Effort, Excellence, and Exclusion: Three challenging “E” words…

Posted by on Jun 16, 2024 in Blog | 20 comments

man climbing on gray concrete peak at daytime

I’ve been fortunate enough to have pastored churches which grew. And I loved the challenge each brought – adding new buildings, enlarging the staff, seeing people grow in their love for Jesus and each other. But each time we came up against what I call the “effort, excellence and exclusion dilemma”. What happens when we grow to a point where what used to be good enough, no longer meets the required standard?

To be clear, while much of my life is lived within the broad parameters of the church, the issue is far wider. It’s when the amateur dance teacher has a star pupil who now needs someone more expert to guide their effort. Or the small family business that outgrows the aunt who was the book keeper and now needs a highly qualified CFO. My first exposure was when the worship co-ordinator at the church I was pastoring alerted me that the time had come for us to start auditioning people who volunteered to be on the worship team. “Will we accept everyone who auditions?” I innocently asked. “No way,” was the firm reply. “You do realise that some people who are part of the team can’t keep a tune? It has to change.”

I couldn’t disagree, but a part of me felt gloomy and sad. What would it feel like to be told, “You’ve been amazingly loyal and we really appreciate all you have done, but we’re now in a new chapter. There is probably a home group who would be happy to have you play your guitar there, but your role isn’t on the stage.” After all, you can talk about churches of different sizes needing different levels of skill, but how do you shrug that off when you’ve given it your best, but get told, “sorry, the bottom line is that it’s just not good enough. It’s nothing personal – but it doesn’t meet the standard we need.” Of course those who aspire to be professional actors and musicians get told that over and over again. Sometimes they defy the odds, bounce back and achieve great things. Sometimes… but most often they simply fade away, eventually concluding that this is a dream that isn’t going to happen.

Ah, the effort, excellence, exclusion dilemma. You can try really hard, and give something your best shot, and discover it’s not enough. Your level of excellence didn’t meet the required standard and you are excluded from participating.

In my earlier post on taking steps towards radical honesty I mention that I’ve been doing a review of my values – the things I most truly hold to. While brain storming a list of options I jotted down “excellence” – because I do love it when things are done really well. Not long ago I overheard a rendition of He will hold me fast that was so beautiful that I had to stop everything and simply stand “lost in wonder, love and praise” – to cite the old Wesley hymn. Excellence is a wonderful gift and can come as an undeserved grace that richly blesses us. But a few days later I heard someone else attempt the same song and it was so – well without labouring the point I felt I had no option but to turn it off quickly. It was a bit of a jolt.

I thought about the two renditions of that song as I looked at the word I had written down on my values list: excellence. But then I looked at another word I had jotted down earlier: inclusion. Inclusion resonates with me deeply. I asked myself, “If excellence comes at the price of meaningful inclusion, should it be on my list?” Truth to tell, I’m not sure. You might have views on this, (and why not express them in the comments?) – but is it possible to value both excellence and inclusivity?

And that set me thinking about the other E word – effort. If people can’t be bothered to try, and land up being left out – well, fair enough. My dilemma is when I know people have really tried – but it wasn’t enough.

I know some are able to view effort as a consolation. “OK, so I gave it my best shot. I didn’t make it, but at least I know I didn’t let myself down by not really trying. So take a deep breath. I didn’t make it – but well done me on giving it my best shot. It took effort and courage – and those qualities will serve me well in life – even if not today.” Now all of that is true, but yes, it does feel like the consolation prize. And yet I deeply value it when I seeing people trying hard. There is something about trying hard that is linked to being deeply alive. It’s about entering fully into things – and that is wonderful.

It got me reflecting on the role of effort in the Christian faith. It’s so paradoxical that a faith that is all about grace inspires us to such great effort. People really try hard to be their best for God. I try hard to be my best for God. Yet I am a child of God not because of who I am or what I achieve, but because of God’s astonishing love, grace, forgiveness, and inclusion. I do not earn the status that I bask in. Perhaps that is why we do try so hard – not because we must, but because we are set free – free to fly, free to fail, free to be.

Oh I do love excellence, and I greatly value effort, and I have little time for those who deliberately exclude others. But that’s because grace is the background music of life, and you hear its melody at unexpected moments, and find yourself lost in wonder, love and praise. When you’ve heard it, you are free to dive fully into all life calls you to. Even if you don’t make the cut…

Nice chatting…

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  1. Interesting thought, Brian. I too love excellence but struggle when I see faithful and committed people cast aside because they are not good enough. How do we blend excellence as an act of worship with inclusion of those whose work may not be excellent (however defined).

    • There’s something about being told you can’t sing on a church music team that leaves a special kind of wound with people. It often lasts a lifetime. I debate over the concepts you have raised a lot – usually making decisions guided by recognition of God’s gifting, heart posture and teachability.

      • I like those 3 Priscilla: God’s gifting (and all is ultimately a gift from God), heart posture and teachability.

    • I wish I knew the answer, but I think being aware of the dilemma makes it a little more likely that we will move thoughtfully and prayerfully – and be willing to challenge some of our prevailing assumptions.

  2. Nicely said. A fair bit of this is my wheel house. I would add that that it requires trust for the person in power. The biggest problems come when that person in power is not self aware of their position of power(even if only slightly) and whether the person in power is excellent themselves. Alas, leaders like this are hard to find.

  3. Where do we find anything in Jesus’ teachings to suggest that those who are excellent are those chosen by our loving heavenly Father to do his work? We don’t. We find him thanking our loving Father for hiding things from the wise and learned and revealing them to little children (Matthew 11:25). Jesus said that his followers should be humble like little children – and it’s important to remember that little children had no status or importance at all in his day. He said that his followers should be servants of each other – and most servants had little or no importance. Jesus said these things often: Matthew 18:1-5 (see also Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48), Matthew 19:13-14 (see also Mark 10:13-15; Luke 18:15-17), Matthew 20:25-28 (see also Mark 10:42-45), Matthew 23:11-12 (see also Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14).

    It seems to me that choosing someone to take on a role because they are excellent, in the world’s terms, may be doing things the world’s way, not Jesus’ way.

    • Comment *There are actually several place in the Bible where artists are chosen for their excellence, and presumably the non-excellent need not apply! Thinking about carvers and metalworkers in the temple etc. And 1 Chron 25 talks abou teh msuicians being “trained in singing” and skilful.
      I’ve been considering suggesting to our church that we offer training in singing etc to those who want to be on the worship team – maybe they won’t be excellent, but they’d be as excellent as they can be, and I think that’s important when offering our talens to God

      • Those are important passages. Perhaps we think too much about individuals, instead of celebrating what we as a community can come up with when we work together.

    • Brian, you have hit A nerve! I relate to liking excellence. Who enjoys a poor sermon? However, when it leads to exclusion, I have become more sensitive. Excellence is prized in most cultures. But Jesus did demonstrate a very different way. It’s so counter cultural that even with all the teaching, etc. we mostly can’t hear what really challenges our culture.

      • Ah well – it’s a sensitive nerve for me as well. Our culture does shape so much of what we will applaud and what we back away from. For some cultures taking part is much more important than the standard of performance. I guess Christianity is a great leveller in that it insists that we are all in need of mercy and grace – but what a grace shaped community looks like can be hard to define.

    • True – but is it wrong to serve others with an awareness that some things I do bring delight, others less so? And isn’t part of my maturing the willingness to accept that I don’t do some things as well as others, and so should step away from them? Or does my willingness to be vulnerable by trying what I am not good at a way to bless others? None of this is about earning my status as a child of God – but it is about trying to follow Jesus in tangible, everyday situations.

  4. Comment *apologies for my decidedly non-excellent typos! The Reply field is showing up tiny on my screen and I can’t quite see what I’m writing!

  5. Thsnk you Brian. As I consider the life of Jesus & the role of The Holy Spirit for providing gifts for the building of the church, I find it hard to reconcile many of the ‘professional or excellence’ approaches that have infiltrated the church. I also wonder if we have moved too far from naming sin for the sake of not causing offence?

    Leading a ministry is a responibility that naturally moves us out of our comfort zone, and it is easy to fall into worldly patterns that are familiar rather than take the road of faith.

    If faith is about the heart, and God measures our excellence by our heart then I believe many have been and are at risk of being overlooked like David because they were not wearing the right armour. However,not by God hallelujah.

    • I guess it’s not always about leading a ministry, but often about being able to participate in one. You are right, God often sees things in others that we don’t.

  6. Challenging read. I wonder where ableism enters into this dilemma? And when we honour peoples effort do we propogate pity or confer dignity? When we do not ask ourselves where has our litmus test for excellence been set, by whom, do we risk missing out on profound beauty hidden behind the crowd of normative measures? And if faith is a matter of the heart then why do we push so many acts of worship into the performative public domain? In the pursuit of excellence, are we seeking for God to be taken seriously, respected, in the hope it attracts others? And if they are attracted, have we welcomed them into God’s radcial and inclusive love with a sustainable, consistent and robust message? Or have we perpetuated a community that is of the world but not in the world? The pursuit of excellence in the matters of the heart I imagine God see’s as noble, the question then becomes, what IS excellence and what are the matters of God’s heart? These are the questions that keep me challenged.

    • These are really good questions – probing, and without easy answers, but really helpful. The ableism dilemma is real – and in questioning it are we being patronising? It’s worth reflecting on? I think we intuitively know that what is excellent for one might be ordinary for another – and if so, how do we respond appropriately, albeit differently. Not easy. But perhaps an open posture and large heartedness is a good start. Thanks Ruth.

  7. Just a thought: If one is aspiring to be involved or to do what they are not good at achieving (a high standard) such as being part of the singing group when they cannot sing a note, the leader of the ministry could pay close attention to the individual or consult others who know the person well, to discover their abilities and talents. Then, very tactfully, the individual could be diverted where they would excel. This brings great joy and satisfaction as they are able to honour the Lord in a different way than they imagined.
    I have seen his done and the result was great joy and spiritual growth for all parties concerned.

  8. Comment *Her’s as thought; “How many potential disciples did Jesus leave out of the 12 after his long night of prayer??”
    Sometimes we have to have number boundaries as well as other boundaries… professional, age, heart health etc. I think much prayer over a period of time is usually required for lots of decisions in ministry.
    Interesting blog Brian & contributors.

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