When to Quit, and When to Persevere
“Winners never quit and quitters never win.”
Deep within the psyche of every American lurks an idea. A dangerous idea. It’s one that is reinforced in film and music, it’s hinted at in inspirational posters and videos shared on Facebook, and its opposite is held in such high esteem one can hardly imagine any honor in doing it.
So what is “it?”
In a land awash with stories of perseverance, quitting has become a dirty word of sorts, reserved either for the obviously lazy or morally repugnant. Especially in church and leadership circles.
Yet, like many of the ideas we have and never challenge, quitting is something we all do, and do well. Imagine if you refused to quit wearing diapers and eating baby food, or decided to never quit going to the 2nd grade. Awkward. Quitting, as we all know, is part of growing up. We just don’t want to believe it because we’ve been inundated with quotes like the one above from the famous football coach Vince Lombardi. Persevering, not giving up, is the true test of winners, of, dare we say it, good people. Which means that quitters are, well, NOT good people.
Seth Godin, author and marketing provocateur, challenges these assumptions with some very important and clarifying thoughts in his little book (only 89 pages) The Dip.  According to Godin, “Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time” (3). And while Godin’s book is primarily aimed at entrepreneurs and business leaders, the applications for church leaders and pastors are, well, interesting. I hesitate to say they are helpful. Some of this hesitation is because part of Godin’s purpose in writing The Dip is to encourage someone to “be the best in the world” (5) at what they do. Whether or not that is a helpful goal for a church or minister is beyond the scope of this article, but pursuing excellence is never a bad thing if motivated properly.
The key concept in the book, the dip, is a simple one, but, like many simple things, surprisingly profound. The idea is simply this: that starting something new, whether it be a new job, a new ministry, or a new leadership position is usually fun and exciting, even if there are challenges. But eventually, something happens that causes things to take a downward turn. Maybe its discord in the church, in the leadership, or in the business, but things begin to be more difficult. This is “the dip.” It’s where Godin posits that most people give up, especially when it comes to people trying things that are new or innovative. Whether it be introducing a new product, program, or idea, every successful person ever, according to Godin, has been through “the dip.” The key is, they didn’t give up. And because most people do give up here, those who fight through the dip receive the rewards from the market.
“But wait,” you say. “This is an article about quitting, right?” Indeed. To this end, Godin provides a second image, that of “the cul-de-sac” (19). Where the dip rewards perseverance, the cul-de-sac is indifferent to it. Where the dip at least seems to be going somewhere, though often sometimes slowly, the cul-de-sac yields the same scenery year after year after year. Now, in pastoral work, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Much of life, and especially Christian life, involves re-centering routines that take place in humble, repetitive ways over the course of decades.
However, there are times when that is exactly not what is happening. Sometimes church leaderships talk of movement, but plan on going nowhere. Sometimes there are situations that present themselves as dips, but are cul-de-sacs. And sometimes, when you thought you were in a dip, but now see that you are in a cul-de-sac, it’s time to … quit. Be it quitting a stance, a direction, a program, a theology, an idea, or a job … quit. And quit fast. Biblically speaking, repent, if that goes down easier.
Godin ultimately says that all things worth doing have a dip. And frankly, there might be some nobility in making sure all the passengers in the car are taken care of as the car circles the cul-de-sac again and again, but it’s probably not the reason most ministers get into ministry or leaders sign up to lead.
There’s a third situation though, according to Godin. It’s called, quite ominously, “the cliff.” In this situation, moderate and slight success keep things at a steady pace until one day, you fall off a cliff. Think Blockbuster.
So which of these is the American church? Hard to say. Has attendance or discipleship fallen off a cliff? It’s possible. Are some ministers, leaders, and churches pushing through a dip by making innovations that will bring about real and tangible success and change? Maybe.
But to be honest, what concerns me most is that idea of the cul-de-sac. Year after year, the same conversations over and over and over and over. “Let’s have a study on that!” Study. No change. Rinse. Repeat. If some ministers or leaders have a crazy look in their eyes, it may be because they are trapped in a church or leadership cul-de-sac. A theological Groundhog Day, and Bill Murray isn’t even there to provide some much-needed laughs.
If you found yourself in this type of job, Godin would tell you to quit. At least that’s what this book would say. It’s not that simple, of course, when it comes to pastoral work, but it might be important to hear him out. People and organizations can choose to leave the cul-de-sac and head toward the dip. Many churches are doing so in the face of a 21st century that will not be kind to cul-de-sac thinking or leadership. Some, however, will choose to continue to wander in the wilderness, circling ideas but never implementing them, because they see the pain of “the dip” (losing members, money, etc.) and choose the comfort of the cul-de-sac. Quitting the dip, Godin says, if you’ve managed to get into one, is always a short-sighted decision, and one that leaves a trail of regrets. The key is to find a dip that is worth fighting through, one you’re passionate about, and one that you couldn’t imagine walking away from.
So when to quit? When you thought you joined a group or a church in a dip that turned out to be a cul-de-sac? Is it possible that the leadership pains you’re experiencing are the result of being in a dip, or are those the pains of sitting in the car too long as you circle the neighborhood seeing the same familiar sights?
The scary fact is that no amount of courage or talent can change a cul-de-sac into a dip. And yes, maybe God can, but God also knew when to “shake the dust off his feet” (Matt 10:14) and move on. God, to no one’s surprise, is more humble than most of us when it comes to saving people, or even churches.
All this of course is organizational theory. But what about you? Godin recommends a simple solution. Decide ahead of time when you’ll quit and stick to it (72). Set your limits, imagine scenarios, clarify your values that you refuse to compromise. That way, when the day comes, you’ll know your choice isn’t based in emotion or hurt, but your choice, the choice to walk away at the right time.
There’s no doubt there are many ministers who want to quit and should stay. But there are also a few that need to quit. For themselves, for their families, for their very souls.
So quit or persevere. But get on with it one way or the other. You’re too important.
See you in the dip, quitter.