How do you inspire excellence?

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

I’ll tell you a little secret, I will drop out of any team, committee, or board that strives after mediocrity.  There are many people you will encounter in life who are just happy to get by pursuing the path of least resistance or are just happy to get something over with regardless of the quality of work required.

I do not believe that God calls me to mediocrity.  I believe firmly that God calls me to excellence.

But I know of many, many churches who aspire to mediocrity and none of those churches are growing, none of them feel vibrant and alive, and none of them operate out of a theology of hope.  Unless they change their expectations, they will all die.

There are six things you need to know about inspiring excellence.  Number 1 & 2 are critical to know; the rest are important to understand.

  1. Believe that you can achieve excellence.

The average person does not believe they can achieve excellence.  So, they simply don’t even think about what it would take to achieve excellence.  The question becomes: What do we have to do to meet minimum expectations to get by?

There is a terrible risk in raising your expectations too high: disappointment.  When that happens, you feel like a failure; you are sure other people see you as a failure.  If you don’t want that to happen, keep your expectations in check, do just enough to get by and no one will notice you at all.  There is nothing wrong with being average.  Many people, churches, committees and teams feel exactly like that.

The second hardest part of achieving excellence is allowing yourself to believe that you can do it: You can achieve excellence.  It begins in your belief system.  So, believing in winning is the first step toward excellence.

The hardest part is understanding what is now required of you to truly achieve excellence: planning, hard work, dedication, perseverance, determination, attention to detail, and doing it all over a long period of time.

The church leaders must believe they can achieve excellence.

  1. Be willing to work hard to achieve excellence.

I remember teaching my football team how to block.  They were young men who already knew everything — they were 13 and 14 years old!  But we decided that, given the players we had that year, our best chance of success was to run up the middle.  We devised a simple set of plays that required great precision to be successful. We practiced, and practiced, and practiced.  We went in slow motion, actually placing their feet where we wanted them to go.  It took hundreds of repetitions to get the kind of speed, power and precision necessary to make the play work.  The kids hated it.  They hated me for making them practice it.

It was no different when I was that age and I was in marching band.  Every week was a new halftime show.  Every week there was new music to learn.  Every week we had to learn new formations, count a new number of steps to a new location on the field.   Our drill sergeant (band director) Mr. Robinette drilled our hides every morning at 6:30 am on the football field until the whole band moved like a well-oiled machine.

It is no different for the lay liturgists.  If we want them to read with excellence, we will have to train them.  Yes, they are like 14 year olds, they are sure they know how to do this.  Yet week after week they show up unprepared, read without emotion, aren’t slow enough or loud enough, they mumble and walk slowly, and when they are done no one has the foggiest idea what they just said.  If we want excellence, we will have to train them how to do it.  We will have to insist on it.  If they continue to do it poorly, we have to tell them thank you and move on to someone who will.

The church leaders must put in the hard work and expect the whole team to put in the hard work to accomplish excellence.  It is hard work, frustrating work, tearful work.  But there is a payoff.

  1. It never feels worthwhile until you achieve it.

One thing to remember about that football team, they had lost every game the year before.  But the first time we ran that new play it went for five yards.  As they got better at it we would average about eight yards every time we ran it.  It was unstoppable and they became unstoppable.  It made all the other plays work better.  When we added plays each week, they were eager to learn and practiced with an expectation of excellence.  Everything changed for that team.

When my high school band marched onto the field for the first time and played our first halftime show, it was awesome.  As the season went on we watched other bands and we began to realize how good we were.  We were better musicians, marched better formations, with better precision.  When we consistently got superior ratings at festivals, we finally understood what we had accomplished.  There was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

When one lay liturgist starts to get it, comes prepared having read the verse many times and learned how to pronounce all the names, stands ready to read as soon as the preceding element in the service has completed, speaks slowly and clearly with precise diction, and uses the microphone correctly to amplify the voice, everyone in worship notices.  The other liturgists notice it, too.  That one person has raised the game, others will be forced (or shamed) into doing a better job.  The whole worship service begins to feel like it is better.

When you finally achieve the excellence you have been striving for, it all becomes worthwhile.

  1. Once you achieve excellence, you cannot go back to mediocrity.

Gosh that sounds good!  But, sadly, … well, it’s not true.  You can always go back to mediocrity; in fact, mediocrity pulls at you like gravity.  Knowing how much effort it took to achieve excellence, it is easy to want to relax a bit now that you have made it to your goal.  That’s why there are so few championship teams that are able to repeat that achievement the next year.  The problem is that you have raised the bar of expectations to a new level and when you fail to achieve that level, everyone knows it, everyone senses it.

What I really mean is that you cannot go back to an expectation of mediocrity, expectations will now be for excellence.

The leadership must instill in others that this is the new standard and it will be maintained, year after year.  There will always be that gravitational pull toward mediocrity, so it is terribly important that the standards be refreshed, revised, revisited, and reaffirmed every year.

If possible, strive after higher levels of excellence.

  1. New people will not understand what you have done.

When someone new joins the team, they have no idea how much effort it took to move the team toward excellence.  Don’t bother to tell them, they really won’t care, they can’t participate in your past.

However, when someone new joins your team, make sure to educate them about your operations:  How you do things; Why you do things that way. Maintain the high standards you have worked so hard to establish.

People will not understand, but they will embrace you exactly where you are.  In fact, it is probably because you are at this new level that they are attracted to your ministry.  So, when you share with them the standards and expectations that go with being a part of your team, they are very likely to embrace those standards and help maintain them.

  1. Excellence in any program raises the standards for all programs.

When people see what can happen with hard work and persistence, they are much more likely to learn from that example.  This ministry team did this thing and it worked really well for them, how can we learn from that?  What have they learned to do that we need to understand?

When teams start to achieve excellence in their ministry, the whole church feels the energy that is being generated by that team.  That energy brings with it a sense of optimism and joy.  Proposals and initiatives from that team will win easy acceptance from the whole church.  Ministry events will be better attended because they are done with excellence.  Over a period of months and years, the whole church can be changed.

When this happens it is much easier for the leadership to teach how we expect teams to operate, instill a sense of winning, and encourage a striving after excellence from everyone.

©  2016 Steve Petty

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