The War on Mediocrity
Mediocrity is one of those words that seems relatively innocuous but gets people’s attention. I suppose there is something particularly stinging about the prospect of being called mediocre. There are those who say that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Well, perhaps the opposite of excellence is not “badness,” but mediocrity. Whatever the case, mediocrity is at the heart of so many problems in parishes.
Qualitative and Spiritual Mediocrity
There are different kinds of mediocrity which, though they are related, need to be understood. On the one hand, there is what I would call qualitative mediocrity, which pertains to the quality of a given activity, ministry or “product.” It is rooted in the acceptance of low standards of excellence, and it is what most people think about when they hear the word. Then there is spiritual mediocrity, which is present when there is a lack of belief in the supernatural realities of the Church and in disobedience to Her teachings. This is even more dangerous than qualitative mediocrity, but they can often be related.
Just as there are two different kinds of mediocrity, there are two primary ways in which both forms of mediocrity hurt parishes. First, they drive parishioners away, either toward other parishes or, tragically, away from Jesus and His Church. Second, they drive away volunteers and good employees, which leads to the repelling of parishioners.
Okay, now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s explore how mediocrity manifests itself in parishes and how we can carry out a righteous, loving war against it. We’ll start with volunteers and employees.
Volunteers and Employees
As a lifelong Catholic, I can say that the single greatest impediment to my getting involved in the many parishes I’ve attended over the years is my distaste for working with people who weren’t excellent, or who didn’t really believe in what the Church teaches. I’m not necessarily proud of this, but it is a reality that we, as a Church, must face.
I could wrap my head around giving up time and energy for the parish, but I couldn’t imagine wasting it on ineffective programs and efforts that I wouldn’t be proud to be part of. This was true if it was a men’s group, a parish council, a school fundraiser, or a capital campaign. The times that I did attend meetings related to any of these activities, sadly, I found myself desperate to run away and do something where people had higher standards.
And in those times when I did get involved and tried to raise the standards for the good of the parish, I often experienced resistance and pushback from parish employees who felt threatened. Many had worked for the parish for years and saw their job as a source of identity and income, and anyone who might expose their mediocrity had to be discouraged. They were much more comfortable with volunteers who simply did what they were asked and, frankly, shared the same low standards of excellence.
I know a woman who started a women’s Bible study at her parish that became the most popular, vibrant ministry there. During the ten years she was there, parish employees took little interest in what she was doing, showed no curiosity about how they might learn from her, and limited their interaction to matters having to do with facilities and budgets. When the woman and her family left the parish after a full decade of service, none of the parish employees, including the pastor, asked her why she left. She felt like some of them were probably relieved.
When mediocrity becomes part of the cultural fabric of a parish, it is absolutely logical that it will draw other mediocre employees and volunteers and repel the excellent ones. This is why the culture of any organization is important. The only way that it can change is if the pastor and his leadership team declare war on mediocrity. And that means having a brutal intolerance for keeping people, even volunteers, who are determined to be mediocre.
Yes, I know this sounds harsh, but it isn’t, as long as it’s done for the right reasons and in the right ways. In fact, when it is, that war is a form of ministry. Let’s use some examples.
Let’s say the head of RCIA (or, now it’s called OCIA) is less than excited about defending and explaining the more culturally difficult teachings of the Church. He has even described himself as something of a cafeteria Catholic at times and has declared that he wants to reach out to those people and make them feel comfortable. This would be spiritual mediocrity.
Now, aside from the problems this causes for the parishioners who attend his classes (we’ll get to that a bit later), this creates a serious problem among the staff and volunteers who want to be excellent. Are they supposed to challenge him? Is it okay for him to be that way? Are they doing something wrong when they defend the Church? Do they even belong in the parish?
All too often, it is the excellent volunteers and employees who quit first. As painful as that may be for the pastor and his team, it is often preferred to having uncomfortable, honest conversations with mediocre employees, especially when the mediocrity is of the spiritual nature.
But it’s hard even when it’s qualitative mediocrity. Consider a well-meaning youth minister who has no ability to connect with people and who receives consistently low ratings from students and parents about her programs and presentations. She’s been at the parish for years, and volunteers complain about her lack of passion and effectiveness. What are the volunteers who work with her supposed to do? If the pastor and leadership team aren’t confronting the situation, should they? In most of these situations, they are either going to stop volunteering, and allow others who are not bothered by the lack of excellence to take their place.
Parishioners and Prospective Parishioners
Okay, now let’s look at how mediocrity in a parish discourages and drives away the people who are looking for Jesus. These people live in a world where qualitative excellence, often around “bad” things, is the standard. They expect it at work, in their entertainment, and in the services they get from restaurants, retail stores and hotels. They are quite comfortable walking away from anything that has low standards. That is why people complain about the DMV, because they feel they have no choice. It makes sense that they would apply this same approach to their parishes. And I would encourage them to, because spiritual and qualitative mediocrity do not help them grow in their faith or in the lives of their families. They certainly don’t make it easy to bring others to the parish.
Let’s take a look at a few examples of how mediocrity manifests itself in parishes in the way that drives people who value excellence away. We’ll start with spiritual mediocrity.
The Mass itself must be spiritually excellent, and that is a matter of priests and others involved on and around the altar being reverent, and authentically so. And yes, people can tell. I often attend Mass when I’m traveling with a colleague who is not Catholic but is open to Catholicism. We went to Mass one morning and I was bothered by the lackadaisical nature of the way the priest said Mass, particularly during the Consecration. I was bothered personally, and it was hard sitting next to someone who I so wanted to experience the depth and beauty of the Eucharistic celebration (no, she didn’t receive). After Mass she said to me, “I don’t think that priest believed what he was doing.” I told her, painfully, that I agreed. And I will say that I have been to many Masses when I wondered, “does he understand what he’s doing there?” And I’ve been to Masses when I could tell the priest was in awe of what was happening, and it made a profound impact on me.
The same is true for music. I have to say I hesitate to mention music in this essay because far too much attention is put on excellent music, even if it is often underachieved. As much as I love beautiful and well-done music at Mass, what matters most to me is when I can tell the people singing in the choir or leading from the ambo are doing it in a spirit of deep prayer. I am not only willing to overlook someone who lacks great musical ability but is sincere, but I am drawn to their willingness to stand and sing to Jesus anyway. That is not an endorsement of bad music by any means. It’s just that the most beautiful choir in the world held up against a lackadaisical Mass leaves me sad. A reverent, heartfelt Mass with poor music, or even no music at all, can still fill me and send me into the world with hope and love.
But spiritual mediocrity is not limited to the Mass. It can manifest itself and repel parishioners in Bible studies, OCIA classes, and even the parish office itself. When people come into the parish office and encounter what looks like a run-of-the-mill insurance company or dentist’s office, they feel it. It’s more than not being friendly; it’s about the people there not understanding that they are witnesses of Christ, serving on the front lines of the new and ongoing evangelization. This is not so much a management crisis—although that is certainly at play—as it is a spiritual crisis! Why should anyone work in a parish that doesn’t want to or isn’t able to convey the joy of the Gospel with the people they meet? And why would anyone teach OCIA, Confirmation classes, Sunday school, or marriage prep if they weren’t in love with Jesus and His teachings? Perhaps, a better question would be: Why do we let them?
Beyond spiritual mediocrity, parishioners are indeed turned off and turned away by qualitative mediocrity. When the people proclaiming the readings at Mass seem bored, or when they don’t seem to understand the words and context of what they’re reading, how can we expect the people in the pews to get the full impact of the drama and depth and power of the Bible? Think about that. Most parishioners do one thing and have one time in their week when they encounter the Bible. Mass. And then the readings, from the Old Testament or the New, or from the Psalms or anywhere else, are read without passion. I’m not talking about performative passion, but rather the passion those words deserve.
The culprit here gets back to the earlier conversation about employees and staff members. It is rooted in the idea that any parishioner who volunteers should be allowed to do what they want, and that we feel it is unacceptable to tell someone that, perhaps, there is a better ministry for them than reading. You can apply this to teaching classes or handing out bulletins or singing in the choir. As long as we see our parishes as “jobs programs” for staff and volunteers, we will not squash mediocrity.
Getting back to parishioners, let’s come to terms with who they are and where they are coming from. They are accustomed to excellence, and I think it is valid to say that they deserve excellence from their parishes, at Mass, and every other time they step foot on the parish campus. If we see this as consumerism, or as fickleness on their part, then we’re not going to win the war against mediocrity. People are ultimately drawn to the Truth, the full Truth. And when they drive to our church to go to Mass, pick up their kids from Confirmation class, or attend a Bible study, they want to know that the center of it all—Jesus—is presented to them with even greater faith, obedience and excellence than the movie they saw the night before or the football game they’re going to later that day.
Maybe the best way to look at all this is in terms of competition. Catholic parishes are in a competition, for employees and staff members, and for the minds, hearts and souls of people in their parishes. Who are they competing against? Business, sports, entertainment and distraction. The only way to engage in the war against mediocrity, and to win it, is to know that what parishes have to give is so much more than any of those pursuits can offer, and to present it, to present Him, in a way that makes that clear.
Pat Lencioni | Co-founder
The Amazing Parish