Tuesday, January 12, 2010

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.


  1. I could not agree more with the concept presented by Chambliss in this article particularly the three areas of change - technique, discipline and attitude. After spending a lot of time with many, many employees in a secular organization, I believe "attitude" to be the initiator for change.

    I am not saying "think it, be it" or the key is a positive attitude. It is MUCH MORE important than that. A person must believe they are capable of excellence. Often times, this is the key responsibility of leadership - creating an environment where people are (1) assured and REASSURED (again and again) they are capable of excellence and (2) that striving for excellence is expected.

  2. In support of you and Chambliss, I quote Dr. Deming from his Total Quality work. "Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of of many alternatives." Experience tells me that intentionality is required to initiate technique, discipline and attitude. Was it Dr. Schaller who said, "if you don't know where you are going any road will get you there."? Unlocking the door and turning on the lights at the right time probably isn't quite enough.