Effort, Excellence, and Exclusion: Three Challenging “E” Words

Jun 23, 2024 | Christian Teaching

By: Brian Harris

I’ve been fortunate enough to have pastored churches which grew, and I loved the challenge each brought: adding new buildings, enlarging the staff, seeing people grow in their love for Jesus and each other.

But each time we came up against what I call the “effort, excellence and exclusion dilemma”. What happens when we grow to a point where what used to be good enough, no longer meets the required standard?

To be clear, while much of my life is lived within the broad parameters of the church, the issue is far wider. It’s when the amateur dance teacher has a star pupil who now needs someone more expert to guide their effort. Or the small family business that outgrows the aunt who was the book keeper and now needs a highly qualified CFO.

To Include Or To Hold Up a Standard?

My first exposure was when the worship co-ordinator at the church I was pastoring alerted me that the time had come for us to start auditioning people who volunteered to be on the worship team. “Will we accept everyone who auditions?” I innocently asked. “No way,” was the firm reply. “You do realise that some people who are part of the team can’t keep a tune? It has to change.”

I couldn’t disagree, but a part of me felt gloomy and sad. What would it feel like to be told, “You’ve been amazingly loyal and we really appreciate all you have done, but we’re now in a new chapter. There is probably a home group who would be happy to have you play your guitar there, but your role isn’t on the stage.” After all, you can talk about churches of different sizes needing different levels of skill, but how do you shrug that off when you’ve given it your best, but get told, “sorry, the bottom line is that it’s just not good enough. It’s nothing personal – but it doesn’t meet the standard we need.” Of course those who aspire to be professional actors and musicians get told that over and over again. Sometimes they defy the odds, bounce back and achieve great things. Sometimes… but most often they simply fade away, eventually concluding that this is a dream that isn’t going to happen.

An Age Old Dilemma

Ah, the effort, excellence, exclusion dilemma. You can try really hard, and give something your best shot, and discover it’s not enough. Your level of excellence didn’t meet the required standard and you are excluded from participating.

In my earlier post on taking steps towards radical honesty I mention that I’ve been doing a review of my values – the things I most truly hold to. While brain storming a list of options I jotted down “excellence” – because I do love it when things are done really well. Not long ago I overheard a rendition of He will hold me fast that was so beautiful that I had to stop everything and simply stand “lost in wonder, love and praise” – to cite the old Wesley hymn. Excellence is a wonderful gift and can come as an undeserved grace that richly blesses us. But a few days later I heard someone else attempt the same song and it was so – well without labouring the point I felt I had no option but to turn it off quickly. It was a bit of a jolt.

I thought about the two renditions of that song as I looked at the word I had written down on my values list: excellence. But then I looked at another word I had jotted down earlier: inclusion. Inclusion resonates with me deeply. I asked myself, “If excellence comes at the price of meaningful inclusion, should it be on my list?” Truth to tell, I’m not sure. You might have views on this, (and why not express them in the comments?) – but is it possible to value both excellence and inclusivity?

When You Try and It’s Not Enough

And that set me thinking about the other E word – effort. If people can’t be bothered to try, and land up being left out – well, fair enough. My dilemma is when I know people have really tried – but it wasn’t enough.

I know some are able to view effort as a consolation. “OK, so I gave it my best shot. I didn’t make it, but at least I know I didn’t let myself down by not really trying. So take a deep breath. I didn’t make it – but well done me on giving it my best shot. It took effort and courage – and those qualities will serve me well in life – even if not today.” Now all of that is true, but yes, it does feel like the consolation prize. And yet I deeply value it when I seeing people trying hard. There is something about trying hard that is linked to being deeply alive. It’s about entering fully into things – and that is wonderful.

It got me reflecting on the role of effort in the Christian faith. It’s so paradoxical that a faith that is all about grace inspires us to such great effort. People really try hard to be their best for God. I try hard to be my best for God. Yet I am a child of God not because of who I am or what I achieve, but because of God’s astonishing love, grace, forgiveness, and inclusion. I do not earn the status that I bask in. Perhaps that is why we do try so hard – not because we must, but because we are set free – free to fly, free to fail, free to be.

Oh I do love excellence, and I greatly value effort, and I have little time for those who deliberately exclude others. But that’s because grace is the background music of life, and you hear its melody at unexpected moments, and find yourself lost in wonder, love and praise. When you’ve heard it, you are free to dive fully into all life calls you to. Even if you don’t make the cut!

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