September 22, 2015

By Eddie Pipkin

I was a big fan of the AMC series Mad Men, which focused on the characters in a Madison Avenue advertising agency during the 1960’s. One of the most discussed and beloved aspects of the show was the way it captured the vibe of that era–how it looked and sounded–the language, the fashions, the style. It was the singular vision of one creative mind, Matthew Weiner, and as the show reached the conclusion of its multi-season run a couple of months ago, Weiner and the show he brought to such exquisite life were the subject of a long profile by James Poniewosik of Time Magazine.

One of the passages from the article focused on Weiner’s legendary attention to the most miniscule of details:

It’s partly about verisimilitude, yes. Weiner, and thus his staff, are fixated on nailing the details to a granular level. There aren’t just vintage Selectric typewriters on set: If you see a stack of typewritten pages on a desk, those have been typed—not printed on a computer, but typed, even the pages stacked underneath. The theory is: Even if the audience never sees it, the actors will. The Rolodexes are filled with actual vintage cards with KLondike-5-style numbers. (The production department has been an excellent customer for L.A.’s vintage shops, not to mention Craigslist and eBay.) When fruit bowls were stocked, Weiner vetted the apples and bananas—because the fruit at the time was smaller than today’s hypertrophied produce. Actresses were discouraged from working out too intensely, because the 1960s had some meat on its bones.

It is an attentiveness that seems almost over-the-top, yet in ministry as in Emmy Award winning entertainment, our attention to detail can make a major difference in what people come to experience.

It is a corollary of the work that we do week in and week out that we honor God by doing it with excellence. Sermons are honed in long, lonely hours of research, songs are performed again and again in practice in order to lead them with confidence when it’s time to sing them in worship with the congregation. Newsletter and web articles are written with thoughtful wording and careful editing to insure that we help people connect with the ministries to which God is calling them. Tech crews have clear instructions and solid training and are using equipment that has been well maintained so that they can seamlessly light a scene or amplify a speaker.

It is easy to shrug our shoulders at the type of preparation that promotes an extra level of excellence, to settle for ‘okay’ or ‘good enough for government work’ (to quote an old adage), but when we have microphones that are activated 30 seconds too late, songs where the praise singers mumble the words, or gratuitous grammatical errors in the bulletin, we are just distracting people from the worship environment and the important work of the Holy Spirit (and many times an inconsistent level of attention to detail among leaders means that the hard work of one leader is spoiled by the lackadaisical attitude of another.)

Of course, I can hear you saying, “Wait a minute! Leaders can get too carried away with being fixated on everything being PERFECT and forget about the Holy Spirit altogether,” and you are absolutely right. But that’s not the subject of this particular blog. [That’s the ‘Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good’ blog.] This is the blog that is all about when we are lazy or preoccupied or unorganized and we don’t plan or prepare or rehearse or review the way that we should, and we convince ourselves that it’s okay. But as I frequently say when working with the leaders of the pre-youth ministry for 10 and 11-year-olds of which I am a part, “Even a 4th-grader can tell when you’re not prepared.”

They (and their older counterparts of every age) are bored with our shabby prep work. They are disaffected with our clear can’t-be-bothered-to-get-it-right attitude. And they very clearly receive the message that they were not worthy of our time and efforts. They don’t owe us their presence, and it is not unusual (if we consistently communicate this message of apathy) that they vote with their feet and find someone who treats them (and God) like they are best-effort worthy.

Every layer of preparation makes us stronger (whether sermon planning or teaching a class to adults or young people or planning a picnic and games). Even though it might never be directly seen, just as with Matthew Weiner’s props and set decorations, it brings a depth and authenticity to whatever we are leading in the moment. It gives us confidence. It makes us more flexible if Plan A begins to come apart at the seams. It gives us the ability to answer questions and give articulate answers to those who would question our leadership decisions. It builds a stronger foundation for our next leadership challenge. Preparation never goes to waste. Obviously one can over-do it and become totally bogged down in getting ready, but far too often we take a scanty approach and wing it. It is a deeper and more rewarding connection to dive in and fully embrace a leadership responsibility than it ever is to do the minimal just to get something checked off the list.

My dad had a saying that has always stuck with me:

“A job well done is a well done job.”

It is silly on the surface and yet profound in the living. It is true at its heart. We are never sorry when we lay our head down on the pillow and spend time with the Lord to take stock of the day that we took the time to do something right. That is a big part of the definition of that churchy word “righteousness,” by the way. Doing something right. The way God does things.

Here are some examples of how to lead with attention to detail:

  • If I am responsible for worship planning, I have written down the plan for the week and have communicated it to everyone involved in worship leadership and touched base to be sure they know their responsibility AND how all the pieces fit together.
  • If I am a worship leader, I am attentive to my own spiritual growth and wholeness, and I am diligent about being a regular part of worship in which I have no leadership responsibilities so that my own needs are met, making me a stronger leader for others.
  • If I teach Sunday or lead a youth group, I prepare well in advance of programs or sessions that I must lead (not waiting till the last minute to read the lesson or get ready), and I pray for those who will be in my charge.
  • If I am responsible for communications for my congregation (newsletters or web sites or social media), I make it a part of my routine to review what other churches are doing so that I might develop new ideas and stay relevant with the communications culture.
  • If I am on the tech crew, I review my upcoming responsibilities carefully and mentally walk through the mechanics of supporting the ministry at hand. And I’m not updating my Facebook profile while the worship service is in progress.
  • If I am in charge of games, I carefully rehearse how I will explain the rules of the game (and field test those instructions if possible) and I get all the gear ready and organized to go for when the game players arrive.

These kinds of criteria for excellence are applicable for every kind of ministry. They are all about attitude. And the details definitely matter.

What has been your experience with feeling like you let others down because you didn’t pay attention to details? And what has been a moment of pride when your attention to detail paid off in ministry that honored the Lord? Share you stories in the comments section below.