People or Perfection?

Hi. My name is Melissa and I’m a recovering perfectionist.

I say recovering because truly it is a daily battle. Straighten that picture. Fluff that pillow. Refold the towels. Re-clean the kitchen after, ahem, others have done so. I have gotten better about NOT doing those things. The only area where I still “redo” is in loading the dishwasher, but this is a family agreement because the men of the home know I WILL make.every.dish.fit.somehow.

But I did some damage before I realized how my perfectionist ways were hurting my family.

Let me clarify that perfectionism is not the same as the pursuit of excellence. To pursue excellence, we focus on doing the best that we can within our gifts, talents, and abilities; we strive to do our best as unto the Lord. To pursue excellence does not harm or hurt another person. Perfectionism, however, becomes self-focused. It is based in pride in that we seek others to praise us for what we have done. It might also be based in fear which can cause us to feel paralyzed to the point of doing nothing. Both are compulsions that create an atmosphere of neglecting that which is good – people over perfection. Perfectionism often hurts others.

Are you a perfectionist? Does it have to be done just like you want? Do you go behind people and redo what they have done just so it “looks better” or “looks right”? Do you tend to fluff and fuss over decorating? Does it have to be done your way? Does your skin start crawling, hands start fidgeting, feet start tapping if you see something “out of place”? Are you unable to concentrate until you “fix” what is “wrong”? Do you have a comment regarding your neighbor’s (or stranger’s) Christmas decorations? (What were they thinking? They need to straighten those lights. How many blow ups do you need?)

Still not sure if you are a perfectionist or not? Ask your spouse. Ask your kids. Ask your friends. Ask your co-workers. I’m sure, if they are brave enough, they will tell you.

Did you know that the only other people who are going to notice when things aren’t “just so” are other perfectionists? Most people (and by this, I mean in the high 90% range) do not notice if something isn’t “right.” After all, exactly what is “right”? Is it your definition? If so, guess what? Everyone else has a definition as well. So there really isn’t a “right,” is there?

In ministry, having a perfectionist mindset can be detrimental to your ability to minister with and to others.

This is the tale of two pastors and their wives. Pastor #1, at one time, was bi-vocational before he became the pastor of a church where he pastored full-time. His secular vocation: professional painter. One day not long after the church had freshened the paint in the sanctuary two couples in the church came to the pastor and asked if they could paint a few walls in the education building to freshen it as well. They didn’t want any help or recognition. They simply wanted to serve the Lord, their pastor, and their church. Pastor #1 knew that they had some experience in painting, so he agreed to their offer and request. While Pastor #1 was away on vacation these dear folks came in and painted three walls of the education building as accent walls in a dark color which matched the doors and door frames. It was the style of that time and did look nice. When Pastor #1 returned he went to check on the progress of the project. It was complete. BUT.

He called my husband asking what he was going to do. When my husband arrived, he looked it over. It was a tad splotchy in places, particularly higher up (9-foot walls) where it would have been difficult to reach or see from the floor. What Pastor #1 failed to take into consideration was that the couples were all in their 70’s. Flexibility on ladders and diminishing eyesight led to a paint job that wasn’t exactly how the Pastor would have done it. Pastor #1, the professional painter, was experiencing great distress. My husband told him he had two options. 1) Leave it alone and receive it as work done “as unto the Lord” and a blessing from these dear people. 2) Redo the paint job but understand that he would more than likely hurt these dear folks’ feelings. Pastor #1 chose to leave it and learned to accept the blessing of his people “as unto the Lord.” After all, ministry is people.

Mrs. Pastor #1 also had a few perfectionist tendencies. As we worked with her, we noticed that she was usually the one to do all the decorating for certain events. She tried to play it off as she wanted to do it for the ladies but when it came down to it, she was a perfectionist. Over time it became an issue with the ladies. One day I explained to her that she was denying the ladies an opportunity of service as well as keeping them at arm’s length from her by not including them in the decorating. I suggested that if she was concerned with having things done “just so” to set up one table exactly how she wanted it to look and have the supplies available for the ladies to duplicate all the other tables. (They usually had 20 to 30 8-foot tables to decorate.) She agreed. The ladies were excited to be included and willingly set the remaining tables up exactly as the first. Camaraderie began to develop with Mrs. Pastor #1 and between the ladies. Ministry is people.

Same church several years later and there was a new pastor and pastor’s wife. We began to get to know this family and quickly realized that both had perfectionist tendencies. When we finally went back for a visit THE paint job was painted over. We remarked that we liked the new color. The conversation quickly went to how they couldn’t believe how terrible the previous paint job looked. We tried to tell them the story behind it, but it fell on deaf ears. We knew then that they might have a developing issue. As time passed, we watched as both Pastor #2 and Mrs. Pastor #2 began redoing things that their members had done. The reality of the seriousness of the situation became very apparent in preparing for a very large community outreach several years later.

We were able to assist them in the preparations for the event during the days leading to it. Pastor #2 asked a few of the teen boys to change the lettering on a roadside sign. The boys did so and left to run an errand. When they returned, they noticed that the job they had done had been changed. Not the message, but the placement of the letters. Their words: “Looks like Pastor changed what we did.” Ouch. For teen boys to notice, that is huge. Ministry is people, not perfection.

Mrs. Pastor #2 was not receiving very many positives either. They were having problems with people not volunteering to help with projects or events which resulted in Mrs. Pastor #2 “doing all the work”. She was one of the “fluff and fuss” type of perfectionists; everything had to look “just so.” She was exhausted. She also began making statements of being “done”. Yet, she still didn’t realize that it was her own doing that had caused the problem. As we helped with the preparations for the event, we noticed many of the ladies who did come to help avoided working with Mrs. Pastor #2. They passed her off to others. Comments of “what difference does it make what I do, she’s only going to change it” were overheard. As she gave instructions, eye rolls and audible sighs were observed. This was especially surprising as many of the ladies were in their 70’s and 80’s and not mere teenagers. Instead of creating an atmosphere of camaraderie she had inadvertently created one of hostility toward herself and ministering at the church in general. Ministry is people, not perfection.

Pastor #2 often commented in church how many hours Mrs. Pastor #2 put in working on projects “all by herself.” Although he believed he was praising his wife, he unwittingly was adding to the issue. He didn’t try to figure out why those who had once served willingly and readily stopped doing so. Instead, without realizing it, he was “service shaming” (a back-handed way of badgering) his people from the pulpit. The more he did it, the more resentment and an even greater unwillingness to serve grew.

There are four options when working with others in ministry and serving in practical areas.

Accept the work offered “as unto the Lord.” It is always our advice to anyone who is willing to serve in their church that whatever they do should be done as well as someone who might be paid to do the same job. This would be those big projects like painting, plumbing, or other construction related projects. It is the responsibility of the leader to ensure that the one offering is qualified to do it. For those projects where a professional is not needed it may become necessary to simply accept what was done as is and as unto the Lord even when it may not be how we would have done it. The Lord was pleased with their willingness to serve. We should be as well. This is the best option for ministry is people.

Provide an example or explicit instruction on what needs to be done if continuity or your “just so” is that important. (Remember, the “just so” isn’t always that important.) Communication is often lacking when things don’t go as you hoped they would. As we showed Mrs. Pastor #1, simply providing an example of how the table should be set was all that was needed for the ladies to happily serve without confusion and ensure that there was continuity in decorating. However, be careful in your “instructions.” Being too nit-picky in how something is done may not be the best especially when it is a job that may have multiple ways of accomplishing the same goal. Clear communication without nit-picking is a good way to have ministry focus on people. Too much nit-picking in your instruction places perfection over people.

Allow people to serve but go behind them “fixing” what they did to suit your desires. This is a dangerous option. You will be telling your people through your actions that what they did “as unto the Lord” was not good enough in your eyes. This is demeaning and dismissive. It is also very damaging to your ministry. Eventually your people will stop serving, because they know that you will go behind them and change it. Ministry is people, not perfection.

Decide to do the job yourself. If you feel the job must be done a certain way and that no one will do it the way you want, do it yourself rather than going behind “fixing” things. If you are going to serve, everything you do must be done “as unto the Lord.” Therefore, you must give up complaining that no one helps if you insist that things must be done a certain way. You have effectively telegraphed to your people that you do not want their help, at least not what they have to offer. If you cannot give up doing things yourself and complaining, you must realize that you will become exhausted. You will eventually become bitter toward others. You will one day become “done” with ministry because you feel no one is serving with you. Ministry is people. Ministry is not about perfection.

Pastor and Mrs. #1 figured it out and have gone on to serve in other churches successfully developing great lay leaders and volunteers. Pastor and Mrs. #2 still struggle today in their ministry. They have yet to identify their perfectionism. And they and their ministry are suffering because of it. Do you see yourself? Is this you now or perhaps somewhere in the past? Have you had an “aha” moment today? It is possible to overcome perfectionist tendencies, but you must be conscious of them. Once you are you will be able to choose people over perfection.

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