The BBC series Rev. broadcast over the past few years caused much hilarity in my home. However, it also sadly reinforced the idea that as Church, we settle for weak tea, broken heating and paltry sermons.
The average viewer may well have found themselves believing that the Church could do with taking a strong dose of perfectionism in order to implement some much-needed change. Mistakenly, most people associate perfectionism with improved performance.
Given that decline has been the headline issue facing the Church in the last 50 years, it is unsurprising that perfectionism has been having a field day among our ranks. I have been on enough leadership retreats over the last ten years to know that a culture of perfectionism exists across our denominations and traditions, and it is as present within churches that are far from focused on presentation and aesthetics as it is within those that offer the sharpest of products.
But doesn’t the Bible encourage us to seek perfection in response to the love and grace of Christ? In Matthew 5:48 Jesus instructs: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ The Greek word telios, translated as ‘perfect’ here, actually finds far better translation as ‘complete’. We are called to find completion in Christ rather than strive for unattainable perfection. It would be a raw irony if the Sermon on the Mount were to end with a call to realise God’s perfection through our human effort. Perfectionism can subtly manifest itself as holiness and zeal for Christ, when it may in reality be an attempt to earn grace rather than manifest it.
WHAT IS PERFECTIONISM?
Perfectionism isn’t a benign energy to improvement, as culture may tell us, but rather a poison that slowly and subtly corrodes the generous community of the Church. Anne Wilson Schaef wrote in Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much (HarperOne) that ‘Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order’. Perfectionism dehumanises us: it equates our value to our performance, our identity to our usefulness and our beauty to our presentation. How can it be tolerated alongside a gospel of grace?
Perfectionism is often confused with excellence and even perfection itself, but it is neither. Psychologists Hewitt and Flett developed a Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) to help reflect the three clear dimensions of perfectionism:
1) Self-orientated Perfectionism
Setting excessively high achievement standards for the self, over focusing on mistakes, inflexibility
2) Other-Orientated Perfectionism
Having exacting or unrealistic expectations for others, difficulty delegating, offering harsh or overly critical feedback
3) Socially-orientated Perfectionism
Living under a belief in harsh socially prescribed standards, living to avoid the harsh evaluations of others
Behind the different manifestations of perfectionism are deep vulnerabilities, including the desire to avoid scrutiny, the fear of losing control and a gnawing sense of insufficiency. Perfectionism is a safety mechanism that proposes to offer lasting affirmation while at the same time suffocating whatever fragments of self-esteem a person had left within them. Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazeldon) ‘Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’
I believe that there are three key issues related to Hewitt and Flett’s MPS that often arise for Christian leaders. It is these that make the Church particularly susceptible to a culture of perfectionism.
1. I DON’T MEASURE UP
The first is our struggle with a sense of inadequacy for the task of leadership. This isn’t a question of material competency but something that runs much deeper within. It is a genuine sense of unworthiness to carry the responsibility of leading God’s Church. On the one hand, I am delighted that so many leaders have the humility to recognise that no one is ‘good enough’ to lead God’s family apart from God himself. At the same time, having received an office that is pure grace, we are called and equipped to lead his Church with assurance and courage.
Issues of perfectionism begin to take hold in a leader’s life when they sense the need to prove their vocation to leadership through their performance in leadership. This ‘selfproving’ sets them on a never-ending cycle of activity, measured against an impossible benchmark. There is no marker for the point at which you have ‘done enough’. Christian ministry has no perimeters to contain our activity and oversacrifice is near universally celebrated. Perfectionists are renowned for their inability to celebrate successes or even see the successes of others. Every target, every performance, every accomplishment, should and must be bettered year upon year.
Tips for recovery
Explore your ‘drive to achieve’ with a trusted and independent counsellor or therapist (always look for BACP registration). Try to identify what John Ortberg describes as your ‘shadow mission’ – see Overcoming Your Shadow Mission (Zondervan). Your shadow mission is the thing that you are trying to avoid by getting everything perfect. Work directly against it.
2. YOU AREN’T DOING ENOUGH FOR US
The second is the unrealistic expectations and projections that some church members have for their leaders. Despite the Church being full of kind and supportive people, leaders rarely receive objective affirmation. Many leaders will at some point during their ministry feel intimidated or even bullied by a minority of members from their congregation. You would be horrified if you heard some of the things people say to their pastors!
Perfectionism is a poison that slowly and subtly corrodes the generous community of the Church
Equally, it may be that the church leader is perfectionistic in their expectations of their congregation, exhausting their members with endless activity. To a greater or lesser extent, many churches are impacted by the other-orientated perfectionists of Hewitt and Flett’s MPS.
Other-orientated perfectionists are masterful at creating plausible cases for others’ failure and will project their own unreachable expectations, constantly offering harsh or critical feedback about performance. Very often this is justified in the spirit of ‘Christian love’ but has, in fact, very little to do with love. In this way they constantly protect themselves from the scrutiny that they are terrified of. Sadly, this sort of perfectionism is often unrelated to what is actually going on in the church and instead about the individual. Yet the damage this creates is very real and serious for both the leader and the community.
Tips for recovery
Address the behaviour and not the content. Assist other members of the community to identify and challenge destructive habits and agree a methodology for gracious communication. Broaden the circle of trust to colleagues outside of the immediate community for objective advice and advocacy.
3. WE FEAR EXCLUSION AND LONG TO BELONG
A third vulnerability to perfectionism we carry is in our strength of desire to truly belong in our fellowships. ‘Belongingness’ is a term used to describe the emotional need that we feel to be accepted by a group. Our belongingness wills us to conform to the social and cultural norms of the group, which in the main is fine. However, it can also leave us wide open to a hardening, judgemental and socially perfectionistic culture. This relates to the third point in the MPS.
Behind the different manifestations of perfectionism are deep vulnerabilities
Imagine an other-orientated perfectionist is on the church council. He raises concern that the pastor’s teenage children are not behaving in a manner befitting their parent’s office. This information is shared initially in a letter, then raised at a church council meeting, before being shared more broadly by word of mouth across the church. Because perfectionism generates a fear of exclusion, other parents collectively impress new standards of behaviour on all the children in church. The whole social fabric of the congregation hardens and unspoken fears of the judgement of others leads every parent to become more critical of their own child’s behaviour. What began as one person’s otherorientated perfectionism quickly became a socially orientated perfectionism that threatened exclusion to all who failed to meet the new standard.
Christians tend to be very conscious of socially orientated perfectionism when it relates to trends in culture such as body image, fashion or materialism. However, we tend to be far less aware of the negative impact of socially orientated perfectionism within our church communities. Socially orientated perfectionism is an overwhelmingly powerful phenomenon in society, but with a faith dimension it threatens not just exclusion from the group, but also exclusion from God.
Tips for recovery
Preach grace and talk specifically into the collective fears of exclusion within the community. Publicly affirm people through their struggles rather than just affirming successes. Model vulnerability and admit to failure when it comes.
Although we can give neat examples of Hewett and Flett’s three different types of perfectionism, these often actually reinforce each other to create a truly multidimensional flow of outlooks and behaviours that can easily become accommodated as part our ‘discipleship culture’. However, the good news of Jesus is not that he delights in perfectionism but that he came to save sinners like you and me! Our church leaders shouldn’t need to live in fear of harsh criticism; our church councils don’t have to accommodate bullying and intimidation and our culture need not threaten social exclusion for those who don’t fit easily into any one box.
Matthew 11:28-30 is an invitation to those worn out by religion, which is, of course, often perfectionistic in nature: ‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly’ (The Message).
Grace is the antidote to perfectionism. And grace begins with you. It a battle that is won in your own heart between the voice of Jesus, who loves you and has saved you as you are, and the perfectionistic voice of judgement that wills you to pretend you are more than you are so that others will think you are acceptable to God. Every time we treat each other with grace, gratitude and compassion, the Church wins a great battle – and remains the banner of love and welcome that we are called to be to a broken and hurting world.
Will Van Der Hart is pastoral chaplain at HTB and founding director of Mind and Soul; for more information visit mindandsoul.info Will van der Hart and Rob Waller’s latest book, The Perfectionism Book (IVP) is available now and is reviewed here.