by Patti Duckworth
Associate Executive Minister, ABC/NW

A few weeks ago, a program on our local PBS station caught my attention. The presentation was a recording of a TED Talks* about education, which has always been important to me. One person presenting that evening especially caught my attention when she was introduced: Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth. (No kidding, and she's not related!) More than her name, her topic was even more intriguing. After briefly describing her career and how she came to research this concept, she said that after studying West Point cadets, national spelling bee contestants, new teachers in difficult schools, and private business sales companies, she could show that success was not determined by good looks, social intelligence, physical health or even IQ. Success is a matter of grit.  And this is how she has defined grit:

"Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years; and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint." 

6 minute presentation

There is also a longer 15 minute presentation in which some other good details are given: http://youtu.be/K-_j70GKxPU. Another 18 minute presentation is at http://youtu.be/qaeFnxSfSC4.)  

Though focused on education and though not necessarily taking Christian faith into account, I found her idea and research to be encouraging, and very applicable to what we are called to be about as pastors and congregations. In it, there are seeds for helping a person learn or develop grit.

Grit is Biblical

While Angela Duckworth's idea is encouraging and applicable to leadership for and in congregations, I also realized that her idea is not a new one, at least from the point of view of Christian faith. Christians have long held a basic value for grit. Scripture refers to it as "endurance," "perseverance," or "not losing heart," and there are a significant number of passages which talk about it.  A few of them are these:

  • Luke 9:50-52 tells us that Jesus resolutely determined that he would go to Jerusalem where he knew the cross and death were waiting for him. One translation says the he "set his face like flint" to go to Jerusalem.
  • Hebrews 12:2 speaks of Jesus' perseverance and endurance in the positive: "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right of the throne of God."
  • Romans 5: 1-5 describes how perseverance comes through suffering and produces character which leads to a hope that does not disappoint because God's love has been poured into us through the Holy Spirit.
  • I Cor. 9:24 talks about grit or perseverance in terms of excellence by putting it in the context of winning the race, not just completing it. "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win." In Angela Duckworth's words, living life like it is marathon and not a sprint.
  • 2 Cor. 4:1 asks the reader to consider and follow Paul's example: “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart..." At the end of the chapter, Paul again speaks of this grit, this perseverance as not losing heart in the face of difficulties and trials: "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day" (v. 16).
  • Gal. 6:9 moves the discussion of grit from Paul to his readers directly: "Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary."
  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 gives us Peter's similar understanding that grit or perseverance is to be valued and pursued in the Christian life: "Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."

In addition we could look at Luke 18:1,15; Hebrews 12:3; Romans has a lot to say about it (2:7; 8:25; 15:5), not to mention Eph. 6:18 and I Timothy 6:11.  And still there are others I could list.

Grit is a Result of Having a Goal or a Mission

One of the stories Angela Duckworth tells is about visiting with someone who realized he did not have "grit" but recognized he wanted and needed it to succeed. After some discussion, it became clear that while he was good at several things, had a high IQ and a good education, it seemed that there was nothing he REALLY wanted to do—no goal he had any passion about. Further discussion revealed, however, that the things he had a passion for were things that he seemed to do fairly easily, that he liked. But he thought those could not be goals because they were easy. Somehow he, and I think many of us, have missed the point. What we are after is probably fairly straight-forward. That is not the place that takes the work, the stamina, the day in and day out focus. The work comes in making the goal, the mission, the "one day we will see _____ become a reality."

Again, Scripture has already pointed this out as a primary value. The mission of a congregation is to carry out Christ's mission: to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10); to be Christ's witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8); to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19).

If we don't have personal goals and if our congregations don't have goals, then there is no reason to be "gritty," nothing that grips our passion so we persevere to see it become reality. In effect, we become people tossed around by life's circumstances and nothing really is accomplished (Eph 4:14 and James 1:6).

Having said that, I wonder if we might not suffer from the lack of a mission or primary goal as much as we suffer from too many competing ones. In every person's life, there are distractions; in every congregation's life, it seems like there are MANY things we should be doing. It takes perseverance or grit to figure out the priorities. The book Life 101 had a simple premise in it: you can do anything you want, but can't do everything you want. You have to decide what is the most important. Soren Kierkegaard said that to be pure of heart is to will one thing.

So it seems the first order of business for us as individuals and congregations is we name what we are focused on, what will claim all our passion and energy, that thing about which we can say, "I'm all in on this."

Can you name for yourself that goal or mission or purpose?  Does the congregation or even small group you are a part of have a clear understanding of its purpose? 

In part 2, I want to offer some reflections on where "grit" or perseverance comes from, that is how a Christian develops it (or fails to do so) and its role in leadership in the church, and what distinguishes it from stubbornness.