Does perfectionism keep you from leading in the most impactful way? Margaret Marcuson describes the nature and origin of perfectionistic tendencies, how they can limit our ministry objectives, and simple strategies for learning to let go.
I once took an assessment which suggested I am a perfectionist. I was on a car trip with my family, including two teenagers. I said, “I’m not a perfectionist!” They all said, “Of course, you are a perfectionist!” I said, “I thought I just had high standards….” It was a moment of truth. On reflection, I have to agree. Over time, I’ve learned some things about my perfectionism — it shows up in some areas (like punctuation) and not in others (I don’t care if my desk is messy).
How perfectionism can limit ministry
At times my perfectionism has limited my ministry. I have done too much myself and haven’t made room for others. When I was a pastor, it was easier to plan a worship service all by myself, and I wanted to have control of the liturgy. I did work with others on stewardship, but I kept a tight hand on the annual programs we used.
I know I’m not alone in having perfectionist tendencies in ministries. In my coaching conversations with pastors, I find that worship is one area where perfectionism often shows up. That took a hit in the COVID lockdown, since it wasn’t possible to do it perfectly, especially at first. But then I noticed perfectionism emerging again. Pastors tried to do Facebook Live without missing a single day, spent hours editing worship video, and took on the responsibility to make streaming technology work. And in other areas of ministry like contacting isolated members, many pastors felt they should be doing more. Even though it wasn’t possible to do everything in such a time, they often shouldered the burden alone and felt guilty they weren’t doing more.
Anxiety is at the root of perfectionism: What if it fails? What will others think of me if it’s not perfect? What will others think of me if I’m not perfect? What will others think of me if I let someone else do something, and they fail? What will I think of me?
Perfectionism vs. overfunctioning
Family systems theory talks about the balance between overfunctioning and underfunctioning, where some people take too much responsibility and others don’t take enough responsibility. Perfectionism and overfunctioning are not the same thing, but they are related. Artists and writers may be perfectionists about their creative output. That’s not the same as overfunctioning. But a pastor may be a perfectionist about worship and insist on keeping control of the details to “keep the standard of worship up.” That’s a phrase I’ve often heard. It’s a fine line. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing excellence or with a church doing the best it can do in worship or any other activity. It can be a good thing to work to improve the experience of in-person and streaming worship.
Note that working hard does not in itself mean perfectionism or overfunctioning. Working hard toward the goals that are most important to you in your leadership role is valuable and energizing.
However, often pastors and other church leaders wear themselves out because no one else can do it as well as they can. That’s perfectionism — and it’s also overfunctioning. They complain that others won’t step up. Yet the basic rule about the balance between overfunctioners and underfunctioners is this: Others won’t step up until you step down and let go of control. And that requires you to lower your perfectionist standards while other people learn. The problem can be that you may want people to do it and do it your way and to your standard. Otherwise, you’d rather do it yourself. It’s easier.
The consequences of perfectionism
Perfectionism may lead to:
- Overworking. The work is never done because it’s never good enough and nothing can be left undone. You’ve got to do it because no one can do it as well as you can.
- Taking people’s work back or fixing what they did that didn’t meet your standards. You take on tasks beyond your role because you can’t stand to see them undone or poorly done. The result: They let you keep doing it for them. You’re overburdened, and they don’t learn how to do it better.
- Ironically, procrastinating. You may find yourself procrastinating because you don’t think you can do it perfectly enough. Paradoxically, perfectionists may find themselves underfunctioning in key areas, missing deadlines or working like crazy at the last minute or needing help, because their perfectionism-driven anxiety led them to put off getting started.
We all learn these patterns in the families we grow up in. How did you learn how to do things? Who taught you? What didn’t you learn? I know one woman who never learned how to cook because her mother, an excellent cook, couldn’t let go of control of the meals. Who set the standards in your family? Consider how mistakes were handled in your family. What happened if you made a small mistake or failed completely?
My husband says to me, “If you want to be happier, just lower your standards.” I’ve discovered the truth of this for a perfectionist, personally and professionally. During a period of illness last year, I had to let him do everything. I was too sick to care about standards. As I slowly got back to household activities, we started cooking together. It’s been a great joy, and something we have continued. I’ve learned to let him do things his way instead of assuming I know best. I’ve discovered that it’s arrogant of me to assume my way is the best way and that only I can do it right. It’s growth-producing to give others room to do something differently or even what I consider wrong.
Tips for letting go
Here are some tips to experiment with letting go:
- Try delegating something small you’ve never let go of before.
- When you want to make a helpful suggestion, notice it. Next time, experiment with not saying it. Let someone do it their own way.
- Give up reminding others for a day or a week.
- If you’re procrastinating due to perfectionism, work on something for two minutes (use a timer), then stop.
- Ask someone you think is less capable than you for advice. Put the advice to work in some way.
- Come up with your own small idea for letting go and try it out.
“Do your work, then step back: the only path to serenity.” (Tao te Ching: A New English Version, Harper & Row, 1988)
Margaret Marcuson offers a way pastors can bring their best to their work without giving it all away, so they can have a greater impact and find more satisfaction. Get the free Sustain Yourself in Ministry Checklist here.
- Lewis Pastoral Leadership Inventory,™ a confidential, online, 360° leadership assessment instrument for pastors and other church leaders
- Leading Like Moses: 4 Ways to Know What to Delegate by Micah Fries And Jeremy Maxfield
- 3 Deresolutions to Start the New Year by Mike Bonem