“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” – Part 1 of 2 – Church Leadership

For anyone who keeps half an eye on film and television journalism, you would have noticed the brouhaha over the conclusion of the television series Breaking Bad.  I don’t need to add any more veneration, but I do wish to discuss a comment I heard in an interview by the show’s team of script writers.  When asked about how they knew when to stop redrafting a script, they said they went with the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good:” a phrase attributed to Voltaire in his poem La Bégueule (The Prude) about a woman who had a good life but nevertheless was discontent and so had an affair just to feel something exciting. Thus

Voltaire aged 70

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

In his writings, a wise Italian

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

says that the best is the enemy of the good.

In the same way that people can become depressed about the humdrum of a good but normal life, so too can artists be easily dissatisfied with their good work, holding out hope that they might be capable of something greater.  The pursuit of perfection, for example, can cripple the writer such that they never publish. Settling with the ‘good’ version of the manuscript would have meant something for the world to experience.  But for the unrealistic perfectionist, the draft remains in the top drawer, the film an unfinished edit, and the album a demo.  The Breaking Bad writers polished and polished but to a deadline, and then finally pressed [send] with attachment in time for production.  Pursuing perfection is important for any artist: Voltaire was not advocating mediocrity.  But the artist who never says, “this will do,” will only ever have unfulfilled potential.

What is true for life and art, is also true for leadership.  An important lesson I have learned as a church leader who has tried to be entrepreneurial is that while my new ideas might be ambitious and seem ‘perfect’ (in my own head), to make them a reality, I must aim for a ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ implementation.  Am I setting a low bar for myself? Au contraire, the bar is still high. I am simply ensuring that I actually make a jump for the bar – even if I mess it up.

My logic goes: I am limited in my leadership capacity; my team is limited; the strategy needs more refining; I don’t have all the capital or resources I need; and I usually run out of time.  Actually, limited time is as much self-imposed as it is forced on me.  My personality is such that unless there is a deadline, I won’t get it done.  With my music recording projects, we set the album launch date, then work backwards with the recording timeline.  It may not end up perfect, but at least we are not still sitting around waffling about the idea of recording an album.  Similarly in my doctoral research, my supervisor always pushed me to just submit something every month – even if it was unfinished and a bit of a mess – the act of forcing something on to the page was an important step in the process.

My motivation to operate this way is also theological.  Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice…Do not be anxious about anything….I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  These words from Paul reveal his response as a devoted disciple of Christ to his unpredictable living conditions as a traveling missionary Apostle.  They also reveal a basic principle of Paul’s approach to leadership – I seek to be at peace with God no matter what happens in my life.  I don’t need to feel anxious.  I rejoice in the Lord because of what He has given me.  Even when I suffer or go without (or try something and it fails) I rejoice because I know that God loves me as his child.  If one should learn to be content in God in their personal life then so should they be in their ministry life.

In fact, the wisdom of Voltaire and Paul applies well to ministry leadership.  ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ should be a golden rule for those who have an unrealistically high expectation of their own ability, or a sense of entitlement or fantasy view of their own capacity.  Or, in the other extreme, it should become the mantra for those who carry a deep-seeded fear of failure.  Many pastors feel quietly ashamed at their lack of success: “why is my church not as big as his?”  This lack of contentment in the good that God has given them makes them insecure.  And thus, as they forever pursue a more idealistic outcome, they struggle to achieve anything at all.

Another way philosophers have described this phenomenon is as ‘The Nirvana Fallacy’ – the idea that you unfairly compare a realistic option with a perfect world fantasy, and then dismiss the realistic option on the grounds that it is not good enough.  The Nirvana Fallacy can be explained using this simple logic formula:

X is what I have got

Y is the Nirvana ideal

Therefore, X is not good enough

The Nirvana Fallacy creeps into church leadership all the time: trying to preach the ‘perfect’ sermon every week by spending three or four days preparing and still making edits minutes before the service which means you never get to do a read-through; not appointing a staff member because you won’t settle until you have a saint like Dietrich Bohoeffer or Mother Theresa; having Sagrada Familia as your standard for church architecture; closing a ministry because you don’t see thousands of conversions; or remaining unemployed because you haven’t found the dream position.

So how can a church leader respond and apply the proverb to their leadership?

  1. Make wise decisions
  2. Aim high but be wise enough to see the ‘good’ that God has given you
  3. Create deadlines for yourself and stick to them
  4. Try your ideas even if you are under-resourced
  5. Thank God for what he has done through you
  6. Always rejoice
  7. Don’t criticise other’s work for not being perfect

Fellow friend, minister and entrepreneur, Rev. Dr. Adam Lowe, adds some wise words in response to this post:

“…given our imperfection, the perfect of our own accord is most certainly not attainable. And then, if we were to afford some favourable evaluation of our own merit (thinking it were perfect), how quickly pride would become the focus instead of the perfection only found in Christ…”

And, here are some further thoughts from an English friend, hand surgeon, Dr. Tim Halsey,

“Voltaire’s quote is one that goes through my head daily in the operating theatre, having the wisdom to leave things alone that are good but not perfect, because often tweaking things can lead to making them worse and there’s no rewind / delete button in an operation!…  The other saying I was brought up with was that “a job worth doing is worth doing well”, it is one of my grandpa’s favourites. We were challenged about it by a Godly friend who pointed out that sometimes a job worth doing is worth doing, full stop, and that the drive for perfection hinted at by the “worth doing well” bit can stifle us from ever trying for fear of failing to do it well. If its worth doing, it’s worth doing.”

Part 2 will apply ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ to discipleship

One thought on ““The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” – Part 1 of 2 – Church Leadership

  1. Wise words indeed.

    The desire for excellence in ministry is a noble ideal but it can lead to perfectionism which drives people away. We should do ministry well and try to do the best job we can. Sometimes we do a poor job and think people will be christian and forgive our short fall but christian ministry shouldn’t be slang for second rate.

    My guiding principle is now governed by what is sustainable. A life time of good ministry is more beneficial than a constant 2-3 year cycle of excellent ministry followed by burn out and recovery.

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