learn useful things, even if they are only applied on some future undertaking. Even people making mistakes learn lessons about grace and resiliency. None of those perfect moments in any of those categories can happen if people opt out before a thing gets started.
I noted that my pals and I made mistakes on our backpacking trip. We forgot a sleeping pad for one of the guys, so we had to take turns sleeping on the cold ground. One fellow forgot his extra socks, so we had to share socks. We Floridians didn’t anticipate how cold it would get at night, so we ended up wearing everything we had with us, layer on top of layer, and still we were cold. I could recount mistakes until I made you think twice about coming along with us next time. But I could also make a list of the perfect moments my backpacking buddies and I will always remember: when we turned the corner and happened on that mother moose and her gangly youngster; the fire we built along the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the creek; the shooting stars that awed us in the pitch black wilderness sky; the trout my nephew pulled from the creek as he fly-fished for the first time; the view of a pristine alpine lake as we topped the ridge after a long ascent; the elk that bounded from the woods directly into the wildflower-filled field in front of us. So many perfect moments. The inconveniences and struggles, the blunders and the blisters were inconsequential background noise when all was said and done.
If we keep our heads and keep our focus, that’s how ministry is supposed to be. If we let the Spirit of God shine through, that’s how our service, our projects, our events, our small groups, our programs, and our activities are supposed to be. The trips we take (in ministry and in life) are destined to be imperfect. There are no perfect trips. But there are plenty of blessed, perfect moments. Look for them. Lean into them. Embrace what they have to offer and let the pettiness of all the other logistics and chaos fade away.
Do you and your ministry team celebrate the perfect moments? Or do you get so caught up in the perfect implementation of all your plans that you bulldoze right over those moments of grace and beauty? Are you so obsessed with execution that you forget about relationships and miss the way God’s wonder is revealed? Share your own story about a perfect moment, how it came to be and what it meant to those who were a part of it. How do we cultivate more such moments?