Early in my career at Azusa Pacific University, my mentor — then current president Dr. Jon Wallace — regularly used the phrase, “Excellence honors God and mediocrity is a sin.”
I struggled with the phrase, attempting to understand my daily call, while not becoming legalistic in how I measured my success. I struggled to find freedom and grace against a measurement of my daily accomplishments. That challenge connected my pursuit of excellence to my relationship with Christ. It went to my core, calling me to pursue my life and work beyond earthly measures.
When I think of excellence from a Christian perspective, my first thought goes to Paul’s words: “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:13b–14) I have always heard these verses as motivation to push hard to win — to be effective, delivering excellence in work, family and life — measuring excellence by how successful I am. But there is a part of the verse I was missing: “the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I was focused on winning the prize and missed the point of honoring God through excellence no matter the outcome.
A team of students demonstrated this God-honoring excellence this past spring. Roberts Wesleyan College has an Enactus club that equips students to develop strong business, speaking and entrepreneurial skills during their undergraduate experience. The college’s teams have been extremely successful both locally and internationally, positively impacting the lives of those they serve. In 2014, the team made its way to the national competition and placed second in the country, competing against other prestigious institutions.
In preparation for the 2015 competition, the Roberts team was invited to participate in the Enactus Summit as the premier team. Their hard work and commitment to excellence paid off and they were being nationally recognized. The team was confident they were ready for the upcoming national competition. I was confident as well and purchased a ticket in order to be present at the finals to see them compete for the championship.
The Enactus competition is like attending a final four basketball tournament. Lights, music, loud announcers and hundreds of college students create an energetic atmosphere. And like many competitions, teams leave as they are disqualified, leaving fewer participants with each successful round.
The 2015 national competition began, and teams were competing as I boarded a plane to Chicago, en route to St. Louis. As I landed in Chicago, I received a text — the team had been eliminated in the quarter-final round. Gulp. What a blow to this team who had worked so hard. The team asked if I was still coming. I boarded my flight and headed to St. Louis, not sure what I would find after such a disappointment.
The team was disappointed, but what happened next is what mattered most. The team rallied together and decided to stay and encourage the remaining teams. For the next 24 hours I watched 40 students serve with excellence; they assisted teams, mentored new teams and prayed with students on another Christian college team who had made it to the finals. I watched in awe, proud of our students who took a disappointment and turned it into an opportunity to serve others.
Each year an additional award is presented at the Enactus finals ceremony. Booming from the speakers, the announcer called Roberts Wesleyan College to the stage as the winners of The Jack Shewmaker Enactus Spirit Award. As the team went forward, excited to receive the honor, I stood in front, camera out, with tears in my eyes. This team took a disappointing moment and turned it into something great — something excellent. This is God-honoring excellence:
Taking the situations we face, inspiring or disappointing and turning them into opportunities to serve.
I later learned the team verse for the year was Philippians 2:4: “…not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
This is a story I will continue to tell to those who will listen. Our call to excellence is greater than our achievements and awards; it is a call to forget ourselves long enough to pursue an excellence that honors God.
Dr. Deana L. Porterfield serves as president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary. She holds a B.A. in Music Education and M.A. in Organizational Management from Azusa Pacific University, and an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne.
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