Possible and Passable are the Enemies of Excellence

I went back and forth on whether to write this. I don’t want to seem like I am the only person that cares about excellence. I am not. What I am talking about here are things most people don’t realize hinder excellence. This mostly concerns the technical execution of events and services. There are things about that which normal people don’t know, or need to know. So, understand I am not criticizing people, but the idea that what is simply possible or passable is good enough for God.

What frustrates me is when we approach ministry work with the attitude that anything that is done is passable. And anything passable honors God. We have all been put in the place where we were asked to do something that could have been better with different resources or more time. And where there was no reason to rush things, or to not devote more resources to it. In my opinion, this isn’t excellence.

How do we balance an acceptable level of quality with demands placed upon us?

We have a space on campus that has some technical equipment, but is not really set up for Image Magnification (IMAG), and in most configurations it’s not required. On multiple occasions events in that space have asked for IMAG and video recording. I always explain the limitations of light, angle, and available camera equipment. The response I normally get is, “I’m sure it will be fine.”

Define “fine”.

Fine as in better than I can do with my consumer, single-chip camcorder? Sure, but I wouldn’t ever use that to do IMAG for an event. Fine as in as good as other locations? Not even close. But it is passable. We can do it, but it is not the best we can do if we would decide we need to do this, and do it right. If devoting time and resources to this isn’t a priority, then we should live within the limitations.

The tension comes when the ability to do something with poor quality will actually cause more distraction than good. In the previous example, is the image we can produce with limited light and 20-year-old cameras going to be a distraction, or a help? In most cases in that room IMAG is a bonus, not a requirement. In those cases, I push pretty hard for not doing it. But sometimes we put 800-1000 people in that space, with no floor rake, and a small stage in a rectangle room. I almost always provide camera support in that situation. But, it bothers me because I know the quality of that image should be better. Sadly when it comes to equipment, there are much more pressing needs, so this remains unresolved.

Growing up in smaller churches in the country, I would cringe when I heard the soloist say, “Well, I didn’t have enough time to really practice this, but it’s for God so that’s OK.” If something is done for God, it should be our absolute best. I define excellence as doing the best you can with the time and resources available. Sometimes, we need to have the guts to say if we don’t have the time or resources to do it right, we should not do it at all.

Doing something in a passable fashion, with poor quality, because we don’t want to spend the money or take the time to do it right is not excellence.

Sometimes a good idea comes up at the last minute. In many cases, we can do it. But by making the last minute change we add significant tension to the tech guys and gals trying to pull it off, and the chances of mistakes (read: distractions from worship) goes up exponentially. Sometimes a great idea- if we’d known 3 days before- becomes a nightmare 3 minutes before.

If we do it because it is possible, it can compromise the quality if a mistake happens. I’m not talking about minor changes that happen, or deleting elements. I’m talking about adding major elements to a service. We’ve heard about these: Wouldn’t it be great to show this video? To display this picture? To add this instrument? To sing this new song without rehearsal? In most cases it is possible to make the change, but the risk of mistakes is a danger to excellence.

Do not mistake concern for excellent execution for an indifference to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I know that just like he works on Mondays, the Holy Spirit may stir right before a service, or even during one. I these instances, we will always follow the lead of the worship leader. However, in every case we should think and pray long and hard before we make a major change right before a service.

But even if the idea comes up months in advance, just because we can do it does not make it something that should be done. Does this new thing fit into the vision and direction of the ministry? Does it work with what we are already doing? Do we need to stop doing other things if we start this? Can we handle the work load? Will this new thing distract our people more than help them? Every change should be strategic, and implementation should be systematic. Doing something just because we can is never a smart thing. There must be a compelling reason.

Doing something because it is possible may endanger excellence.

Remember, this isn’t about not doing things, it’s about doing things with excellence. Works which may be passable, or might be possible, are the enemies of excellence.

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Excellence= b(t+r)

My church, like many, has excellence included in their core values: “Excellence in all we do.” I’ve seen some of the things we do. I have, at times, been dissatisfied with work from my areas of responsibility. How can we claim to pursue excellence and sometimes deliver less than stellar quality?

Excellence is something I work hard to achieve. It is extremely important to me to do everything I do for God as good as I can do it. Excellence is not perfection. Sometimes, it’s pretty far from perfect. The key to understanding the difference between God-honoring excellent workmanship and perfection is how we define excellence:

Excellence = b(t+r)
Excellence is doing the best you can with the time and resources available.

I used to beat myself up over mistakes and flaws in my work. I used to get so frustrated at videos that were not quite right. If only I had better lights. Or any lights. A better camera would have helped. Another week to fix it in post could have made it so much better. If I could just learn to do it better.

OK, I still beat myself up over mistakes. I still want to do better. But I understand that when I do the best I can with the time and resources available, I do not dishonor God with that work.

Last week I showed 3 different versions of the same video because I kept tweaking them during each service. Why? I was out of time before the first one showed. There were a few changes I felt I needed to make, but ran out of time in the week to finish. The first video was fine, but could have been better. So, I tweaked, and then retweaked, with the final video being better than the first two… slightly.

I have served where we did not have a lot of resources; where resourcefulness ruled the day. Not everything we tried worked. we did our best, but we were limited. We did the best we could in the time we had with what was available. The quality of our work was not as good as it could have been under different circumstances, but it was the best we could do.

In both situations, God was honored by our workmanship. We did the best we could in the time we had with what we had. those efforts were not perfect, but they were excellent.

Fertile Ground

zigzag grass

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear. Matthew 13:3-9

Today the sun shined long enough for me to catch up on some much needed yard work. We are just coming out of the dry season here in Florida. To be frank, we have had tons of rain over the last couple of weeks. Right before this rain, I spread some fertilizer around. I covered the front and sides pretty well, but started to run out in the back. I took the last little bit and spread it out by hand.

With all the rain, the fertilized grass is growing a deep green. The rest still light green or brown. The difference is most dramatic in the back, where I can see this zig zag strip of dark green. It looks pretty funny. Luckily it’s in the back where only family will see it.

What’s the difference? The grass in the yard has about the same amount of rain and sun. It can only be the fertilizer. The zig zag line gives it away. The other grass is alive, but it’s not as healthy as it can be. I put something into the ground that helped the grass grow.

My ground looks good. Not thorny, not shallow, not hard, but is the soil fertile? My grass is growing in soft sandy ground that is common in Florida. It is not full of the kinds of things that make grass grow well. In order to be good for grass, something has to be put into it. My grass is sucking out what it can, but in order to grow well, I need to fertilize it.

What am I doing to make the ground of my life fertile so God can grow me?

Ministry Marketing Schizophrenia & Silos

Phil Cooke has an interesting take on Ministry Marketing.

The symptom I want to highlight is the 2nd; Divided and Conquered Syndrome:

When a Christian organization sees its ministry and its marketing as separate things, that schizophrenia often grows into (or out of) an even more fractured environment. Turf warfare is tragically commonplace in Christian organizations.

In these ministries, not only have marketing and ministry come to be regarded as separate things, but each function – each department, each office – has evolved into a miniature “state” all its own. Frustration runs high, efficiency runs low; quantity and quality of ministry suffer. Let’s have a big meal together and recommit to each other and the overall mission.

I have heard this kind of situation described as “siloed” ministry. Where each separate area does it’s own thing. I sat in one meeting at a church that was fighting this syndrome, and watched two different ministry areas that had each scheduled a Father/Son Camp-out on different weekends of the same month stare each other down over who was going to cancel their event.

How can a church be good stewards when they waste time and energy duplicating or competing with other ministry’s programs?

The key component, I have found, to prevent this kind of separation is a leader who casts strong, clear vision. And a team that comes together to accomplish that vision. Then it’s not about what event my area did, it’s about how many people we reached for Christ, about how people’s lives were changed.

The Difference in Days

Yesterday started off wrong. I forgot my laptop power cord at home, and discovered that my battery now has a maximum of 35 minutes of charge. Of course, I have two videos to finish by Sunday, and I use that laptop to edit those videos. That set the day off balance, and it never recovered.

Today, I have the cord, and had a fun time driving in with the kids, listening to music in the car. Just got something I’ve been waiting on. Today looks to be a better feeling day.

In reality, yesterday didn’t have insurmountable issues. The issues were just tainted by negative attitude. How we approach problems affects how we solve them. I suspect I will deal with similar problems today. I suspect when I get home I will feel like to day went better. The primary difference will be that I approached today from a different perspective.

What am I doing that is Dangerous?

If a life lived for Christ is dangerous, how does that play out in my life?

Lots of people look up to church staff like we have made some sacrifice. But in reality we have it easy. We work in a safe environment. There is no risk for me to talk about my faith. No need to worry about taking a stand for what is right.

It’s the people who work outside the religious bubble I find myself in that are truly living dangerously. They risk relationship when they speak up or out. They are the ones that could get labelled negatively. They risk, not me.

Angel and Demons – Take the Chance

This weekend 2nd movie from Dan Brown’s series of novels opens in theaters; “Angels and Demons”. Much like the movie of his work “The DaVinci Code” this one will generate controversy. To be honest, having read both of those books and seen the previous movie, it is the controversy which sells this story line. The work lacks a bit. I say that readily admitting, I have done no writing or made no movie which is better. It’s easier to be a critic than a writer. Still, my wife and I rated the first movie and both books: lame. (And not just because of the historical inaccuracy).

From the books, it is clear that Dan Brown has a real problem with the Catholic church. There are much smarter and more knowledgeable people than me who can talk about the content of these works of fiction at length. However, his views have continually generated conversations about faith and truth.

The release of this movie is another chance for people of faith to interact with people in their lives who will already be talking about matters of faith and truth simply because they are talking about the movie. Do not let this opportunity go by.

Take this chance to talk about this story, and then share your own faith story with those around you.

So What Happened When We Killed the Magazine?

A while back I wrote about how we communicated a change to our congregation. I promised I would let you know how it went.

The change was moving from a print magazine to an online “news” section of our new website. We printed about 10,000 copies, and mailed 8,000 out every two months. The print and mailing cost was almost $40,000 annually, with postage prices on the rise. It took 25% of one of my staff member’s time to design it. Every indication we have about print is that more and more people are turning to electronic delivery for information. We made arrangements to print out a dozen or so copies of the stories and have them available for people that refused to view them online. Our welcome centers have computers which can be used to view our website.

Plus, we had just launched a new website that could handle the needs of an electronic “news” section. The amount of information we could release, compared to a bi-monthly magazine, would more than quadruple. And the response is immediate; click here, register now, find out more right away. There’s no need to put down a paper magazine and go to the phone or computer to take action. You can take action right then.

So, we pulled the trigger. We communicated the change and our last issue was all about the change to the online format. The bulletin had my contact information so I could take any questions or complaints. While we heard several stories of people that expressed sadness at the loss of a nice magazine, they understood and agreed with the reasons for the shift.

To date, my office has received only 5 real complaints. One was from a very angry 80-year-old that called me personally. She was very upset until I reminded her she could get the same content at the welcome centers if she wanted it. Two were from people that work in the print industry.

The news section of the site has seen excellent traffic. At one point, every two days we were seeing 8000 unique visitors which is as many addresses we used to mail magazines. we are still in the “new” phase of the website, so I don’t want to say this kind of traffic is what we can continue to expect, but the content is being read.

5 complaints out of 8,000 subscribers. I can live with that.

Handbrake: Still an Amazing App

As I type this I am ripping a DVD to a file that I can use on my iPod or Apple TV. I am using a great, free application called Handbrake. I’ve been using it for a couple of versions. There are tons of presets already loaded, but I always tweak them. I have ripped hundreds of my personal discs for use on my personal devices.

We also use it at church when people bring a DVD to play. We don’t play direct from a disc for several reasons, not the least of which is the lag time between hitting play and seeing the video roll. So, we rip DVDs that people bring for us to play into file formats that are compatible with our players.

I can rip a full resolution, h.264 file complete with a 5.1 audio track that plays on my Apple TV using a program that I downloaded off the internet for free. I love Handbrake.

RROD

rrodblogThe April after the Xbox 360 came out, I got one. Right after that all of my friends Xboxes began getting the Red Rings of Death. The RROD became the bane of Microsoft’s existence. They finally had to extend warranties all around because of manufacturing defects.

Through it all I kept playing. I didn’t play as much as some, but I did play. I counted myself lucky.

Today. The RROD caught up with me. Ordinarily I would just chalk it up and go on. But, I may still be under extended warranty. So, here’s hoping this can be fixed, and fast.

Checked. Nope, I’ve had the console 3 years and 6 weeks, which puts me a month and a half out of warranty. Now I have to weigh the amount of playing time I have with the amount of money it costs to fix or replace.