Purpose, Not Perfection

By Erica Baron

imperfect fern

And yes we are far from polished.

Far from pristine.

But that doesn't mean we are

striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge a union with purpose.

- Amanda Gorman,
excerpt from “The Hill We Climb”

As we come to a year in this pandemic here in New England, we at the regional staff remain in awe and deep gratitude for the resilience of our congregations. For the excellent work you continue to do in this time. We see how hard you are working. And we see that some of you are aiming for perfection. You are striving for polish. But is it exacting a cost?

Perfectionism is a feature of dominant white culture. So it is also a feature of the culture of many Unitarian Universalist congregations. Right now, it is often showing up as an expectation that worship will be technically smooth, polished, even flawless. This is especially true in congregations that are pre-recording worship. Because videos can be re-recorded until they are something approaching perfection, people want to see perfect videos. Even for live services, such as those on Zoom, there is often a desire for perfection. This is also showing up in some congregations as a belief that all the usual programs should continue. They can shift online, but nothing should be dropped. You are getting as close to perfect as you can.

We are hearing, though, about the toll this is taking. That toll is felt as a sensation of being stretched. That toll is felt as defensiveness at critique. That toll is felt as burnout. That toll is felt as exhaustion. Beneath the surface of congregations that are mostly doing okay, leaders are struggling. You have struggled and shifted and adapted and found creative ways to try to keep your people connected, and it feels unsustainable.

We want to relieve you of the burden of perfection. Striving for perfection does not nourish.

We also witness some religious professionals and lay leaders turning away from perfectionism in this time. Some are learning to accept the flaws. Some are deciding that your recorded video is okay even though it isn’t perfect. Some are letting go of some programs and traditions. A few are even embracing the common tech glitches on Zoom as teachers in the art of letting go of perfectionism. Some of you started down the road of trying to be perfect and discovered that it wasn’t working. You are taking a different road now.

We affirm the turn away from perfectionism. This turn might require some inner work. For some of us, especially leaders, we need to learn to accept our own flaws, even our own failures. We need to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to be perfect. That our best is good enough. That much good is lost if we only do or offer what can be perfect.

And some of us need to learn to let go of expecting perfection in others. We are invited to learn to allow the flaws in the video, to roll with the tech glitches. We are invited to learn that it is simply not possible in this time for everything we loved about our congregation to continue as before. And that some beloved traditions cannot continue at all.

Many of us are on both sides of this work at different times — sometimes needing to give grace to ourselves. Sometimes needing to give grace to others.

And there are those among us who were never tempted by perfection. Perfectionism is a feature of dominant white culture, and so some of us have a different framework that can be particularly helpful at this moment. Wisdom for this work can come from many teachers. One is National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who invites us to turn away from perfection, purity, and polish in favor of purpose.

As we move away from perfectionism, it might help to trust that the essential will remain. A few of us on staff were having a conversation with leaders from a number of conversations back in October about congregational life in these times. Someone mentioned that they were working with their congregation to focus on what is really essential. This felt like such a powerful way out of perfectionism. So we began listening for it. And asking about it. What is essential in your congregation right now? What is this teaching you about what is always essential in congregational life?

As we have asked this question, some talk about which parts of your work feel central. Worship that reflects our heart’s longings. Faith formation for all ages. Calling and caring for each other. Action for justice. Others speak of the qualities that are essential in congregational life. Patience. Caring and compassion for one another. Trust. Willingness to try new things.

Perfectionism has a close cousin in productivity. The idea that our worth as people - and as congregations - can be measured by what we do. What we accomplish. A focus on the essential offers a different path to meaning. One more in tune with our values as Unitarian Universalists. Rather than trying to do everything, we do the few essential things. Rather than trying to make them perfect, we make them meaningful. The goal is not polish but heart. Not a program without flaws, but an offering that nourishes the spirit.

As we listen to congregational leaders talk about what is essential, we also see you doing it. We see our congregations holding a sense of purpose even in these difficult times. In fact, many of our congregations are deepening your sense of purpose. Or discovering a new purpose.

We are so inspired by the ways you are doing ministry now. You are gathering online even though it’s hard. You are continuing to offer nourishing worship. You are reaching out through phone calls and emails. Driving by houses and waving. Dropping off gifts on porches. You are opening buildings as warming shelters and Covid test sites. You are reaffirming your covenants. You are hosting Black Lives Matter vigils. You are giving thousands to people who have been hardest hit by this pandemic. Thousands of dollars. And thousands of masks. You are banding together to offer shared programs for parents, kids, and teens.

You are doing the essential things. You are following your purpose. You are committed to each other and to your values. You are still showing up, a year into this crisis.

Friends, move toward your purpose. Remember what is most essential. Let the rest go. We are here if you need help.

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About the Author

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...

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