“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
It was September 2018. I was in a meeting of ministers from around the country. Shortly after the meeting began, the talk turned to the news that a young California minister had taken his life. His final sermon was posted online and the message was haunting. I watched his sermon video realizing that within the week, this young man, battling depression and anxiety, would be dead by his own hand, leaving behind a young wife, three children, and a grieving congregation struggling to find answers.
The same group of ministers returned to the topic three weeks later upon learning that another minister had taken his life. The expectations of ministry are high. Ministers often feel the need to be perfect, complicated by comparisons to other ministers and ministries, self-doubt, and insecurities. It doesn’t help that the critical voices we hear are often our own. I’m describing perfectionism. It is not unique to ministry and it is very much a part of our culture.
You May Be a Perfectionist . . .
Do you deal with inadequacy, fear of failure, or lack of faith in your capabilities? Do you berate yourself for starting too many projects, only to allow most of them to fall by the wayside? Do you set high expectations for yourself but feel like a failure because you rarely meet those expectations, or feel embarrassed when you compare your efforts to those of others? Your greatest desire may be to do something important, noticeable, or remarkable. You want others to notice, but when someone offers constructive criticism, you get defensive.
You live with fear and loathing. You loathe how critical you are and you fear there is something inadequate about you. Fear has one message, one central issue; you’re not good enough. It’s one thing to believe your best isn’t good enough, but you live with the agony that you are not good enough. Author John Cleese noted, “The problem was that I carried around with me a tendency to feel that other people’s respect for me would vanish if what I did was second rate. And while I accept that this ‘perfectionism’ is likely to stimulate the production of better work, it doesn’t, unfortunately, go hand in hand with a relaxed and happy attitude to life.”
Less Effective, Not More
It may seem counterintuitive, but perfectionists often achieve less and stress more than their healthier companions, the high achievers. Perfectionists may cringe at this thought, but by their practices, they make it more difficult to meet the goal of perfection and to attain to their personal best. The worst part of perfectionism is that it does not leave room for God. The writers of the New Testament remind us that we are incapable of perfection on our own. Perfectionists tend to focus on the product rather than the process. Meanwhile God is focusing on the process of making us perfect. This does not mean that perfectionists are not high achievers; they often are. The issue for perfectionists is that any feelings of satisfaction are temporary because they are convinced there is always more to do, to be, and to accomplish. Perfectionists struggle with the criticism of others, but are often their own worst critics, berating themselves over small things that go wrong. Ironically, though they dislike other critics, they are often the most critical voice in the room. In many cases perfectionists are sporadic producers. They tend to perform in spurts, starting off like a firestorm only to burn out from exhaustion.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).
Change Is Possible
If you are a perfectionist, what can you do to change? First, change who you seek to satisfy. From birth we are attuned to human voices. It’s second nature to seek approval from others, but it takes discipline to find our approval in God. God has hardwired us for his approval, but our sinfulness has diverted our attention to the voices of others. Mark E. Moore observes, “Truly dynamic ministers seek approval from God to serve humanity, but most ministers seek approval from humanity to serve God.” I think he is spot on. God doesn’t have a problem dealing with what’s wrong with you—you do. He spends his energy making you right, so join him in his work, admit you are human, prone to being wrong and quit criticizing yourself and others.
Make a project of yourself. You are the only person you can effectively change. Take smaller bites of life, learn to say no more often, and expect less of yourself. Commit to pursuing excellence and not perfection. The next time you do the same thing, try to do it better and don’t worry about doing it better than anyone else. Do what you do for the approval of God and for the betterment of those you serve. Ironically, studies show that this attitude will allow you to perform better than when you try to be perfect. By the way, take your perfectionism seriously. Not only is it detrimental to your emotional and spiritual health, it may be killing you. It’s time for you to admit that your drive to be perfect is not really different from the desperate drive of others to feed their chemical dependency. Work on being an optimist. After all, if God is for you, who can stand against you—including your own internal critic?
Look at people differently. Make others a priority and not a project. People can tell the difference. Let go of things. You can be fairly certain that the problem person you’re dealing with did not wake up saying, “I think I’ll ruin So-and-So’s life today!” On the other hand, Jesus did encounter such people. But he managed to win the applause of Heaven by asking, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus knows we’re not perfect. But his plan is to make perfect as many as possible—God’s way.
Do you suspect you are a perfectionist, but don’t know for sure? This quiz may help. (https://www.verywellmind.com/quiz-are-you-a-perfectionist-4006910).
Rick Page currently serves as the lead minister with Plateau Christian Church in Crossville, Tennessee.