The Poison of Perfectionism

In the spectrum of ‘Church Issues’ perfectionism would probably get quite a low rating. TV shows like Rev reinforce the idea that we settle for weak tea, broken heating and paltry sermons. If anything, we may believe that the church could do with a fairly strong dose of perfectionism. And here is the rub, 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 within our ranks. I have been to enough leader retreats over the last 10 years to know that a culture of perfectionism exists across our denominations and traditions: That it is as present within churches that are far from aesthetic perfection as it is within the sharpest productions.

This matters because perfectionism isn’t a benign energy to improvement, but a poison that slowly and subtly corrodes the generous community of the church. Anne Wilson Schaef famously wrote, ‘Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order'.(1990) Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much republished by HarperOne, 2006) Perfectionism dehumanizes 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?

Problems that are hard to define often remain as problems. Perfectionism is 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 3 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 harsh or unrealistic expectations for others, difficulty delegating, offering harsh or overly critical feedback
-- 3)Socially-Orientated Perfectionism- Living under a belief of harsh socially prescribed standards, lives 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 safety mechanism that proposes to offer lasting affirmation whist at the same time suffocating whatever fragments of self-esteem a person had left within them. Brene Brown; "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."

Within our work amongst leaders we have identified three key issues that relate to Hewitt and Flett;s MPS which make the church particularly susceptible to a culture of perfectionism:

The first is simply how many of our leaders struggle with a sense of inadequacy for the task of leadership

This isn't a question of material competency but something that goes much deeper. 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 recognize that no one is good enough to lead Gods 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 leader's lives when they sense the need to prove the calling they have received through their performance in leadership. This ‘self-proving'; sets them on a never ending stream of activity against an impossible benchmark. Perfection by its very nature has no end point. There is no marker at which point you have ‘done enough'; to prove yourself.

Christian ministry has no perimeters to contain our activity and self-sacrifice is universally celebrated. Some leaders even find justification in perfectionism as a ‘biblical principle'; quoting Matthew 5v48 "Be perfect therefore as your Heavenly Father is perfect." However, the Greek word ‘telios’, translated as 'perfect' here, finds far better translation as 'complete'. Perfection can subtly manifest itself as holiness but really be an attempt to earn grace rather than manifest it.

Church leadership is largely devoid of objective affirmation

Typically people’s praise is given in line with their experiences; strengthening the correlation between leadership performance and leadership justification. You would be horrified if you heard some of the things people say to their pastors! In the business we call these ‘sheep bites’ rather than ‘wolf bites’. They are infinitely more painful and destructive than the latter.

Many leaders feel intimidated by members of their own congregations and some even feel bullied by them. Very few people acknowledge this and the whole topic is typically treated with indifference. However, Rachel Maskell of The Unite Union, told the BBC that the bullying of church leaders is common and varies greatly from place to place, "It could be in the forms of letters to start with and then complaints being made, often to the bishop themselves." The key issue here is that to a greater or lesser extent many churches are impacted by the ‘Other Orientated Perfectionists’ of the Hewitt and Flett’s MP Scale.

It is possible that this is the issue of the leader; who berates the congregation for not meeting their own harsh expectations but more often than not it is held within the pews: Some church members will project their own unreachable expectations on their leader and constantly offer harsh or critical feedback about their performance. Very often this is justified in the spirit of ‘Christian love’ but has in fact, very little to do with love.

Other Orientated Perfectionists

are masterful at creating plausible cases for others failure. In this way they constantly protect themselves from the scrutiny that they themselves are terrified of. Christian leaders can easily become the point of projection for the general disappointment and frustration of the whole community and in this way many church leaders are ‘moved on’ to create an opportunity for a new leader that will bring the ‘perfect leadership’ everyone aspires towards, only for the whole cycle to be repeated a few years later. Other-Orientated Perfectionism has a multi-dimensional effect in that it reinforces the common self-orientated Perfectionism of Church leaders, making them even more inflexible and terrified of making mistakes as well as informing a culture of perfectionism in the church.

Social culture tends to absorb the specific messages of other-oriented perfectionists as general principles. Imagine an ‘other-orientated’ perfectionist on the church council. He raises very public concerns that the pastors 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 behavior on all of their children in church. The whole social fabric of the congregation hardens and unspoken fears of the harsh judgement of others lead every parent to become more critical of their own child’s behavior.

People in church tend to be very conscious of socially-oriented perfectionism when it relates to trends in culture such as body-image, fashion or materialism. However, they tend to be far less aware of the negative impact perfectionistic uniformity churches. Through the work of we regularly encounter people who feel ashamed of not meeting what they perceive to be a uniform standard of ‘emotional positivity’ in church. Many of these people, suffering from clinical conditions such as depression or anxiety, try to put on a good show of happiness for the sake of inclusion in the congregation. Ironically, the sense that they are unable to be real about their true feelings hugely exacerbates the sense of hopelessness that is common within these already painful conditions.  

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. I recently spoke to a woman who admitted faking being healed. The culture of healing in her church was so overwhelming she felt she would be ‘letting everybody down’ if she admitted that she hadn’t been made better through their prayer.

Despite having given need examples of self, other and socially orientated perfectionism at work in the life of the church, you can see how they reinforce each other to create a truly multidimensional flow of perfectionistic outlooks and behaviors 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 in the happy box.

Matthew 11v28-30 (Message) is an invitation to those worn out by perfectionism: ‘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.’


Grace is the antidote to perfectionism

Brennan Manning says in All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir, “This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us...Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try to find something or someone it cannot cover. Grace is enough. He is enough. Jesus is enough.”

I believe that we will always be in danger of swinging away from grace, not into some moral sin, but into perfectionism. Subtly our joy is drained out of our hearts and replaced with the fear of judgement and exclusion. Dealing with perfectionism is like dealing with nettles in the garden, you cannot weed them just once; you have to keep working, keep challenging them at their roots, keep pulling them up. If we don’t the garden of the church will be uniformly stingy.

Grace begins with you. It a battles that is won in your own heart between the voice of Jesus, who loves you and has saved you as you are, and the voice of judgement that wills you to pretend you are more than you are so that others will think you are acceptable to God in your own strength. When each of us wins this battle and treats each other with gratitude and compassion, the church wins a great battle and remains a banner of love and welcome to a broken and hurting world.

Find out more about persectionism by reading The Perfectionism Book
Will Van Der Hart, 27/04/2016
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