Choosing to Quit

I was raised to never give up. An image was displayed on my family’s refrigerator door that I still remember. A heron is being choked by a mostly-swallowed frog who is gripping its predator’s neck in a desperate act of survival. The caption? Never give up.

We love inspiring images like this. Every story worth telling involves a degree of adversity and the best stories tell us how a hero overcomes extreme odds to achieve something extraordinary. Terry Fox. Captain Sully. Frodo Baggins. The Hickory Hoosiers. 

We feel inspired by these stories and the slogans that fuel them. An entire brand was launched on the premise of these axioms (No Fear). The most beloved team of my childhood was defined by a three-word rallying cry that still gives me goosebumps: REFUSE TO LOSE!*

Vince Lombardi once said that winners never quit and quitters never win. An inspiring quote fit for any locker room, but in most other settings it’s a statement that is misleading and downright inaccurate. You see, the best winners know exactly when to quit.

Quitting to Win

To be fair, we must understand how to correctly define winning and losing. The best coaches and players understand the importance of making adjustments. This is the positive way of saying they recognize what isn’t working and choose to change their approach. Stated differently, they choose to quit so they can win.

But what coach would actually say that? Quitting is associated with such negativity that it’s typically equated to the willful acceptance of failure—a behaviour quickly associated with shame and embarrassment. Little consideration is given to the positive results of surrendering harmful practices or to the healthy consequences of giving something up after careful examination.

In his book called Necessary Endings, Dr. Henry Cloud uses the word ending to describe the calculated decision to give something up for the sake of a new direction. He uses a pruning metaphor to illustrate the positive effects of proactive termination. A skilled gardener intentionally removes branches that fall into any of three categories because this will produce the desired results: 

  1. Healthy buds or branches that are not the best ones 
  2. Sick branches that are not going to get well
  3. Dead branches that are taking up space needed for the healthy ones to survive

Cloud’s point is that pruning is hurtful, but it doesn’t need to be harmful. When necessary endings are handled with intentionally and grace, they can propel us to achieve our desired objectives much more often than if we had avoided them altogether. Pruning eliminates the unnecessary for the sake of future growth.

Choosing to ignore a potential ending increases the chance of multiplying the damage. It may be the path of least resistance, but it is a foolish path. On the other hand, it takes foresight and courage to evaluate something and elect to pivot in a new direction. In Cloud’s words, “pruning is strategic. It is directional and forward-looking.”  

Even though pruning is strategic, it’s usually met with opposition when applied to ministry settings. Some people feel the need to guard ministry programs and staff from any form of reduction. At times, this safe-guarding is valued above all else. But this priority can sometimes clash with the critical purpose of the church: to make disciples. If a component of your ministry is not propelling you to make disciples, it demands further attention.

What then is the criteria for pruning a ministry program or initiative within your church? Based on my reading of Cloud’s book, I suggest three steps: 

Identify the purpose that you’re pruning toward

Pruning will not be successful unless you have a picture of what you’re pruning toward. This vision will guide you as you consider how each ministry area fits into the bigger picture. This will help you determine where each branch is positioned and how it contributes toward your preferred future. If you don’t know what you’re pruning toward, you run the risk of eliminating a crucial branch or overlooking a sick one. 

Pruning toward a specific outcome is similar to the idea of creating a mission statement. This might feel like a daunting task to some ministry areas, but you can actually develop a mission statement quite easily. In fact, Dr. Randy Wollf has developed a process for creating your mission statement in less than an hour

Develop a ministry-effectiveness assessment

Once you can visualize the bigger picture, you can move to individual ministries to determine if they are healthy and productive. While the mission of your church should be clear, each ministry of your church may not be. For example, what is the mission of a church’s media team? And how does this team contribute toward making disciples? What about the nursery? The objectives of every ministry component should impact the fulfillment of a church’s mission.

Here are some questions worth asking as you assess a ministry area: 

  • If this ministry disappeared, what would the church and community miss?
  • How do you see God working through this ministry?
  • What are the strengths of this ministry?
  • What are the challenges that this ministry currently faces?
  • What does this ministry do well that no other part of the church is focused on?
  • How does this ministry contribute to your church’s mission?
  • What are the costs of operating this ministry?
  • What opportunities do you see this ministry capitalizing on in the future?
  • How does this ministry need to grow in its effectiveness?
  • What do the leaders of our church think this ministry is accomplishing?

Once you’ve chosen your assessment tool (which might be as simple as a list of some of the questions above), make sure to use it for each ministry area and for several years. This consistency will encourage leaders to focus on the most important things because they will anticipate a future assessment based on the same criteria.

Build trust 

Transparent communication is vital because anxiety will increase when the pruning shears appear. Develop an assessment schedule with clearly articulated phases so that leaders know what to expect and when to expect it.

You can build confidence in the pruning process by explaining how this will strengthen your church. Remember to emphasize that the process is a proactive means toward greater effectiveness, not an elimination plan motivated by a hidden agenda. And when mistakes are made, remember to actively rebuild trust by listening well and taking ownership for your faults (this resource on how church leaders can build greater trust might be helpful). 

As ministries are evaluated, pruned, and redirected, share stories so that others will see the benefits. This will create a healthy culture of assessment and pruning that will help your church grow in ways it never considered before. 

[Keith Reed is the Director of Special Projects for MB Seminary.

* “Refuse to Lose” was the mantra of the 1995 Seattle Mariners. Click here to read about their improbable season.  
Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

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