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Are You A Perfectionist?

In J. Oswald Sanders classic book, Spiritual Leadership, he says, “The perfectionist sets goals beyond his reach, then sinks into false guilt when he falls short.” The wisdom of that statement cannot be overstated. Sanders continues, “Our world is imperfect, and we cannot expect the impossible. Setting modest, realistic goals will help a perfectionist move through a problem without discouragement.” Unrealistic expectations can derail your ability to lead!

The problem is that quite often a visionary leader is an idealist. They have the ability to see the preferred future and begin to expect nothing less. A train wreck is about to happen when idealism meets realism head on. The true idealist can be challenged daily because they envision how things will turn out “ideally” and the “reality” is that they never do. We live in an imperfect world, with imperfect people, and we are quite imperfect ourselves, if you did not already know that.

Leadership requires examining any unrealistic expectations you have, or that others may have, at your church and in your ministry. Do not set your goals by the standard of someone else’s church attendance, their facilities, or the amount of impact they appear to be having. Rejoice when other churches are growing and flourishing. There is no room for comparison or competition in churches that desire to honor our Lord. Be faithful to fulfill His calling on your life first and foremost.

In Romans 12:3 Paul says, “For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think.” This is great advice to remain humble and to know our limitations. A great definition of perfection is doing the best you can with what you have. Yes, pursue excellence but be careful to not set the standard so high that no one can live up to that standard. Work hard at evangelism and discipleship while allowing God to set the expectations.

It is easy to confuse “stepping out in faith” with presumption or wishful thinking. In our Church Planting Essentials Training (DCPI) we challenge church planters to be careful about unrealistic expectations. The materials say, “Planting churches is a lot like raising children. Every child is unique. Each one
has its own growth rate, and every child grows to a different size and shape. But parents love each one for who they are. Comparison with other children is unwise and unhealthy.”

How do keep from allowing perfectionism to overwhelm you?

First, be able to laugh at yourself! You have to make sure that you do not take yourself too seriously. A leader does not need to have all the answers, be able to solve every problem, or hit a homerun every time they are called upon. If you cannot bend at all, by having a sense of humor, you might just break under the pressure. When you make a mistake admit you’re not perfect and get a good laugh out of your mistakes.

Second, remain humble and learn to handle criticism. No leader will ever be exempt from criticism and you must accept that it will come. How you handle it will help determine how well you can lead. Spiritual maturity is what enables you to not listen too closely to the applause or to the criticism. It also allows you to consider if maybe there is a kernel of truth in what is being shared. Can you learn from it and is there something about your leadership that needs to change?

Third, you must practice and maintain self-control. You can be right in a decision but wrong in your attitude or how you handle it. The reality is that when we lose control we will lose the ability to influence and lead others. Perfectionism places you in a pressure cooker that will eventually blow its top if you cannot lead calmly during challenging times. Leadership is not easy and is not for wimps but it can be done from a loving and serving heart.

Fourth, value the ideas and opinions of others. Usually when someone questions your leadership it is not because they oppose your direction or decision but they need more information. J. Oswald Sanders asks, “Can you accept opposition to your viewpoint or decision without taking offense? Leaders always face opposition.” It has been said that perfectionists are aware of three ways of leading, “The right way, the wrong way, and my way.” They are not real flexible with the third option. If not careful it becomes, “my way or the highway.”

Fifth, always value people and the importance of strong relationships. We need each other and we truly can accomplish more working together. Love people and value their opinions but you must also be able to press forward even in the face of opposition. Check your motives, seek a multitude of counsel, and then make the decision. Leaders are able to make hard decisions that others are not willing to make but they are often more than willing to give their advice (criticism) when you do.

Lastly, remain focused on the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The only place you can find His direction and discernment is in His presence. He will enable you to know the difference between your non-negotiables and just being hard headed. It can never be about having “your way” just because you are the leader. Our prayer must be what Jesus prayed in the garden, “not my will, but Yours!” And oh, by the way, if you have to declare to everyone that you are the leader then the reality is that you probably are not.

Perfectionism is defined as, “a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything else.” Synonyms include the words idealist, nit-picker, purist, and quibbler. Perfectionists are sticklers for things being done right but usually become obsessive and split hairs over things that really do not matter. Perfectionists set standards that are impossible to meet, live with unrealistic expectation, and the stress of not being able to live up to these standards and expectations begins to take a tremendous toll on the leader.