QUESTION: Excellence has been extolled as a virtue, not only in our society but also in the church. But where do we draw the line between excellence and perfectionism? Being a perfectionist or working with a perfectionist often leads to undue stress. How can we pursue excellence without harming ourselves and others?
ANSWER: We could identify a range of work and workers. There are those who do their work sloppily, and those who do it with excellence. Beyond these are those who micro-manage and make life miserable for themselves and those around them.
Firstly, shoddy workmanship betrays bad attitudes: the work is not worth doing, I put in minimum effort, and no one cares anyway. We see this in parts of the world where buildings are dilapidated, roads full of potholes, public services inadequate and unreliable. It would be understandable if such countries are poor, but not when they are rich in resources and the powerful squander the wealth and leave the people in despair with no hope for anything better.
Secondly, contrast that with people who take pride in their work, put in their best and provide excellent goods or services. God’s people should be such people. We do our work as to the Lord (Col 3:23), and our Lord certainly deserves our best. The prophet Malachi rebuked the people for offering to God lame and blind animals, and asked them to try offering the same to their governor (Malachi 1:8). Another prophet Haggai censured the people who let God’s house fall into ruins while building beautiful dwellings for themselves (Hag 1:2 - 4, 9).
Such attitudes still persist among God’s people today. They bring their old and shabby furniture and dump them in the church while acquiring brand new ones for their homes. They produce first-rate work for their human bosses while giving to God second-rate work from what is left over of their time and energy. We think we could offer God less than our best. King David certainly knew what God deserved. When offered a piece of land for free together with animals for sacrifices, he said, “I will not offer to God a sacrifice which costs me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24).
Finally, doing our best does not mean being perfect. There is a line between excellence and perfection. Those who are perfectionists may believe sincerely they are doing it for God. Martha is an example (Lk 10:38-42). When Jesus visited her home, she busied herself in the kitchen cooking Him (and the disciples) the best meal. Her sister Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to Him. Martha became upset, first at Mary for not helping her, and then at Jesus for detaining her. Perfectionists make life difficult for others by demanding that everyone must do what they do and to the level they do it.
The quest for excellence goes off the tangent when our attitude is self-centred and self-seeking. We may not be aware that we are putting our interests over and above those of others. I once helped organise a significant birthday bash for a friend. As the guests arrived, he was busy supervising the arrangements of the ballroom — he wanted everything to be perfect. Like Martha, he was busy with many things when only one thing was truly important: his friends.
Excellence is evident when we believe what we are doing is worth doing and worth doing well. Perfectionism is when what we do becomes an obsession with detrimental effects on us and people around us. Let us eschew shoddiness, strive for excellence, but beware of the perfectionist trap.
Rev Dr David Wong is the General Secretary of the Bible-Presbyterian Church in Singapore. During his pastoral ministry spanning 40 years, he served at Mount Carmel and Zion Bishan BP Churches. He also served with Haggai Institute, overseeing leadership training in Maui, Hawaii, for Christian leaders from over 100 nations. He and his wife Jenny have two married daughters and four grandchildren.