If At First You Don’t Succeed—Just Quit


It was a privilege to travel to one of our southern states to give a presentation on the Holy Father’s call to accompaniment this spring. The point of the seminar was to provide practical strategies that Church leadership could use to reach out and accompany alienated Catholics who in many cases have left the faith.  The goal was to highlight the power of personal relationships in bringing them back.

The message seemed to resonate with nearly everyone in the room—save three men who sat in the back of the room. It was apparent that these gentlemen doubted most everything I said.

At the end of the seminar, the group came up to chat.

Even though they walked calmly towards me I could sense their opposition to the points I had made. The spokesperson for the group, thanked me for my unusually optimistic outlook on the call to accompaniment. He (and his friends) had already tried to “be with” young adults and families and it didn’t work. He (and his buds) were convinced that the Church was going to get much, much smaller because individuals born during the Gen X, Gen Y or Millennial periods were a lost cause. They are highly secularized and unwilling to see value in organized religion.

There was no reason to doubt the viewpoint these men shared. After all, research does show that about half of all U.S. adults who were raised Catholic do leave the Church either temporarily or permanently.  I am sure that they had tried to engage fallen away Catholics using every trick they could think of.

I wanted to know more about their experiences even though their efforts failed. What did they try? How did they try? I asked questions to find out more.

A common theme appeared as they told their stories

As they shared the details of their failed attempts, a common theme appeared. Each of their stories reveals a pattern of “give it everything you’ve got on the first try and if it doesn’t work, stop trying.”

I made personal phone calls to a number of families but they didn’t want to talk. No sense bothering them again.

I sent a letter to all of the young adults in the parish inviting them to an event, but they didn’t come. 

I asked a number of men in our parish to start a Bible study, but they didn’t seem interested so I dropped the idea.

I invited the newly married to attend a video series at the parish, but most of them were busy. Guess they don’t want to enrich their marriages.

Their list of failed single attempts went on and on. Their efforts didn’t bear fruit and so they were done.

Can you understand their frustration? I certainly can. Few things discourage me more than to put everything I’ve got into a project only to have it flop. Like these gentlemen, I know the how upsetting it is to get nothing in return. And, up until a couple of years ago, I would have held the same philosophy; if it doesn’t work—one and done. Thankfully, my approach has changed after learning the value of perseverance.

Ever put everything you have into a project and then watched it flop? I have. What's the next step?Click To Tweet

I had a perseverance 180

My thinking changed after listening to a number of podcasts from Bishop Robert Barron. In one of his talks he references Luke 19:10 which says, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” As Bishop unpacked the verse, he made the point that Jesus never stops pursuing us. He tries again and again. If he doesn’t succeed on the first try, he comes at us one more. He is relentless in his pursuit.

Ponder this; Jesus didn’t tell one parable and move on. He told many. He didn’t cure one person and call it quits. He healed many. Jesus walked among the people day after day, hour after hour, showing them how to live in the fullness of grace. Even in the face of rejection, he kept going.

Perseverance is an essential virtue for marriage ministers if we want to make good on our promise to draw people into the Church and experience her amazing teachings. It will prepare us to move into the secular marketplace and share Catholicism. It will keep us from folding when an approach fails. Here are a few ideas on honing your ability to try again.

1. Review—Think about what you did and what you really wanted to do. Was there a difference between the the two? Pinpoint the gap between what you did and what you wanted to do. Then…

2. Mea Culpa—Forgive yourself for not succeeding on the first try. Don’t succumb to the voice in your head saying, “I knew this wouldn’t work.” Rather, calm down, ask for some divine assistance so that you can…

3. Retool—Consider what you need to do differently on the next attempt. Do you need to soften your approach? Do you need to be more direct? Do you need to ask better questions? Should you become a better listener? These considerations will allow you to…

4. Redo—Think about how you will try again. Visualize yourself connecting with the individual or group in a way that forms a relationship. Then, make it happen.

Jesus never stops pursuing us. He tries again and again. He is relentless in his pursuit. #KeepGoingClick To Tweet





  1. Tobias-1103924 April 22, 2017 Reply

    This is one of those things where I reveal the fact that I’m a contrarian. We are not called to persevere in fruitless efforts. There are passages of the Gospel where Our Lord says, “If people reject you move on.” You’re called to persevere — in *some* effort, not in a failed effort. There are times where Our Lord says, “I can’t do anything with these specific people. I’m not wasting more time here.”

    For example, Matt. 10:12-15:

    “12And when you come into the house, salute it, saying: Peace be to this house. 13And if that house be worthy, your peace shall come upon it; but if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you. 14And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet. 15Amen I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.”

    Again, Our Lord says not to waste our time on some people (Matt. 7:6): “6Give not that which is holy to dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest perhaps they trample them under their feet, and turning upon you, they tear you.”

    To return to the specific examples that the men cited, what is the author recommending? Every week, call those same families? Every month, schedule yet another event and send yet another letter to all of the same people who declined last time? Schedule yet more movies?

    “Their list of failed single attempts went on and on. Their efforts didn’t bear fruit and so they were done.”

    It could be that the men in question followed the advice at the end of the article — to review, retool, and redo. But one very precise part of reviewing, retooling, and redoing is *not to persevere* in fruitless efforts. Our Lord did not promise that our efforts would bear fruit on earth, and he didn’t tell us to waste too much time on any one person or any one project. His literal advice, which I quoted above, was, “If they reject you, move on.” That is a form of perseverance, but it’s difference from the impression given in the article, and in Bishop Barron’s quote, which seem to mandate lavishing endless failed attempts on any one person, set of people, or particular project. Perseverance in the ministry as a whole requires that we not persevere in failure. Sometimes, that means, when something fails, and we don’t see a good prospect of a second attempt succeeding, we chalk it up as one and done. This might happen a number of times, and for a person who perseveres, there’s a good chance it will until they strike up on something that works.

    • Tobias-1103924 April 22, 2017 Reply

      I would also add, as a response to Bishop Barron’s quotation, that there is a point at which Our Lord relents in pursuing us. Each of us will die one day, and when we die, there will be no more chances to repent. For some people, it seems that God lavished opportunities of grace on them early in life but, after so many rejections, these graces don’t flow so abundantly. There is a number of sins past which God no longer pardons.

      It is a mystery to each of us where this line is drawn. As long as it is possible for us to hope, we must hope, and encourage others to hope. But there are some people who, in their own free will, have rejected grace so definitively that it may be that they just have filled up their limit and they’re on a set path. We shouldn’t speculate or judge, but we should fear, and not presume on God’s “relentless” offers of grace. There is a limit on grace, after which comes judgment.

      Here’s what St. Alphonsus Liguori, a Doctor of the Church, says on this subject:

    • Darin-1415639 April 27, 2017 Reply

      Does shaking the dust from our feet mean to give up? Could it mean instead to refuse to adopt the bad ways in which we have been treated?
      When someone strikes us, do we move on? Turning the other cheek to me means that while we don’t adopt the sin, we can continue to attempt to do good rather than moving on right away.
      Christ didn’t move on, away from Pharisees and tax collectors, and spend efforts only on more promising people. If someone is not sick then the person does not need a doctor. Offering them spiritual help in spite of obstacles is justified.
      Did he end the parable about the widow and the judge by saying that while she succeeded, she should’ve moved on after he didn’t deal with her justly the first time? Really?

  2. Renee-1099332 April 22, 2017 Reply

    When attempting to help others to conversion I think the most important thing is the relationship you have with the other person. I had some profound experiences of this over the years.

    Many years ago, I was put in charge of organizing the parish pictorial directory. When it came time for parishioners to look at their pictures with the intent to buy, I had a very interesting experience with one woman. She came to the appointment, deliberately without her checkbook, because she was determined not to buy anything. We had time before the salesman was free to see her so I offered to let her look at her family’s pictures. As we looked at them and discussed how very cute her children looked, her resolve melted and she went home for her checkbook. She then had her appointment with the salesman. She left the appointment angry–and without buying any pictures. It was a powerful example to me of the difference between having a relationship with someone and personally caring for them and just having a professional, trained, but impersonal approach.

    Another example was when my husband and I were helping to prepare couples for marriage. There was a tremendous difference between the effect on the couples whom we had to present all the teaching in one weekend and those we worked with over several weeks. Those we worked with over several weeks began to perceive us as friends because we shared meals and lots of time with them. We ceased being “salesmen” selling a product and became people with whom they had a relationship. The relationship is key–and it should have value whether or not one makes the sale.

  3. Stephanie-1368834 April 22, 2017 Reply

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Obstacles will always come our way, especially when we’re pursuing something holy; Jesus is the ultimate example of that. We should all continue to persevere in drawing people into deepening their faith. In this day and age, it’s truly easy to give up when we face one challenge after another; I plead guilty as charged. I’ve realized that I need to make God a priority and that He’ll grant me the necessary strength to reach out to others who will help me enrich my life, fortify my faith and help each other gain Heaven.

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