Leadership Scholars / young Baptists

A Liturgy of Finishing

By Chris West

A few years ago, I found myself at a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah surrounded by interesting folks from all around the world. It was a blast!  Then, something really incredible happened: I met Jon Acuff.

Chris West

For those of you that aren’t familiar with Jon Acuff, you may know his blog Stuff Chrisitans Like. He is also the author of many popular books: Start, Quitter, Do Over, and, my personal favorite, Finish. He is also the creator of the popular Thirty Day Hustle and has used his online influence to build two kindergartens in Vietnam. With that said, in spite of how cool he is, you’re not reading this blog to learn more about a notable public speaker and author, and it is not why I am writing this post.

In Utah, Jon Acuff told his story of wrestling with not finishing and that he shares in more detail in his book Finish. His story taught me something: I am not a failure, I just don’t finish.

I’m writing this because Jon changed my life.

I was totally burnt out. Just a few months earlier, I left my job as youth minister and dropped out of an M.Div. program. In spite of the fact I desperately needed a community and friends to support my time of transition, I refused to get involved in another church. This conference was an escape hatch- I was running away from my problems. Every day, I was waking up and feeling like an Isrealite in Babylon. I was out of place and longing to get back to a place of comfort, solace, and belonging. For me, this was a season of lament and reflection.

In my first ministry job, I had been crushed by the weight of expectation. As a youth pastor, I was young, idealistic, and far overestimated the amount of change I could affect in a short time. Reading Kate Bowler’s book Blessed helped show me how influenced by the prosperity gospel and American Christianity I have been.[1] In my mind, being faithful to God meant that you would find success, blessing, and prosperity. For someone with a degree in religion, I am ashamed to admit that, even now, years later that I still carried such awful, harmful preconceptions with me. I was always eager to begin new projects. I would imagined them having the power to radically change the community but, as always, they would flop and I would give up before it was finished. With time, I grew more frustrated and hopeless. I was being faithful to God, but when was I going to see the fruits of my labor?

Many of us operate under these same false assumptions. We want to see success but we underestimate the amount of work, time, and commitment that it often takes to make real, lasting, transformative change. Few places is this more true than in the church.

Hopefully, Jon Acuff can help you as he did me. In his book Finish, Acuff describes his own legacy of half finished projects and ideas. Describing his own experience with not finishing, Acuff writes,

“I’ve only completed 10 percent of the books I own. It took me three years to finish six days of the P90X home exercise program. When I was twenty-three I made it to blue belt in Karate, approximately seventy-six belts below finishing the goal of black belt. I have thirty-two half-started Moleskin notebooks in my office and nineteen tubes of nearly finished chapstick in my bathroom. A financial advisor would probably go bananas over the hydrated lips category of my personal budget.”

As funny as it is to say, hearing this successful, well-known public figure on stage admitting that he, like me, also left things undone made me feel less lonely. Perhaps, just maybe, I wasn’t a total failure and could find some way to redeem myself. I listened intently to his talk and bought a copy of his book, which I almost finished on the flight home. Something wonderful, and tragic, occurred to me while reading his book, I am not alone in this struggle.

I wanted to share four takeaways (of many) from this book that changed my life and, in a strange series of events, led me back to my call to pursue ministry. In changing my habit and helping me understand how to finish, Acuff also taught me how to restart and put my life back on track. Sometimes God speaks through giant, smelly, grey fish and, other times, through small glossy blue books that smell like fresh ink.

Here are the takeaways from Finish:

  1. 92 percent of people fail at their goals because they are too optimistic. Scientists (most notably Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman) call this the Planning Fallacy. Essentially, when we make plans, we underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes to complete the task. So how do you solve this? Cut that goal in half. Acuff explains in his book that the “shoot for the moon and land in the stars mentality” isn’t how reality works. In fact, shooting too high leaves you feeling burnt out, disappointed, and resentful. In a study done by Acuff, those that cut their goals in half improved by over 63 percent of previous attempts to meet their goals.
  • Choose what to bomb at. This is really tough for those of us in ministry because everything can feel like a life or death situation. Rather than putting all that pressure on yourself, sometimes you have to choose what to fail at so you can succeed at what matters. It is a matter of priority. What things do you find most meaningful and important about your role in the church? What do you prioritize every week? What are you willing to bomb at… and who can you ask for help?
  • Make your goals fun (and attainable)! There is a value in doing difficult things- building mental resilience and toughness for instance.[2] However, if you have a goal you want to achieve, making it fun means you’re more likely to finish. “Fun is the mortal enemy of perfectionism”[3]  What are you working toward right now and do you enjoy it?
  • Avoiding your Hiding Places and Nobel Obstacles. A hiding place is anything you can focus on besides your goal. Instead of offering yourself fun new projects, reward yourself for finishing the tasks at hand and…. make them fun! On the other hand, a noble obstacle is a “good” reason not to finish your goals. In the church, it is easy to revert back to “the way we have always done it”. It is also easy to find nobel sounding reasons to give up. There is sometimes a fear that performing too well will make you seem inauthentic (ironic right) or that trying too hard will come off as detrimental to their ministry. How do church leaders handle this? By not trying or jumping to a hundred small tasks rather than finishing the task at hand. There are always a thousand small things that need done at the church or in a nonprofit setting but making goals, establishing plans, and sticking to them means the difference between starting something new… and finishing your goal!

Finish is full of more wisdom like this that might help give you the motivation to start writing that book you’ve always wanted to write. Perhaps it gives you the encouragement to start training for that marathon. Most certainly, it will help you finish whatever you decide to do.

I pray that in this difficult time, in a world desperate for reconciliation and good news, that we not only make goals but finish them. I hope that your church and community benefits from this book as I have. The hardest part about changing the world is not getting people on board to start, we  need courageous voices for justice to follow through.

[1] Kate Bowler. Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

[2] Amy Morin. 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. New York: HarperCollins. 2014.

[3] Jon Acuff. Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. New York: Penguin Random House. 2017.

Chris is a first-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity where he is a CBF Leadership Scholar and part of the Baptist House of Studies. Chris is currently serving as an Oral History Specialist at CBF as part of the Student.Go program to further explore his interest in American religious history. Additionally, Chris works at the Center for Reconciliation at Duke and is pursuing certificates through the Theology, Medicine, and Culture program and Office of Black Church Studies.

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