Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Perfectionism”

Richard Rohr on Performance

I borrowed this from the daily MINemergent from Emergent Village:

Spiritual capitalism 

We’ve all imbibed the culture of unrest so deeply. We just cannot believe that we could be respected or admired or received or loved without some level of performance. We are all performers and overachievers, and we think “when we do that” we will finally be lovable. Once you ride on the performance principle, you don’t even allow yourself to achieve it. Even when you “achieve” a good day of “performing,” it will never be enough, because it is inherently self-advancing and therefore self-defeating. You might call it “spiritual capitalism”.

Richard Rohr

Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate

Perspective on being “good enough”

Hal Runkel, in his excellent resource on parenting Scream Free Parenting, shares the following perspective:

“The most important thing she’d learned over the years was that there was no way to be a perfect mother and a million ways to be a good one.”   -Jill Churchill, O Magazine, May 2003

“Every now and again we talk with people who say something along these lines, ‘I get what you’re advocating. I just don’t think I can do it all the time.’ To which I say, welcome to the club. No one can. That’s not what ScreamFree Parenting is all about. If we get caught in the trap of thinking that we have to be perfect in order to be ScreamFree, then we’re missing the whole point.

“The point is to work consciously on growing yourself up, and that’s a process, not a product. Simply put, there is no such thing as perfect parenting. By beating yourself up for not being “perfectly ScreamFree”, you are limiting yourself and what you are capable of. Remember, doing something in the right direction is always better than giving up and doing nothing. Give yourself a break and know that just reading this tip today is “something” and in some small way, both your kids and you will benefit.”

What Hal says about ScreamFree, can be said of pastoring. It’s not about doing it perfectly.

Those who pressure themselves to be perfect tend to be hard to work with, are often angry at their church for not cooperating, beat themselves (and their parishioners) up, and are prone to allow discouragement overwhelm them.

They typically don’t finish well.

Rather than perfection, a much more effective and healthy goal is, as Runkel states, “to work on growing yourself up.” We can be content with being in the process.

What Churchill says about parents can be said of pastors. There is no way to be a perfect pastor. There are a million ways to be a good one.

Method Says More Than Content

How we communicate is just as important as what we communicate. Actually,  more so.

In other words, the way we convey our message says as much or more as the words of our message. Method trumps content.

The other day, our church had one of those awkward silent moments in the service. There was a mix-up in how the sermon was to progress, and we stumbled along as we got back on track.

In discussing the incident with a friend, he recalled being asked to present his missions project to a large church that televised their services. Every detail of the service was rehearsed beforehand. They meticulously timed each segment to fit the hour slot. No deviations allowed. The program was to be slick and tight,

Our guffaw would not have been tolerated.

Thankfully, ours is a small congregation. We have the luxury to make mistakes in our service.

The fact that we’re allowed to have glitches says volumes. Perhaps the aforementioned mega-church’s zero-tolerance for mistakes in their service says even more.

What do we communicate about Christianity when our Sunday services have to be perfect? When every detail is choreographed? When the speaker is clever, polished and buff? When the music must be studio-perfect and usually performed by attractive,  hip artists?  When the service order and production clicks along without a hitch?

I fear the message that God loves losers and mess-ups and has plenty of grace for our mistakes is lost.

We can say those words all we want, but if our delivery methods consist of picture-perfect messengers and overly-polished productions, the congregation isn’t going to believe our words.

The ones on the stage have it all together.

They never make mistakes.

They always know exactly what to say and what to do.

They’re never off-pitch.

They’re obviously successful.

Christianity must be for those who have it all together.

I obviously don’t cut it.

Maybe when I do life better, God might let me on the inside.

Until then, I’ll keep quiet about my junk. I’ll try my hardest to fake it and convince everyone here I’m doing fine.

Our method is incongruous with our content.

One metaphor we use for church is the family of God.

How many families always have perfect productions? What family doesn’t have messes? Don’t parents and kids botch things up? Meals get burnt. Beds go unmade. Kids throw up at the most inopportune times. Mom and dad argue.

When families have to look picture-perfect and live life on cue, you end up with eating disorders, cutting, and obsessive habits. Family members end up in long-term therapy.

The message of grace, forgiveness, unconditional love and hope (the message of the Gospel) comes through most clearly in the middle of imperfections, mistakes and faults.

The awkward silence and mess-up in our service demonstrated and spoke more about God than whatever the sermon was about. It said more about the wonder of grace than any of the worship songs did.

Lessons from a Tragic Leader

The other day, a pastor of a Florida “mega-church” was found dead in his hotel room in New York. Investigators found a packet of white powder inside his pocket. While toxicology reports won’t be in for a while, the signs point to the unfortunate possibility that his death was drug-related.

The pastor was in his early 40’s. While I don’t consider myself old, I do consider early 40’s young. Especially to be dying. Tragic.

I regret to say that there would have been a time in my life I would have judged this pastor. I wouldn’t have been able to see beyond appearance of drug use and the other issues he’d been involved in. I would have been quick to use the word hypocrisy. Compassion  would have been in short supply.

This situation elicited a much different response. I found myself experiencing two primary emotions. The first was sadness. What a tragedy for a young man’s life to be cut short for any reason, much less under this cloud of suspicion. He leaves behind children, family, and a host of grieving church members. Regardless of whatever vices he wrestled with, he was no doubt a talented, gifted and creative leader.

The second was understanding. Part of me understands, at some small level perhaps, how a man in his position could end up like this. Pastoral leadership is a demanding and often lonely world. Amplify this by the mega-church status his congregation earned. He no doubt was forced to be a celebrity, a superstar, a hero. Throw in the financial pressures such mega-status involves, the favors and entitlements that accompany affluence, the temptations and perks that follow along being surrounded by folks who mix friendship with chicanery—well you have a pretty lethal mix. My hunch is that he could ill-afford to be human. It makes sense how this guy ended up where he did.

Every pastor can relate to this world to some degree. Even in a small church (perhaps especially in a small church?) the demands can be unrealistic and suffocating. Many a pastor have fantasized about driving away and calculating how far they can get before anyone knows they’re gone. I remember occasions when I secretly envied guys who had heart attacks. At least they had a legitimate reason to quit and be free from the demands.

Congregations often demand a Messiah. While giving lip-service to Jesus the suffering servant, many aren’t any more interested in that kind of Messiah than first century Judaism was. Congregations expect a super-hero–someone with all the right answers, correct political views, unfaltering faith, powerful and charismatic leadership, infallible doctrine, and untouched by sin or personality faults. They lust for three B’s of church growth that measure success: Buildings, Bucks and Bottoms in the pews. They clamor for lots of all three.

What’s a pastor to do? Many of us fall in line. We are seduced by the fantasy that we can be the one who can foot the bill. We busy ourselves concocting the formulas and methods that promise to deliver, and then we sell our soul trying to deliver the goods. Our greed and pride eagerly embraces the idol of success. We want to be the very type of Messiah Jesus had no interest in being.

The result is often some form of being found dead, all alone, with a pocket full of white powder. Such a value system is toxic. It kills relationships, personal integrity, ministry, joy, strength, perspective, and sometimes, literally, people.

It leads to isolation. We don’t believe we can trust anyone with our real selves–our struggles, weaknesses, failures, doubts. We can’t afford to associate with the lowly, to get our hands dirty with humanity. Often times people quit wanting to be around us because we’re moody, arrogant, edgy, and insecure.

The white powder speaks of our secret life. Living in such a system forces us to drive our sin, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness underground. We bury our stuff. But it’s still there; it doesn’t go away. We end up living two lives–the public life of super-Christian hero, and our private world of sin, habits and vices. We work hard to keep them separate. We go to great lengths to hide our private life. We’re careful to only act out when we’re out of town. We keep the evidence safely locked in our closet. But in the end, one way or the other, our container of white powder is exposed. It won’t stay hidden forever.

How much wiser and better we would be to pursue the good enough pastor model. This concept strives to create a different system, one where it’s the norm to embrace our humanity and resist the seductive pull toward perfectionism. Such a system allows us to lead as whole beings, a glorious mix of strengths, gifts, successes, failures, struggles and weakness. It embraces grace, which doggedly believes that we are accepted and loved as we are–that we are good enough.


The Slippery Slope of Being Good

Pastoral ministry attracts people who want to do something meaningful and good with their lives. They genuinely want to help people and further the Kingdom of God. This is good.

But like many things in life, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

One of the breakdowns in this pursuit is the shift of thinking that says our parishioners well-being depends primarily upon our performance as a pastor, that the health and success of our congregation sit squarely on our shoulders, and the whole of the Kingdom of God rises and falls on our performance as a pastor.

From an objective viewpoint, these assumptions seem absurd. And they are. However, what we believe rationally and what we believe emotionally are often two different animals. When push comes to shove, our emotional beliefs typically trump our rational thinking.

Such assumptions trap us into problematic beliefs and ministry patterns that become self-defeating, tormenting, and interfere with accomplishing meaningful service and work.

For starters, when that much responsibility rests on our shoulders, we’re left with only one option–perfectionism. There is simply no room for error, no room for weakness, no room for failure. In the end, there is no room for being human. We must be divine. Unfortunately, ministry seems to be a magnet for perfectionists. This deserves its own discussion, which I’ll tackle at a later time.

Another outgrowth of such belief is the over-functioning, people-pleasing pastor. When the welfare of others, the church and the kingdom rises and falls on our performance, we must “be all, for all.” We have to have all the answers, be at every event, provide support in every crisis, have the right direction for every decision, etc. We confuse serving with making sure everyone is happy. Others define our ministry philosophy, our values and our job description. We end up exhausted. Personal and professional boundaries can be crossed.

Finally, we usually end up angry. When we have to be perfect and “be all, for all,” there’s not much margin for disappointments and glitches. Our self-esteem rises and falls on what others say about us, what our numbers show, and how good our church performs. When our church people struggle, fail to show up for meetings or disagree with us, we’re ticked. Truth be told, we end up using people to prop up our sense of self.

The constant demand wears us out. Inevitably we feel unappreciated. We burn out. We resent that ministry is so demanding. Many of us don’t like our Boss so well.

Thankfully, there is another way to approach ministry. Shifting to the “Good Enough Pastor” model allows us to relax, to be gloriously human, to rest, to experience God’s grace.

About the Title “Good Enough Pastor”

The concept, “Good Enough Pastor,” incorporates several ideas and applications. I adapted the phrase from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott was an influential figure in the development of object relations theory.

In psychodynamic theory, focus is placed on the role of mothers in the developing psyche of a child. Object relations theory looks at this relationship between mother and child, and the developmental need for the child and mother to differentiate from each other.

One of the difficulties that occurs in this process is when a mother over-identifies with the child and assume too much responsibility for the child’s welfare. A couple of problems can result. One, the pressure of perfectionism. The mother believes that the child’s well-being and her own sense of self demands that she be a perfect mother. The belief that one must be perfect is fraught will all sorts of conflicting tensions and destructive assumptions. Two, the mother can take on too much responsibility and over-function on behalf of the child. The mother is not able to allow her child to go through normal struggles, pain and failure necessary for autonomy and growth. In her effort to protect and help, she actually ends up stunting growth and creating that which she fears most–anger, resentment and rejection from her child.

Winnicott’s concept captures the tension of good mothering. She strives to provide adequate nurture and care, at the same time refrains from over-functioning. She is dependable, responsive, protective, supportive and helpful. Yet she doesn’t do everything for the child and doesn’t shield the child from all challenges and pain.

Further, the mother is released from the unrealistic demands of perfectionism. She is free to embrace her own humanity. She no longer has to be perfect, but can relax with being “good enough.” Ironically, her effectiveness as a mother increases as she lets go of her striving for perfection.

The implications and applications for pastors are many. I believe they are also liberating. Too often pastors labor under the unforgiving pressure to be perfect. Ministry tends to attract perfectionists. Churches and denominations overtly and covertly demand perfection. For all our rhetoric about grace, our church system is often more performance-driven and shame-based than we like to admit.

Pastors often over-function with their congregations. They assume more responsibility for their flock than is reasonable and healthy. This can be self-driven, and congregations often demand it. It’s a lethal combination. Pastor and congregation both suffer in the end.

So my question: “What would happen if we could relax and shift our focus and goal to be the ‘good enough’ pastor? What does the good enough pastor look like? How would this change the way we do ministry? How would this change the pastor-congregation relationship?”

I’ll be exploring these questions and other musings in future blogs.

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