True Grit: Why Congregations Need to Know When to Quit (and When to Hang on)
By Derek Penwell
I used to say that when I was younger … more than I like to remember. Wrong coach. Wrong teacher. Wrong boss.
Of course, I’ve quit some things that were well worth quitting.
I quit the violin in fourth grade, because I could barely manage to make it sound like anything less than two love-starved Carpathian Marmots in the throes of passion.
I was a horrible boy scout, inasmuch as I thought sleeping outdoors in a cotton/poly-blend sack on the hard cold ground a fool thing to do. Moreover, I don’t even like properly heated Chef Boyardee, let alone the gelatinous squares glopped from between the jagged edges of a can opened with the little used implement on a $7 Swiss Army knife knock-off.
I worked at a Ziebart, rust-proofing the undersides of cars against the ravages of Michigan winters. I came home from that place looking like Rambo after a night spent in the rain-soaked climes of the Pacific Northwest with only a Ka-Bar knife and the song in my heart to keep me company.
I sold Icecapade tickets for disabled children as a telemarketer in the back of an old H&R Block building one summer, with a besotted Nick Nolte look-a-like threatening to give all the good leads “TO SOMEBODY WHO CAN ACTUALLY SELL WORTH A &%#@!”
I worked at a church one time that sucked my soul like an Electrolux plugged into a 220 V outlet during a power surge. I was a half inch shorter by the time I quit that one.
Some things I take pride in having quit.
But there are other things I would like to have stuck with.
I wish I hadn’t quit the guitar.
I wish I hadn’t let some of my languages slide.
I wish I hadn’t stopped writing that novel … or that other novel.
Knowing when to hang on and when to quit is, I suspect, something of an art, rather than a science. It has more to do with plot structure or composition than with empirical verifiability or equations.
Part of the problem stems from our inability to know which voices to listen to, and which to ignore.
Social media, which opens us up to a much more insistent set of opinions often only serves to complicate things. I have people who are simultaneously telling me to shut up, while others are telling me to talk louder. Some people apparently believe that I’m Satan’s advocate, while others tell me I’m doing the Lord’s work.
In my better moments I can find the necessary reserves to tune out those who would like nothing better than to see me quit the things I find most important to do. In many moments, though, those voices seem loudest, their warnings most dire.
How do we know when quitting is in everyone’s best interest, and when quitting is the sucker’s way out, that if we’d just hang on a bit longer, our initial instincts would be vindicated?
This is a difficult question, since a lot seems to ride on the ability to persevere through doubt and distraction. It turns out, though, that one of the greatest predictors of personal success isn’t brute intellectual force, but the ability to press on in the face of adversity and doubt. According to Angela Duckworth the highest predictor of success is self-control, not self-esteem. That is to say, students who excel are those who have what she calls “grit,” rather than those who are the smartest and who feel the best about themselves.
In a brief article for the American Psychological Association about Duckworth, E. Packard writes: “Backbone, chutzpah, fortitude, guts, stick-to-it-iveness: All words that describe what separates brilliant slackers from the simply talented who excel through a passionate yet steady approach.”
Having spent the better part of my adult life in post-secondary education I can attest to the insight: the people who do well in school (and, I would suggest, life) aren’t the brightest, but the most dogged—those capable of identifying the good among a host of competing voices, and pursuing it … even though the prevailing wisdom seems unanimous in its prediction of failure.
Clearly, there are some things worth quitting. The trick, though, is not only knowing what’s worth quitting, but why.
Congregations, it seems to me experience this sort of conundrum. Facing decline, anxious congregations capable of working up the necessary courage to try something new often lack the patience to see it succeed. Expecting that everything has to have—if not an immediate payoff, then—a payoff that shows results pretty dang quick.
“But we just started our cat shaving ministry last month!”
“Yes, but it seems to be going nowhere. We thought it would have a greater impact on the spiritual pilgrims in the cat shaving world. Alas …”
On the other hand, there are some things these congregations can’t quit, despite the fact that continuing to hang onto them is like clinging to the alligator as it does its death roll.
“We think that given a bit more time our lace doily making ministry is bound to catch on with the younger generation.”
“But we started it in 1946. We got our last new doily maker in 1972. We shouldn’t rush into any big decisions, but, you know, maybe it’s time to start thinking about going in a different direction.”
Some things are worth quitting.
But there are other things that congregations do on which they ought to take a longer range perspective—not least because ministry should be done for its own sake, because it’s the right thing to do.
Ministry, after all, isn’t about getting what we want, it’s about God getting what God wants.
Those who follow the crucified Jesus shouldn’t be surprised to find out that sticking with a losing proposition sometimes works out in the end.