Sunday, April 10, 2011

American Perfectionism (I hate office work)

Sorry that you're getting second best on this blogpost... Kelly is allowing her husband to contribute. I've been meaning to write something for quite some time, but as I will explain later in this post, I often put off certain tasks...
This afternoon I was sitting on the porch enjoying some sun (it was in the upper 80s today... in April) and came across some words of wisdom I'd like to share. This past week I've been reading a book called "The Present Future - Six Tough Questions for the Church" by Reggie McNeal. The seminary requires me to read two books about evangelism during my vicarage year. I have to admit that this book isn't part of my normal reading preference. Whether wrong or right, I would rather read something by Luther or an essay on justification instead of a book about "how" to do church. But I have to admit that McNeal's book, although misled in a few directions, has a lot to offer in terms of where the church needs to be headed in the present/future. Although the purpose of the book is to inform church leaders, one of the main points I took from it has made me think a lot about the same application to families, child rearing and life in general.

McNeal points out that one of the mistakes churches often make is a very American one - focusing on weaknesses and negativity to the exclusion of positives and strengths. His point is expressed as follows. What happens when a salesperson excels at selling, but struggles with paperwork? The company decides to send the salesman off to a workshop on cultivating better office skills, and then to make the education sink in, the salesperson must return and present what he has learned during the week. The salesman naturally pays attention (he values his job!) and excels at presenting the information (he can sell anything!), but during the past week he was an emotional wreck. In fact, if he follows in the same path, he will be headed toward burnout. The company had failed to recognize the salesman's gifts (which are valuable to the company) and focused all their energy on his weaknesses (which, interestingly enough, could make him less effective). Now granted, weaknesses do need to be addressed. But why make people ineffective when there's other options available? For example, the company could have hired someone to handle the salesman's paperwork in order to free him up to use his gifts.

McNeal points out that the church often makes the mistake of focusing on the weaknesses of its leaders and lay people when they could be investing in their strengths. To focus too much on weaknesses is a form of idolatry and self-worship. We end up focusing too much on ourselves. But to focus on our areas of strength creates a thankful heart to God, who has given unique gifts and talents, and we as his unique creatures find joy in using those gifts. In other words, quit trying to be what you're not - just be great at what you are. Let me give you a few examples from my own life.
Sharing Christ with others should be a natural, joyful privilege. But for a long time, the thought of sharing my faith was a miserable burden. Why? I had been told by preachers in my pre-Lutheran days (and to some extent after I adopted a Lutheran perspective on the Christian faith) that true evangelism means getting into people's faces and telling them why they need Jesus. For example, if we're really committed, we'll be going door to door like salesmen for Jesus, interrupting family dinner to ask, "If you died to tonight, would you go to heaven?" Despite the fact that this type of "cold call" evangelism is seldom asked for let alone appreciated by the recipients, it is often upheld as the only way to be really serious about sharing the faith. For years I felt inferior as a Christian because I never participated in this bold approach. But recently I've rediscovered the simple joy of sharing Jesus with my neighbor, whether he be a literal next door neighbor or the cashier at Dunkin' Donuts. For years I had focused on my weakness, and had insult added to injury by preachers who pointed out my weakness. But now that I have come to terms with my personality (introverted and one on one), I find it easier and more joyful to look for opportunities to share my faith within the context of how God has put me together. There is less burnout, and much more joy. This is not say that I am stretched at times. My Lord did say, "Take up your cross daily," and this involves a certain level of pain and discomfort, but the yoke is easy and the burden is light when I come to terms with how God has gifted me. God does not need to me to do his work, but he has given me certain gifts, a unique personality, etc., all for his glory. And the funny thing is... I end up experiencing more meaningful dialogue with others when I'm living within my own skin instead of focusing on what I should be.
The second example involves office work. I hate office work. The busy work/administrative work/planning/letter writing aspect of my job is anathema. I've discovered that the best way for me to identify my areas of weakness is to look at what gets passed from week to week on my to-do list. For example, this year it took me two months to finally get around to putting out a youth calendar. On the other hand, those tasks in my planner that give me the greatest joy and energy are tackled first. In fact, I will focus on the tasks that give me energy to the exclusion of those tasks that steal energy, even to the point of chronic procrastination. Now, this has given me some guilt in the past. And perhaps it should. There are always tasks that steal energy, but must still be completed. But understanding this about myself points me in the right direction concerning where I need to serve. I find the greatest joy and energy, even to the point of losing sleep, when I am entrusted with the responsibility of preaching God's word to his people. I love preaching, and the entire process of study, prayer, more study, application, write and rewrite, practice, delivery, and adjustment that goes along with a sermon. I also feel at my best when I am preparing and teaching Bible study, doing hospital and shut-in visits, and looking at the big picture questions about where a church is and where a church needs to be, i.e. vision and goals. But please... do not ask me to plan an event, develop a schedule, prepare for a meeting, or balance a budget. I will do these things, and try and do them well, but if I am not spending enough time in my areas of strength, I am headed towards exhaustion. As I mentioned before, I have felt guilty about this. Shouldn't I excel in and enjoy EVERYTHING that relates to the pastoral office?!? No... God did not make me that way. And even though I can't use this truth as a justification for laziness, I do need to recognize my limits, confess that I'm not made for certain tasks, and find joy in focusing on what I am good at.

I'm convinced that this habit of focusing on weaknesses instead of strengths is an American problem. As Americans, we possess many honorable traits. But acknowledging and making peace with limitations in skill and talent can be a big challenge. McNeal calls this "American Perfectionism." We often reduce people down to their level of productivity or lack of productivity. Or we may end up trying to make individuals into what we'd like them to be instead of appreciating them for how God made them to be.

Isn't this a temptation within marriage and family? We've all heard of the parents who pressure their kids into excelling at sports or other activities, almost to the point that we wonder if they are living vicariously through the successes and failures of their sons or daughters. It grieves me to see parents obsessing over their children, hoping that their kids turn out like them. When children bring home a report card with four As and one C, which grade gets the most attention? The four successes, or the one failure? (or average!?!) I'm thankful that I had parents who focused on my strengths rather than my weaknesses. My father was an excellent athlete in high school and college. He did very well in football, gymnastics, and swimming. I, on the other hand, struggled with sports. I was the kid who played right field for all the wrong reasons. I suppose my dad would have loved to see me excel at sports too, but when I began to love playing guitar, my parents invested time, money, and energy into my musical abilities. And because they focused on my strengths rather than my weaknesses, I have a skill and hobby I enjoy (guitar), and I am probably all the more emotionally and mentally healthy (as long as I avoid office work).
As Kelly and I raise William, I hope to keep our expectations reasonable. I would love for William to love the things that I love, but I have no guarantee that William will love reading, theology, Bach, running, guitar, or camping... But as he matures, I need to keep an eye open for his gifts and talents, and then make efforts to support him in those endeavors.

I have said enough for one night, but I think my point is clear. God has created us to be unique people. We do well when we acknowledge our limits and live within our talents. Relationally, we are more fulfilled and easier to be around when we understand the limits and talents of those closest to us, so that we don't expect the impossible of them and enjoy their uniqueness.

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