Lessons for Ministry from the Marathon

On Saturday, April 30th Joni and I participated in the Derby Festival Marathon Weekend in Louisville, KY. Joni ran the Half-Marathon (13.1 miles) and I ran the Marathon (26.2 miles). It was my 6th marathon. After some reflection, I had some brief thoughts about ministry that I learned, or were reminded of, in this last marathon. Even in the pain of running this distance, I am thankful for all the many ways the marathon has taught me lessons for life and ministry. These aren’t all, but here are at least 6 of those lessons from my latest marathon that I can identify with having been in ministry 18 years:

  1. Your future self is telling your present self to slow down. It was around mile 2 that a man and woman running in front of me actually said this. Though this thought didn’t originate with me, WOW, it immediately hit me HARD. Apart of the pain (as well as an odd pleasure for runners) of running a marathon is that it is 26.2 miles. That is generally 3-5 hours of plodding along streets and through towns. The first several miles feel AMAZING! If you have been training through long mileage weeks, the beginning of the race comes real easy. In fact, deceivingly and dangerously easy. But it’s not the first 6 miles that is the test…it is will you have enough energy in the tank to finish the last 6? It takes incredible discipline to hold back and not expend all your energy up front. You will be deceived to think you can make great gains up front, to pass many people immediately, and believe you’re in better shape than you thought. But not so fast. Ministry is no different. Burn-out is a real thing and no one is exempt from it…no matter your age or season. Just thinking about this humbles me because I understand how frail I am and how I get so caught up in the moments of ministry that I go entirely too fast…too quick…and do too much. Ministry is a marathon and we must exercise caution. If our future self can give any of us advice I am sure it would be something like this: “Slow down. The final stretch of ministry is some of the most glorious you’ll experience in ministry. Don’t burn out before you get here. Stop thinking that burn out could never happen to you. Don’t be deceived. The feeling is indescribable in making the final turn of your ministry. Spread out your ministry. Do everything you can now to prepare for a long run, a faithful finish.” Your future self is telling your present self to slow down.

  2. It hurts. Marathon running is painful running. There is no way around it. You manage, you adjust, you run the mile you’re in–but the truth remains, it hurts. Some of these hurts come earlier than others, but they come. Ministry will hurt. There will be interpersonal communication issues. There will be doubts and questions. There will be requests you simply can’t live up to. You will be rejected, despised, and feel isolated. You must manage the pain, get some rest, and realize that with God’s help you’ll get through it. Most “hurts” in ministry are for a season, not forever. Pray. Immerse yourself in God’s word. Confess sin. Find a mentor. See a counselor. Force yourself into a community of other pastors/ministers. The hurts carry weight, but the glory of God is weightier. Remember…God called you and Christ will be your strength. Keep following Jesus: “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (NKJV)

  3. Partnership is crucial, even necessary. Around mile 17 I began running beside a gentleman name Fil. Fil is from Boston and is a disciplined runner. Even though I only ran with Fil about an hour, I’d consider him a friend! We struck up a great conversation and it came at a great time in the run. As you approach the final stretch and everything is hurting, a friend to run with is advantageous. We chatted about our running journey. I asked him about how he trained. I asked him what he did for a living. I was able to share the gospel and how Jesus changed my life. It didn’t take long for us to form this sort of accountability that would take us both to the finish. In some ways we coached one another. I was able to speed up a little at the end and wound up finishing ahead of Fil, but found him once he crossed and was able to give him a farewell and good job. Who are you partnering with in ministry? In the journey we need those other pastors that we can share ideas with, pray with, and hold each other accountable. We need to share ideas, preferences, and just chat. You may not agree on everything with everyone, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to run with in ministry. We are better together. It’s a long haul…find some partners in ministry. It is crucial, even necessary. Oh yeah, thanks Fil for helping me to the finish!!

  4. Give encouragement. One of the reasons I love running in the Louisville Derby Marathon is because of the encouragement given along the course. It’s a good one! The first half of the marathon there is probably more folks on the sidelines yelling, giving water, and shouting, “YOU CAN DO IT!” than the last half, but still…there is great encouragement. Even though the last half may have less of a crowd, runners give encouragement to one another. As you meet folks from the turnaround point, you are able to give and receive encouragement. Just a few words can make the difference. Encouragement in ministry from one another is so vital to making it to the end. Who can you tell “Good job!” or notice the difference someone is making in ministry and highlight it specifically by telling them what you notice? Encouragement in each mile and in each season of ministry makes a huge difference. Refresh someone today but lending some encouragement.

  5. You will run with your head and your heart, but there are seasons you must run with your heart alone. By heart, I’m referring to the passion and drive to finish what you have been called to. A part of training for the marathon is strategizing fueling options for the race, mapping out the water stations to make sure you stay hydrated, and studying the elevation so you can prepare appropriately over the course of the 26.2 miles. Some runners even run the race with time splits around their wrists so they can exercise great discipline along the way. You will run with head knowledge. However the time will come, and it is normally when the going gets tough, that you’ll have to run with your heart alone. Fueling options are squashed. Your timing is out the window. You missed a water station. You stopped at a medical station for help with a blister. I actually read this some time ago: The first 20 miles you run with the head, the last 6 miles you run with your heart. The only difference in ministry I believe is that this comes in seasons. You will strategize. You will course a 5 or 10 year ministry plan…but you discover that head knowledge will not cut that strategy and plan. It is then you will have to remember that God has called you, and He has not abandoned you. You will have to recall that your character and integrity is most important. You will have to preach the gospel to yourself because everything you planned for has become totally irrelevant because of issues. You are where you are for a purpose; fulfill it. When ministry doesn’t make since and/or the church you lead doesn’t fit a strategy you must lean forward remembering the lost need to be saved and the saved need to be discipled. Run the mile you’re in, one step at a time. Passion for Christ and his gospel will have to carry you forward! You can do it! You can finish! Strategize. Plan. But remember…passion may very well carry you across the finish line. And that is okay…to finish, is to finish.

  6. Seeing the finish line is emotional. I’ve run 6 marathons. All 6 finish lines I have crossed have been emotional. It is an absolute incredible feeling when you make that final turn and/or climb that final hill…and then you see it: the finish line. You know you’re just about done! The pain will be over! The “well done” and “good jobs” await from those who have finished and from your family and friends that are awaiting your arrival, cheering you home. Very few feelings compare to it. Imagine now the finish that is before you in the ministry that you are running. Some of us are closer to finishing than others. Some are making that final turn. Some are climbing that final hill. Some are midway, walking with the scars from the ministry. Some are feeling an onset of fatigue. Others are just beginning. Ultimately one glorious truth remains in tact: “Well done, good and faithful servant” will be words you’ll hear from Jesus that are like no other! None of us can fully fathom the experience it will be the moment we cross from this life into the next. But there is one thing for sure: Jesus is worth the ministry you are called into. At the finish it will not be who had the biggest church, or how many accolades you achieved, or how large your platform was. You will find that it is all about Jesus and for His glory! We fix our eyes on Christ, even now (Heb. 12:1-2). By the grace of God, may we each run faithfully to the end.

The final stretch, the finish line is in sights. Joni had finished her half-marathon and was standing on the side of street cheering me on as she snapped this pic in my final stretch.

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