The Plague of the “Excellence-driven Experience”

This is the third in a seven part series. The first two parts may be read here and here.

The third plague I see that is ravaging the American Evangelical church is what I’m calling the excellence-driven experience.

I remember reading a book a number of years ago where the author stated our church experiences should be like Disney World. Most people have been to Disney World. It’s the “happiest place on earth.” When one walks through the gates, they are greeted by the smiling faces of the park employees with some dressed up like their children’s favorite cartoon characters. The customer service at Disney World is spectacular as well. Even with the crowds and the long lines, going to Disney World is a very pleasant experience.

Why? Because Disney does everything with excellence. Therefore, shouldn’t one’s church experience be excellent as well? After all, this is the Kingdom of God we’re talking about here, not just a theme park!

Pastors have bought this idea hook, line, and sinker. While I would certainly agree on some level that we should strive to do all things in an excellent manner in all areas of life, this excellence-driven experience expectation is putting a strain on the church and its leaders.

The Problem:

This strive for excellence is taking a mighty toll on pastors. I’ve never met a pastor who does not want the church he shepherds to grow. Every pastor I’ve ever met wants to be able to shepherd his flock, baptize new believers, and see lives changed. Maybe there are a few pastors out there who aren’t into that sort of thing, but in Southern Baptist circles I can’t imagine that’s the case. If it is the case, it has happened after many years of setbacks and “failures” and the pastor has just sort of accepted that his flock will never experience meaningful growth.

Most pastors, when allowed to lead, will do so. They will have a vision for what they feel like they would like to see their flock become. If that vision cannot be met, the pastor typically will be discouraged and look elsewhere or just quit. Some languish for years in a sea of unmet dreams and expectations. (That’s another post.) However, many pastors, and especially church planters, have a high drive for excellence and are usually able to flex this muscle in their ministry context.

Church planters, especially, are able to do this because they do not have the existing “baggage” that an established church has. This facet is one of the perceived benefits of starting a new work: setting the DNA and mission of the church from the beginning. In Southern Baptist circles, a culture of excellence is either explicit in new church starts or it heavily implied. However, this push for excellence is unhealthy for a church and its pastor.

Just this week I read of another well-known pastor who has resigned because of burnout. He mentioned that he put too much emphasis on leading the church and he neglected his spiritual and family life. This specific church is located in Nashville. In a city where music is king and musical and atmospheric excellence is under the microscope, I can imagine the quest to do everything perfect and with excellence was even more magnified in this pastor’s context.

The Prescription:

(1) Do your calling well

Understand what your calling is as a pastor. It is not to be an agent of change or a CEO. It is to be as shepherd. Your basic role in shepherding is to devote yourself “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). I remember when I came to First Baptist Moncks Corner I read a survey of what the congregants expected the new pastor to spend his time doing the most. By far the two most indicated areas were “praying” and “ministering in the Word.” I wonder where they got that idea from?

I’m well aware that not all congregations have biblical expectations of what a shepherd should spend the majority of his time doing. However, through preaching through the whole counsel of God’s Word, a pastor can lead his flock in understanding what his job truly entails.

For the church planter whose people may not know what their pastor “should” be doing, the temptation is to be doing everything to make the “brand” of the church known. However, the church planter is also a pastor (provided he is preaching and teaching) therefore, he too should spend the majority of his time praying and ministering in the Word.

This is not to exclude the importance of sharing one’s faith and inviting people to church: however, these two areas (praying and ministering the Word) are the priorities by which the pastor must lead from or he will become burned out.

(2) Resist the urge to compare your flock with others

God has not given you other flocks. He has given you the one that you preside over. Social media, especially, seems to make everyone’s life seem perfect. Church branding often gives the idea that their church is little slice of Heaven on earth. We all know that’s not the case. Every church, no matter how wonderful it seems on social media, is not a utopia.

Pastors need to not worry about what other churches are doing so as not to fall into the comparison trap. It would be great to build relationships with other like-minded pastors. Our youth group at First Baptist does a Discipleship Now every Fall with other Southern Baptist churches and our student pastor has done a great job of building relationships with other churches. But we are not comparing ourselves. We’re working together for Kingdom work.

(3) Find a hobby and rest in Jesus

Do your calling well, don’t compare yourself or your church, and finally rest in Christ. It is okay to have fun. It is okay to be involved in something that has nothing to do with leading your flock. Find a hobby. Like playing video games? Find some that don’t bring shame upon the name of Christ and enjoy them. Play golf. Do exercise for fun. Enjoy something. You need to allow your mind time to decompress from the high calling and burden of ministry. Find a hobby and rest in the completed work of Christ knowing that He loves his church more than you do. And his church will be here years after you’re not. Do your calling, find a hobby, and leave the excellence to Jesus.

Recommend reading for the burned out or excellence-driven pastor:

Lance Witt, Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul (Baker: Grand Rapids, MI: 2011).

Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Tyndale House: Wheaton, ILL: 1987).

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