Daniel Aleshire gave a speech to the Unitarian Universalist Association Ministry Council in December.  He’s with the Association of Theological Schools and brings a unique perspective of why “excellence” isn’t what you might think it is.

His speech was called “The Tyrany of Excellence.”  And he led the discussion by suggesting that “excellence” is one of the terms that everyone affirms but no one agrees to what it means.  He illustrated his point with an illustration about art.

Several decades ago, not long after I had finished graduate school, I had an artist friend who showed me a painting. It was abstract, and being a young theologically minded person who knew very little about art, I assumed it should have a meaning. I am wiser now, but back then, I asked him what it meant. He said that he painted it as a “meaning magnet.” He had intended no real meaning, but was pleased when people brought their meanings to it. The painting had no meaning; it just attracted them. Similarly, “excellence” is a meaning magnet more than a conveyor of its own meaning.

The trouble, he says is that no one is ever against excellence, even if they can’t define how good the thing has to be to stop improving it.  Not that we want to stop at “mediocre”, but there should be a way to get to “excellent” without letting the pursuit overrule all other ministry actions.

Do you want to be excellent in your musical performance or responsive to the Spirit?  Both, but if you have to choose, isn’t “good enough” good enough?

Do you want to be letter-perfect in your hermeneutics or relevant to your congregation?

Do you want to demand perfection in your pulpit supply and wait until the teenager gets it right, or mentor him to maturity?

We are to be “workmen not ashamed” of what we do for God, just not so Pharisaical in our pursuit of excellence.