Mediocrity Not A Goal

I received three different requests for this article in the past two weeks, so I am reprinting it here (from February 2009)

No Christian leader that I know ever sets out to do an “average” job for God. Oh, sure there are a few jaded pastors who are just counting the days to retirement, or an occasional lay leader who is feeling “burned-out,” but those are very few and far between. Pastors and laity leaders in our congregations deeply desire to do a good job in whatever capacity they serve.

mediocrity1Why is it, then, that 33% of congregational leaders say they are “struggling,” and that only 4% of our congregational leaders rate the ministries of their churches as “excellent?”  (11% rate the ministries “very good,” 29% rate the ministries “good,” 36% rate their ministries as “fair,” 16% rate their ministries as “poor,” and 3% confess their ministries are “terrible” — based on a 2002 survey of 1,500 United Methodist pastors and 2,700 lay people.)  Less than half of our leaders feel their ministries are “good-to-excellent.”  55% feel their ministries are mediocre at best.  Why is mediocre “normal,” and “good” beyond the reach of so many?

Here are seven reasons why mediocrity is the best so many congregations can manage:

  1. Mediocrity is the default setting.  Mediocrity might not be our intended goal, but if we don’t have anything else to shoot for, mediocrity is the best we can do.  Not every church that sets goals excels, but those that do not have clear, specific, concrete, measurable goals rarely make it farther than “fair.”
  2. Mediocrity is the result of too many demands, and not enough resources.  The vast majority of our churches can be great at one or two (maybe three) things.  Yet, mediocre churches attempt to do a little of everything — spreading both human and material resources too thin.  Doing a few things extremely well is much better than doing many things poorly.
  3. Mediocrity is a reflection of an unclear (or contested) sense of purpose.  It is difficult to excel when you don’t know exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing.  If some people think the church is about making disciples, while others think it is about attending worship, or taking care of the members, or attracting visitors, or <insert focus here>, it is going to be extremely difficult to be first rate.  Priorities are vertical, not horizontal — a “top priority” must come first.  Healthy churches can tell you what is most important, what is second, and what is third, and on down the line.  Mediocre and struggling churches say things like, “well, we have seven top priorities…”  When you have multiple “priorities” of equal importance, you have NO priorities.
  4. Mediocre churches focus on programs, not people.  This is another way of saying form follows function — programs should support the central work of helping to build relationship with God, relationship within the community of faith, and a servant relationship with the world.  Congregations that do the difficult work of building healthy relationships, good communication, and affirming/respectful environments can excel at just about anything they put their mind to.
  5. Mediocre congregations are limited by low or unclear expectations.  If coming to church on Sunday, or attending a Bible study, or participating in a small group is good enough, then all the church will ever be is “good enough.”  Problem is, “good enough” is an unacceptable standard for the incarnate body of Christ in the world.  Healthy, thriving churches know that it is a good thing to set clear standards for participation, help people grow in their commitment to the community of faith, and hold them accountable as a way to help them excel.
  6. Mediocre churches look for someone else to solve their problems.  Every community of faith contains the gifts, passions, knowledge, experience, faith, and vision to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12b)  Healthy churches realize they have everything they need to develop a world class ministry of some kind.  Mediocre churches churn through an almost endless series of books, videos, training seminars, and consultants looking for the 7 habits, 12 keys, 40 days, or 101 answers that will magically transform their ministries.  There is no packaged membership, stewardship, evangelism, Christian education, or leadership campaign/resource that will turn a “mediocre” church into an “excellent” one.  Being like some other church doesn’t make you excellent — it makes you redundant.
  7. Mediocre churches are more concerned with numbers than nurturing discipleship.  Getting people to “come to church” is, at best, a mediocre goal.  Helping people to deepen their relationship with God and live their growing faith in the world moves us toward “excellence.”  This is true at all levels, and it is a challenge to The United Methodist Church.  Most of our measures of success in our denomination have nothing to do with quality, just quantity.

There is no simple formula for “excellence,” but important factors for improvement are clarity of purpose, focused priorities, healthy relationships, commitment to spiritual formation and development, good communication, prayerful discernment, and an unwavering dedication to quality and excellence.  Excellence doesn’t happen by accident.  True excellence is the result of careful, conscientious, and committed design.

One last observation about “mediocre” churches — most of them are to busy to be distracted by “spiritual stuff.”  Leaders of churches in the “terrible-to-fair” on average, pray, read the Bible, meditate, attend worship, fast, and engage in devotional reading less than the leaders in the “good-to-excellent” range.  It appears that an important key to bringing positive change to the church is to invest positive time in ones own spiritual growth, balance, and integrity.  We cannot lead others to a place we don’t go.

No one ever sets out to be mediocre.  Church leaders want to do well — in fact, most desire to honor and glorify God in everything the church does and is.  Mediocrity isn’t a goal.  Mediocre is what happens when we don’t have anything better in mind.

2 replies

  1. Thank you for your thoughts on what it is to be “mediocre” – as a second career UMC seminarian – who is not a doe eyed 20-30 something… it often confounds me to see how wrapped up our congregations and leadership have become is this type of behavior. For the most part they choose to take a Pollyana approach and keep looking at only the positives when they meet as a group while totally rejected the need for reform as they are lulled into a sense of complaincency. Unfortunately, they would have to admit there are problems – HUGE problems with the status quo that need to be addressed.

    Spiritual practices need to become an integral part of our lives as well as accountability – Wesley’s emphasis on this is still relevant and contextual today. It seems we have strayed from the relational component of ministry – b/c for the most part – it’s too hard to fulfill all the organizational needs of the local church and still not burn out! The notion “if you want something done right”… is making most clergy drown in petty battles, and they are not willing to perform outreach in difficult ministries such as the pastoral care –

    we are going to have to leave our offices and go outside the church walls and give the community what it needs – which may not reflect what we think it needs and still be willing to be “selfless unto the cross” for the sake of THE CROSS!

    As a member of the congregation called by the church to go forth into the world to reflect the church – perhaps self care and spiritual practices will give us fresh eyes to see what we need to sacrifice at the altar…

  2. When pastors fall victim to reason 2 (being spread too thin), the job description in the Discipline isn’t much help, especially when cabinets copy it without much thought into a list with five bubbles beside each item. I had to explain to a PPRC member one time that the middle bubble wasn’t a grade of “C,” but the column labeled “Competent,” and that if the pastor (and the congregation) did a few things really well and most of the rest competently, we probably weren’t doing too badly. There was room for growth, of course, but not a cause for despair.

    Maybe I’ve been too hard on the cabinet: If they had labeled the middle column “Fair” instead of “Competent,” we really might have sounded mediocre. (And if the “fair” percentage in the survey cited had been a measure of “competence” – not that I think it was – then 81% would have been, at worst, competent.)

    But I think that a better way might have been to throw out the 1-to-5 scale altogether and ask simply, “In which of these areas is the pastor / the congregation doing a really good job?” In something of the same way, measuring “your church’s ministry” as a whole may not be the way to measure what we really need to measure.

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