"The Dip" & Parish Ministry


If you're ever in Baltimore, do yourself the favor of visiting The Book Thing, a 100% completely free bookstore.  It's like treasure hunting.  Actually, it is treasure hunting. This weekend, I was thrilled to discover Seth Godin's The Dip which was already on my Amazon shortlist.  I wanted to share how his insights challenged my thinking about evangelization and parish life.  For those who haven't read it, I'll provide a quick summary and then move on to discuss its implications for evangelization.

The Dip

Godin is basically arguing two things.  The first is that it really pays to be the best.  Whoever is top dog really does enjoy a tremendous advantage over the rest of the pack, whether you're talking ice cream flavors or a weekend at the movies.  So if you're in the game at all, why not aim to be the best in the world?  But for Godin, "best in the world" is more attainable than you would think because it is defined by the consumer.  "Best as in: best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know.  And in the world as in: their world, the world they have access to" (p.10).  In other words, when I'm choosing a car mechanic, I don't need the best mechanic in the world, but I do want the best mechanic in my world, which is everything within a good drivable distance from my house.  I recently met someone who told me she drives 45 minutes to her old hairdresser.  In this case, being the best hairdresser caused a customer to expand her definition of "drivable distance" and make her world a little bigger.  Being the best paid off.

The second point is that becoming the best in the world is the result of the right combination of perseverance and quitting.  "The Dip" is the point where things get tough, where most people give up, and where those who push through the Dip are greatly rewarded.  But equally important are the decisions to quit.  If you recognize that you can't be the best in the world at something, then choosing to quit becomes a strategy for succeeding, for "quitting frees you up to excel at something else" (p.64).  So the key to success is: Quit the wrong stuff.  Stick with the right stuff.  Have the guts to do one or the other (p.4).

What if we applied it to our churches?

Godin isn't writing for churches, and some of what he says seems to fly in the face of the Church's mission.  But for the sake of this post, I plan on setting aside most of the possible critiques and simply asking, "What would it look like to apply these insights in our churches?"

(1)  Being the best in the world. 

We in the Church have long defined our mission as "being all things to all people" (1 Corinthians 9:22), yet who in Church ministry has not felt the weight of trying to live up to this standard?  What if we began to look at this less as a personal mission of each member of the Church and more as a corporate mission of the Body?  Any one of us, in trying to be everything to everyone, can only ever be mediocre in all things - we will never reach excellence.  Can we define a smaller "world" for our ministry?  Is there some "world" in which we can truly be the "best in the world?"  This seems to make more and more sense, at least in urban areas.  We live in a very mobile culture where people are willing to drive an extra 10 or 15 minutes down to the next parish.  Within a particular geographic area, why couldn't one parish focus on having the best young adult ministry in "the world" while another focuses on having the best parent ministry?

In light of Godin's insights, I think some of the success that Tridentine parishes boast can be attributed to their willingness simply to be the best at something.  Without a doubt, they offer "the best" liturgies in the world (the world of those seeking beautiful, orthodox, reverent and transcendent liturgies) and as a result many people are willing to drive many miles to attend.  Likewise, a particularly inspiring preacher will attract the "world" of eager listeners even if the music at that parish is atrocious.  We may not be happy with this reality.  We may complain that people shouldn't be church-shopping, that they ought to be able to attend Mass at their assigned parish and get just as much out of it because it's the same Sacrifice being offered everywhere.  But complaining doesn't change the reality that this is how the market works.  And after all, we are also in competition with the marketplace.

(2)  Quit the wrong stuff + Stick with the right stuff = Become the best in the world.

I think it's safe to say that most of us in ministry are doing fine in the gutting things out department.  Which means that the missing part of this equation is quitting the wrong stuff.  That's the really hard part.  A parish is, after all, responsible for the spiritual welfare of every parishioner.  Still, I'd like to set aside the difficulties and simply ask, "What if?"  When we imagine the "ideal parish," we think of a parish with a parochial school, Knights of Columbus, ministry to the sick and dying, service to the poor, a youth ministry program, social events, adult education classes, choirs, sports programs, etc.  Here, Godin makes the point that quitting isn't the same as failing.  In fact, quitting can be the critical decision needed in order to avoid failing.  That's why we need laser-focus on the ultimate goal: making disciples.  Having such-and-such program is pointless if it's not successfully moving us toward that goal.  Once we recognize that, we have to ask, "Can we fix it?"  If yes, fix it.  If not, why waste resources on it?

We can be mediocre in our attempts to do it all, or we can be the best at appealing to a smaller demographic.  This doesn't have to be a permanent thing because success in one area breeds confidence in another.   Why not be the best in one area, then take that knowledge and experience to expand ourselves to be the best in another?

I think it would be worth giving ourselves the room to daydream for just a moment: What if we gave ourselves permission to really be the best in the world at something?  What could you or your parish become the best in the world at if you gave yourself permission to do so?