Reclaiming Excellence as a Christian Virtue

Michael Zigarelli

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I admit it. When a company has a Christian fish symbol on their logo or advertisement, I privately wonder about their quality.

Sorry. That’s a dreadful thing to say, especially from a Christian business professor. But the service I’ve received from these companies has vacillated from lackluster to pathetic. The last Christian fish contractor I hired took six tries to fix my dishwasher. Six!

Thankfully, there are plenty of exceptions, but after a couple decades of intentionally patronizing Christian fish businesses, my expectations are pretty low.

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

But time out here. A symbol of excellence?

Unquestionably and unequivocally, that symbol should be. We seldom talk about this in Christian circles, but from a Biblical perspective, excellence is a virtue, a good moral habit we’re called to pursue every day. Whether we’re washing windows for a living or washing dishes at home; whether we’re running a business or running laps on a track; whether we’re driving a car or a nail or a golf ball, the invitation is to honor God through our efforts. “Whatever you do,” the Apostle Paul reminds 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 rudimentary but rusty theology since it’s de-emphasized in the modern pulpit, eclipsed by softer, more celebrated virtues like love, joy, forgiveness and humility. Think about it: How many sermons have you ever heard about the faithful pursuit of excellence?

But this is also imperative theology — a teaching that touches every aspect of our day, a teaching we Christians should reclaim as our default.

How do we begin? Perhaps by looking in the mirror, straightening our backbone and saying “whatever you do today, God gives you the privilege and maybe the assignment to do it. Who are you to offer God less than your best?”

Striving for Excellence

Here’s another way to begin. Sometimes reducing concepts to one word can permanently tweak our thinking, and eventually our behavior.

“Strive” is the word I like to use when teaching on this subject. It’s resonated with my students as well as other audiences. Our role is to strive consistently toward our potential, toward the goal of performing 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 impeccable quality of a Bach concerto or an Olympic gold medal performance or a spelling bee champ acing that last 15-letter word — a word we can’t even pronounce — may bring us to tears. When we’re in the presence of excellence, it can be an emotional experience.

The same might be true with the 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. It might not make us cry, but it somehow affects us viscerally. “Wow!” is a standard response at such moments.

So if you don’t like “strive” as a mnemonic, how about “wow”? Imagine what life would be like if our customers, co-workers and family members felt that way about our efforts.

This one-word reframing can even inspire excellence in those we lead. I had a guy design a website for me, and since he was pretty good at it, I just gave him the content and said: “what I really want is for visitors to the site to be so impressed by it that they say wow!” Then he ran with the project and delivered something outstanding. He told me afterward that remaining mindful of that one word — wow — pushed him to go beyond himself in the design.

The Dark Side of Excellence: Pride

But alas, there’s a catch. Actually two. The first is that striving for God-honoring excellence may in fact be a pretext for pride.

A quick example: I remember interviewing a candidate for the music director position at my kids’ Christian school. The guy was off-the-charts smart, he had fine-tuned his pedagogy through seven years of teaching children, and he had even composed original scores. Plus, his philosophy of education statement emphasized excellence as a value he instilled in his students — “excellence to honor God.” And he was willing to accept a diminuendo private school salary.

Give the guy a standing ovation, right? Except then we met him.

He was bright enough to say all the right things, but he had a haughty spirit that permeated the whole interview. In fact, he took 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 much more humility.

My point is this: Though excellence is a virtue, the pursuit of it by some Christians is not born of Biblical theology or love for God, but of self-aggrandizement. Some say the right words — “our church (business, school, family, work, product, team, high school choir…) will be excellent because it belongs to God” — but their real motive, maybe even unbeknownst to them, is to elevate their reputation.

Pride is the dark side of excellence. It’s both a cause and an effect. So check your motivations. Is this really about God, or is it about you?

The Dark Side of Excellence: Burnout

Burnout is another dark side, albeit not a sinful one. Habitual striving is exhausting, whether it’s an individual, a couple, a group, or an organization. At some point the pursuit of quality and continuous improvement overextends us. Yet again, excellence morphs from virtue to vice.

That’s, of course, toxic to our health, our relationships, our professional acumen, even to our spiritual lives. Years ago I was simultaneously a business school dean and a classroom professor, while writing a book, publishing an online magazine, running a management consulting company, and trying to be the perfect husband and father of four young kids — “working for God” in everything and being totally miserable about it. Often mediocre as well.

This grueling, joyless, sometimes prayerless existence, along with the ripple effects, convinced me that I needed to re-design my life. The virtue of excellence, well-intended as it was, had to be bounded by the virtue of simplicity. I resolved to do fewer things with more excellence.

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

The point: Pursuing excellence requires discernment and some tough choices. Choices between right and right. But it’s better to do a five things at 100 percent than ten at 70 percent.

Excellence is a Direction, not a Destination

One last thought: Although this is an article about excellence, I’ve not exactly defined 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 4.0, achieving market-leadership, being crowned champion. After we achieve that goal, where do we go from there?

You see the problem? There’s inevitable drop off once we’ve “arrived.” Then we tend to slump away from our best.

Instead, it’s wiser to think of excellence as a direction, a disposition, an incessant striving toward the next level. In that way, the focus shifts from the product of our efforts to the process of pleasing God. From “on top” to “ongoing.”

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

This virtue is more about becoming than being. It’s more of a direction than a destination. Excellence is a way of life, and one that we Christians should reclaim as our way of life.

Michael Zigarelli is a Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Messiah College and the editor of You can reach him at