If we take Luke 2:52 seriously, even Jesus improved as he matured. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in divine and human favor,” the verse reads. Knowing how to get better over time is a critical quality for leaders and the congregations they serve. But do we really know how to get better at something? Do we use an intentional process to build capacity in our institutions?

We may have many skills or habits we’re good at now, but we’ve been doing them so long that we may not think about the process of how we got better at them. That’s why it can be difficult to teach others once we become experts. (Ask any adult trying to teach an anxious child to ride a bike sans training wheels.)

When we start a new practice or a new hobby, we are tempted to just dive in and go for it. We think that if we just keep working at it, we will get better. How many times have we heard that “practice makes perfect”? The truth is that practicing the right skills the right way makes perfect. 

When gymnasts train, what we see at work is a process called “progressive mastery” or “deliberate practice.” The coach first teaches discrete, easy-to-master skills. Children in gymnastics classes learn to tumble. Next, they work on core strength and balance. They stretch and jump. Eventually, coaches help athletes put these skills together into a recognizable pattern that we call gymnastics.

The art of getting better involves taking a desired skill, leadership practice or even a congregational goal and breaking it down into progressively challenging habits and skills. Once you know what you want to do, discern what you need to master first and start improving from there.

If you want to preach without notes, don’t leap from using a full manuscript to paperless delivery. The frustration of forgetting what you want to say will make you give up the goal. Practice shaving off a page at a time. Continue to use a less- and less-detailed outline until you’re where you want to be.

Getting better is not just about persistence. Like a skilled gymnast, you have to improve incrementally by adding new challenges and learning goals along the way.


Anders Ericsson image.

Deliberate practice makes perfect

From Anders Ericsson

Before you go…

The apostle Paul may have had something like progressive mastery in mind when he wrote about himself in Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

It is quite likely that at this early stage of the year, you’re still planning how you want to be a better leader, congregation, spouse, friend, disciple or human being. As you press toward your big goals, establish smaller goals you can build upon. You’ll have a much better chance of success.

If you want to share what you’re doing to get better, email me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. Peace and blessings!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity