By Becky De Oliveira—
Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing the preliminary work on a data file with more than 8,000 observations with several questions asking participants to rate their expectations (exceeded, met, below), but expectations have been on my mind lately. What are they, where do they come from, and how does an experience or person or place exceed, meet, or fail to meet them? Clearly, the reported quality of the outcome has more to do with the expectation preceding it than anything else. What if your expectations were low? It wouldn’t take much to exceed them, would it? And if they were high? Well, even a spectacular outcome might not impress you much.
I wonder all the time whether, collectively, as a culture, as a church, we set our expectations too high or too low.
There’s abundant evidence for both overly high and low expectations. We’re only a few weeks away from a presidential election, and there is much conversation about the candidates. There always is. And maybe this is a recent phenomenon, but I rarely hear anyone express over-the-top enthusiasm for a presidential, congressional, or gubernatorial candidate. The support is more tepid, more of the “he or she isn’t who I would have chosen, but…” variety. There is something wrong with the choices—maybe many things, maybe just one niggling thing. They don’t meet expectations. They have flaws—some major, others minor, depending on whom you ask. Often people talk about choosing “the lesser of two evils” as if to underscore the horrific nature of the choice. Others abstain from the process entirely, arguing that any amount of evil is too much for them to tolerate or support. So, we want leaders we can truly admire and put on a pedestal, but we cynically insist that they are all corrupt. What an odd mixture of beliefs!
This tendency is also evident in the church. My church is in the process of choosing a new pastor, and as anyone who has ever been involved in church knows, expectations run high, especially when abstraction is involved. (It’s like designing your dream house or dream job or dream anything—where do you start?) The members have been asked to create lists of attributes they would like the new pastor to have. These remind me of the qualities a single person—maybe especially a young one—imagines in their future life partner. Sometimes these non-negotiable qualities make it all the way to the description of “what I’m looking for” in a dating profile. I remember one I came across back when these used to be printed in magazines. The Woman Seeking a Man wanted one between the ages of 40 and 42. Six feet one inch tall. One hundred and seventy pounds. Dark hair. Slightly balding. Glasses. Huh, I remember thinking. That is very specific.
My church wants a pastor who is Jesus-centered and community-focused, who exhibits strong leadership, who is an excellent speaker and has a charismatic, dynamic personality. More specifically, he or she should be visionary, accepting of everyone, willing to be an outlier, engaging, ordained or commissioned, have managerial experience, preach Jesus all the time in every doctrine, be a strong liaison with the local church school, be willing to share the pulpit, be innovative, recognize the historical legacy of the church, have a firm understanding of Adventist doctrine, exhibit strong support for the Adventist health message, have a graduate degree, and be willing to challenge the community’s understanding of Scripture.
These are a lot of qualities! And let’s not forget the unspoken ones: He or she should be married, physically attractive, and well-dressed; should have a nice family; and should be someone any congregant might want to have a decaf cappuccino with. He or she must be adept at and willing to participate in any congregant’s favorite hobbies, from off-road jeeping to knitting. A good sense of humor is essential but not so good as to seem unholy or lacking in seriousness.
No one is going to be the perfect president or the perfect pastor. We will not—not a one of us—find the perfect mate or the perfect job or have the perfect children. But does acknowledging this also necessarily mean trashing whatever we do get? This isn’t what I would have chosen, but I guess I’ll have to live with it. In some cases, maybe this is the best attitude we can muster. But in others, our attitude toward the people around us might transform the way we see them. What do we have the right to expect from others? How can we value what they have to offer, even when it might not be precisely what we would have chosen?
Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.
By Becky De Oliveira—