Reclaiming Excellence as a Christian Virtue

Michael Zigarelli

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(c) 2010 Christianity9to5.org

I admit it. When I look in the yellow pages and see a Christian fish symbol on an advertisement, I often look for another company.

That’s awful, I know, but I used to patronize these businesses all the time. The service and quality I received vacillated from lackluster to pathetic. There were some notable exceptions, of course, but in general, after about 15 years of intentionally selecting Christian fish businesses, I’ve come to expect unreliable service from them.

Now, that’s not a scientific conclusion. I’m just one data point and I’ve seen no empirical study on the quality of Christian-led businesses. So maybe this isn’t a pervasive a problem. But it would be a scandal indeed if what should be a symbol of excellence ultimately became a symbol of mediocrity.

 

From a Christian Worldview

A symbol of excellence? Unquestionably and unequivocally. We seldom talk about in Christian circles, but we should: From a Biblical perspective, excellence is a virtue and we should pursue it at all times. Whether we’re washing windows for a living or washing dishes at home, whether we’re running a business or running laps around a track, whether we’re driving a car or an aircraft carrier or a golf ball, we’re called to please God through our efforts. “Whatever you do,” the Apostle Paul tells us, “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31, cf. also Colossians 3:23-25, Matthew 25:14-30).

This is basic but rusty theology for many of us, since it’s de-emphasized in the modern day, eclipsed by more celebrated virtues like love and joy and forgiveness and service. How many sermons have you heard on excellence in the past few years?

But this is also imperative theology, a teaching that touches every aspect of our day, a teaching that we should reclaim as essential to a life well-lived. In all things, Christians are to pursue excellence””our very best””because God has given us the privilege, and sometimes the assignment, to do those things. Who are we to offer Him any less?

 

Striving for Excellence

Sometimes boiling down concepts to one word can tweak our thinking and thereby, alter our behavior. Strive is the word I like to use when teaching on this subject and it’s a word that’s resonated with my students and other audiences. Our role is to strive consistently toward our potential, toward the goal of doing things as well as we can, no matter what we’re being paid and no matter what anyone else is doing (or isn’t doing).

The results of this mindset are stunning. The consummate quality of a Bach concerto or an Olympian gold medal performance or a spelling bee champ acing that last 15-letter word””one we can’t even pronounce””may bring us to tears. When we’re in the presence of excellence, it can be an emotional experience.

With businesses, we might not cry tears of joy over outstanding quality, but the supreme ingenuity of an Apple innovation or a Pixar movie, or even the clever problem solving of the occasional customer service rep who provides extra mile service, can affect us viscerally. “Wow!” is a standard response at such moments. Sometimes what we’ve seen is so remarkable that this one syllable response is all we can manage.

So if you don’t like strive as a mnemonic, how about wow? Imagine what it would be like if our customers and co-workers and students and family felt that way about our efforts!

This one-word approach may even inspire excellence in those around us as well. I had a guy design a website for me once and since he was pretty good at it, after giving him some guidance about the content, I told him that what I really wanted was for visitors to the site to say “wow!” when they got there. Then he ran with the project and it was outstanding. He told me afterward that remaining mindful of that one word – wow – really pushed him to innovate and go beyond himself in the design. And it certainly showed.

 

The Down Side of Pursuing Excellence: Pride

Despite all this, we ought not make excellence an unbridled or pinnacle virtue. It’s the type of pursuit that can flow from and into the worst of vices, namely pride.

Let me give you an example. Recently I interviewed a candidate for the music director position at my kids’ Christian school. The guy was off-the-charts smart, he had composed a lot of his own stuff, and he had even fine-tuned an impressive pedagogy through his seven years of teaching children and teens. And if that weren’t enough, he presented a philosophy of education statement that emphasized excellence as a core value and as something he regularly instilled in his students””excellence to honor God. Moreover, he seemed willing to accept the typically anemic private school salary.

Home run in the upper deck, right? At least on paper. Then we met him.

He was bright enough to say all the right things, but he had a haughty spirit that permeated the whole meeting. In fact, he seemed to take over the meeting, insisting on grilling us before we could ask him anything. His entire disposition””the non-verbals, the terse, dismissive answers, his tone of voice””excreted pride. In the end, the guy talked himself out of a job and we hired someone less talented but with far more humility.

The pursuit of excellence is not always a result of pride and the presence of pride does not always lead to pursuing excellence. But in this case, and in some others that I cannot seem to forget, there was a clear nexus.

My point is this: Though excellence is an indispensable virtue, sometimes the insistence on excellence among Christians is not borne of a solid Pauline theology or a genuine love for God, but out of self-aggrandizement. Some say the right words – “my church (school, business, product, lawn, high school choir”¦you name it) will be excellent because it belongs to God” – but the real motive is that the leader is concerned about his or her reputation. And a tell-tale sign is the leader’s willingness to afflict and browbeat and even steamroll people in the name of “Christian excellence.”

Pride is one downside of excellence. Often it’s a driver of it. So check your motivations. Is it really about God, or is it about you?

 

The Down Side of Pursuing Excellence: Burnout

Burnout is a second downside, albeit not necessarily a sinful one. Habitual striving can be exhausting, whether we’re personally striving to achieve our potential, or striving for our organization to excel, or even striving to have the best possible marriage. There comes a point where the pursuit of quality overextends us and perhaps those around us. At that point, excellence again morphs from virtue to vice.

Many of us have felt overworked and we understand full well how toxic that is to our health, to our relationships, to our professional acumen and to our spiritual lives. At one point in time, I was a business school dean, I had multiple teaching duties, I was writing a book, publishing an online magazine, the owner of a management consulting company, a husband and a father of four young kids – “working for God” in everything I did and being totally miserable about it. This grueling, joyless and often prayerless existence, along with all of the accompanying repercussions, convinced me that I needed to make significant changes. Excellence needed to be bounded by simplicity, a focus on doing just a few things and doing them exceptionally well.

So in one of the hardest but best decisions I ever made, I resigned from the deanship, stepped off this fast-track to a university presidency, suspended my consulting practice, and focused exclusively on the areas where I truly felt called.

Indeed, we ought to pursue excellence, but that requires discernment and sometimes, tough choices. Better to do a handful of things at 100 percent than many more things at 70 percent. Trying to do the latter at 100 percent quality (as I was trying to do) is not a healthy existence. Neither is it the life God invites us to live.

 

Excellence is a Direction, not a Destination

One last thought: This is an article about excellence but perhaps oddly, I’ve not exactly said what constitutes excellence. What outcomes qualify?

I’ve sidestepped that issue because it’s not really for me to say. Your targets are your purview, not mine. But let me make one suggestion that’s been helpful to some who are serious about this: Focus more on the process than the product.

What I mean is this: It’s a trap to think of excellence as merely a destination””winning an award, earning a high GPA, achieving a market-leadership position, being crowned champion. When we do, we risk complacency and stagnation once we’ve allegedly reached a point we consider “good enough.” Besides that, we open the door to pride when we think of ourselves as “excellent.”

Rather, it’s wiser to think of excellence as a direction, a disposition, an incessant striving toward something better, toward the next level of quality, toward continuous improvement. In that way, the focus is not on the product of our efforts but on the process of pleasing God by stewarding the talents and resources He’s entrusted to us. The endeavor remains about Him, rather than about us, so the striving can naturally remain an ongoing, faithful process.

I like the way Aristotle put it some 2,300 years ago: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

In other words, excellence is more about becoming than being. It’s a direction more than a destination””a way of life and one that we Christians need to reclaim as our way of life.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of Christianity9to5.org. You can reach him at christianity9to5@hotmail.com