My sister finished the Austin Half-Marathon a couple of weeks ago, and I congratulate her for a job well done. She and I have completed several full marathons together over the years – Chicago, San Francisco, Marine Corps, Disney, and Houston among them. I’ve run a few on my own, and she’s run a few when I wasn’t present, but it’s been awhile since either of us has attempted one, and her completion of the half-marathon raises the hope of our returning.
Training to run 26.2 miles teaches many lessons that apply to other areas of life and ministry.
For instance, I learned while running marathons that how you run the first six miles determines whether you will run the last six miles. If you go out too fast early on, there is nothing left to pull you across the finish line. If you don’t slow down and pace yourself in the early stages, then you hit the wall, completely depleted of energy, strength, stamina, and spirit. A learning for ministry? Adopt a pace that is sustainable, effective and regenerating early in ministry and church leadership if you want to avoid burnout, cynicism, and breakdown.
Another related learning: During a marathon, if you wait until you feel thirsty to take a drink, you’ve waited too long. The greatest threat to long distance runners is dehydration, and the physical breakdown, mental confusion and deterioration that results. That’s why marathoners grab those cups of water as they run along. But they have to stay ahead of their personal need. If they wait until they feel thirsty to drink, the water they grab will take 20-30 minutes to do any good and by that time they may have collapsed. In ministry, this reminds us of the need to keep replenishing the spirit, feeding the soul, growing in our own spiritual life before we reach a crisis point. By the time we feel the personal need for more time with God or others, or sense the deep absence of God or calling, it may be too late to correct course. We have to take nourishment before need dominates.
While training, I also learned that to increase my speed and performance, I needed to raise my eyes and focus further down the road. An experienced runner taught me this. Slow runners focus on the steps immediately in front of them. Those who run faster have to focus further down the path, or they won’t notice obstacles or hazards until it’s too late. They need a wider and deeper field of vision and focus. Interestingly, a slow runner can increase speed and effectiveness by raising the eyes, and looking ahead. This reminds me of how churches and pastors and lay leadership work. In vibrant, fruitful congregations, the leaders are always looking ahead, far down the path. They don’t become enmeshed only in the immediate happenings and challenges, the maintenance and minutia right in front of them; they stay focused on the mission, on long-term directions, on larger trends. They have a wider and deeper field of vision than just their own current challenges.
A few months ago I was dining with other bishops, none of whom had run a marathon besides me. We were commenting on the news from the Chicago Marathon, and I mentioned that the Chicago marathon is one of the fastest marathons in the U.S. Another bishop asked what I meant by that and I described how there are fast marathons and slow marathons, and Chicago plans theirs to be fast. The winners, the average finishing times of the runners, the personal times of the participants are all faster for the Chicago Marathon than for the Marine Corps Marathon or the San Francisco Marathon, etc. Everyone looked puzzled. They knew how individual runners might train to run faster personally, but how do marathon planners speed up a marathon?
If marathon planners want a faster time for their 15,000 to 25,000 participants, they have to plan for it. They set dates that optimize the chances for ideal weather. They recruit outstanding runners to compete with the promise of great rewards. They create a course that is level, straight, and wide and with a minimum number of rises and falls, twists and turns, bottlenecks and obstacles. They inspire huge crowds to show up to cheer runners on. They provide excellent and frequent and efficient watering and replenishing stations. They create a start zone that helps everyone get off to a fast and solid beginning according to their own ability and previous performance. By doing these things, they speed up the entire marathon rather than just a few individuals.
As I was telling this to my colleagues, it occurred to me that the difference between serving as a pastor and serving as a bishop is found in that story. My focus used to be on how I could run my own race faster and more efficiently; that is, how I could pastor well, strengthen the congregation I was serving, extend its outreach, invite new people in, improve my preaching and pastoral care, grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God and in service to Christ. I was a runner.
As a bishop, I’m now more like a marathon organizer and planner, and the challenge is how to help speed up the marathon…to recruit well, create a starting zone that optimizes success for pastors and churches, remove as many obstacles, turns, twists and bottlenecks as possible for pastors and congregations, to provide watering and nourishment stations that strengthen people for the race, and to cultivate an environment of encouragement that cheers us on to our best.
OK. I realize the limitations and possible misinterpretations that arise from using words like faster, running, and marathons when talking ministry. But I think all of us have to think not just about how we offer our own utmost and highest in service to Christ, but also how we create a better course for those who go before and those who come after.
I’m not the first to rely up running metaphors: “Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a crowd of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”
In the long run, we’re all heading for the same destination, on the same team, sustained by the same Lord.