Pursuing Excellence

I recently read a fascinating article entitled “The Mundanity of Excellence” by Daniel F. Chambliss. Chambliss reported on a detaled study of excellence in swimming. The results are both surprising and facinating. They transfer to insights for other occupations including pastoral ministry.

First, he notes what does not produce excellence.
1) Excellence is not the result of unusual personality characteristics.
2) Excellence is not the result of quantitative changes in behavior. (Though the work of Malcom Gladwell in Outliers seems to suggest otherwise.)
3) Excellence is not the result of some “inner quality” or natural ability.

Excellence is the result of “qualitative differentiation.” Chambliss illustrates it this way. “For a swimmer doing the breaststroke a qualitative change might be a change from pulling straight back with teh arms to sculling them outwards, to the sides.”

The Bible speaks of excellence in ministry as an act of faithfulness in response to God. Hebrews 8:6 describes Jesus ministry as now a “more excellent ministry.” Dean Greg Jones (at Duke Divinity School) has written about the need for excelence in ministry. Chambliss noted three areas of change — technique, discipline, attitude. I found myself wrestling with what Chambliss’ insight represent for ministry in the local church.

For instance, in preaching, excellence may be presented by the step up to the next level of through more carefully writing out sermons and then practicing delivery before preaching. I suspect that one of the major differences in preaching levels has to do with the level of preparation discipline. In missions, what are the intentional behavior changes that move a church from good to excellent?

Excellence comes not from a quantitative leap, nor from some innate inner talent or luck (a debatable concept for Christians) but rather from discrete incremental factors that drive mission and ministry in the practices of fruitful ministry. Chambliss writes: ” Excellence is mundane. Superlateive performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then fitted together in a synthesized whole.”

So it is with good preaching, great missional outreach, life changing evangelism and the list could (and should) go on.

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