Excellence is Not Optional! Print
Thursday, 15 March 2007 06:49

Written by Keith Strohm

In the wonderful discussion that has ensued in the comment box of the Christian Music post, one of the things we have been talking about is the issue of quality. I've been thinking and reflecting quite a bit on the notion of quality and ministry (not just in music, but in all areas of apostolic endeavor). For a variety of reasons, the unspoken Catholic cultural norm seems to be that poor or sub-standard quality is acceptable because what we are doing is a ministry and we shoud be grateful that a number of folks have stepped up to volunteer. It's almost as if we are embarassed to hold ourselves to a high standard.

I think, first off, that part of the issue is how we view the work of ministry--the notion that individuals are simply volunteers and not competent lay apostles called and gifted by God for very particular and powerful vocations in the world. Seen as simply volunteers, men and women get a pass for just showing up. This happened frequently in my last parish. When I remarked to one of the leaders of a music ministry group that we should have higher expectations (and formation) for those who help lead musical worship at Mass, her response was to say, "Well, they're just volunteers; they don't do this for a living, you know."

And yet, if we take the theology of Stewardship seriously, we are called to give our first fruits, the best we have to offer, to the Lord and His work! What I hear when I engage with the theology of Stewardship is that excellence is not optional. What we do for the Lord (which is to say, all that we do) should be undertaken wholeheartedly, surrendering all that we have to the Lord for the sake of other people.

This excellence needs to extend not just to "product" (what we are offering), but also to "process" (how we are offering it). Why? Because if we are serious about the Lord's command to go out and be salt and leaven for the world, we must compete with the other offerings that the world presents to men and women, offerings that are often packaged carefully and have a great deal of resources put behind them.

Now, I know there are folks here who are reading this and thinking that becoming too molded to the way the world does things could water down the gospel we are presenting, but excellence in quality does not automatically mean abandonment of gospel truths. I'm not advocating profligate spending to make things slick and shiny for the sake of being slick and shiny. Simple presentation is effective--and there is a world of difference between simple presentation and poor presentation. If we can't be bothered to present the richness of our relationship with God well, why should anyone be bothered to listen?

The reality of lay apostolates being what they are, I'm also not advocating the need for perfection right out of the gate. In the early days of the Catherine of Siena Institute, for example, I'm sure things were held together by duct tape and prayer. However, a committment to continued excellence and improvement of what we have to offer (that is to say, the principles of solid stewardship) is fundamental to the living out of our vocations. What God has called us to do, He calls us to do well!

Excellence in process is also central to our response to God. The principles of Stewardship call us to work toward the maximum result from the resources we have been given (check out the Parable of the Talents sometime). Part of that comes from how we manage the ministries we have been given (whether a "formal" apostolate or the (super)natural extension of just living our lives.

In the current issue of Christianity Today, there is an article on Rich Stearns, the current CEO of WorldVision, one of the largest Poverty Relief Agencies in the world. In that article, Jonathan Reckford of Habitat for Humanity has this to say:

...at times, people in the nonprofit world believe that being grassroots and faithful is enough--that results and good management don't matter . . .The idea that an organization that's using other people's money to serve God would be less well run than a business or corporation is atrocious. . . .We ought to have much higher standards than the business world."
We wouldn't think of running our households poorly, or in approaching our careers in a lackadaisical or sub-standard fashion. So, we do we tolerate that same approach to ministry?

To be sure, we don't just operate in the world on our own human resources. We have the power of God working with us. But just as we must cooperate with grace for our own salvation, offering a human response to His Gift, so too must we cooperate with God for the salvation of others, giving to God our committment, our talent, our gifts--our very best--for the sake of others. This union of divine action and human will yields powerful results both in personal holiness and in the sanctification of the world

Poor and sub-standard quality in ministry does not honor God, nor does it honor the men and women we have been called to serve. The problem is that we, as a People, don't really reflect on this reality that much. And so, we have a culture that tolerates and, in subtle ways, encourages mediocrity. We must work tirelessly to reverse that trend and help build cultures and structures that see excellence in ministry as the normative response to God's call.

In that way, we can all hope to hear the voice of Christ at our lives' ends saying, "Well done, my good and faithful servant.