lessons I’m relearning: marathon mentality

I’m often asked by other pastors and church-planters to describe ministry in Vermont.  It often reminds me of a century ride I did on my bike a couple of summers ago.  Me and a buddy mapped our route so the pinnacle of Smugglers Notch would be the exact halfway point- which means at 42 miles in, youBike-Pedals-to-clip-or-not-to-clip begin an eight mile, 1800 ft climb.  About three miles into the climb you begin feeling the stress in your thighs and calves, and your simple focus becomes spin that flywheel, spin that flywheel one pedal push at a time.  You quickly realize you have no idea how far you’ve actually traveled, because all of your normal training rides felt much easier than tackling this mountainous behemoth.  Your hope is to eventually reach the summit… you will know it when you get there and not a minute before.

I’ve heard ministers and especially church-planters in this region share a similar perspective.  They often feel like they come to the end of themselves spiritually, emotionally, mentally, even physically and their simple focus is spinning that flywheel one pedal push at a time while trusting they will eventually come to the mountain top.  For them to survive requires a marathon mentality.  Although scripture doesn’t mention century rides, it does refer to life and ministry as a marathon foot race.  We’ve seen far too many ministers in this area try the sprint approach-they go big, go fast, and go out big and fast.   Two scriptures especially stand out:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
  1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
   Hebrews 12:1-2

God continues to remind me that running this marathon requires…

Discipline.  I’ve never met a marathon runner who isn’t disciplined in the arena of training. They know what to eat, how to train, and when to rest (and yes rest is part of it).    Some of the discipline involved in the ministry marathon seems fairly obvious: quality time in the scriptures, persistent prayer, accountability from others pursuing God alongside you.  Others are not so obvious: eating healthy, exercising, making time to rest, and creating margin in our lives to invest in others.    We can often mistake busyness for discipline.  The latter leads to fruitfulness- the former almost always to burnout.

Focus.  Marathon runners appear to have incredible focus, making each step count and remaining on course. In ministry we will always have people and opportunities competing for our time and attention.   We can easily run off course pursuing what may seem good at the expense of what is best.  A few questions God uses to bring me back on course:

  • Why did God move me to Burlington?
  • What is my unique role in His kingdom?
  • Who does God want me investing in most?

Perseverance.  This might sound obvious since a marathon is a race of endurance.  My personal definition of perseverance as it applies to ministry is to keep doing what God has called you to do even when you don’t feel like you have anything left to give spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.  Almost every spiritual mentor I look up to has pushed through their personal pains and failures in the pursuit of God and His calling on their life.   One of my favorite quotes about perseverance comes from Michael Jordan:

I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why… I succeed.

Running the ministry marathon is about more than just surviving.  The writer of Hebrews points out that our focus should be Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith,” not just merely running the race.   Jesus actually wants to do something of eternal value in us through this process which involves sharing in His joy.  I’ve met too many guys who I love and respect who’ve simply survived the marathon.  They made it to the top, but in the process were drained of life and a finished a shell of their former self.  I’ve met others who’ve also made it through the grind with stories of lessons learned and a glow that reflects the joy of Jesus.  I’m aiming to  be one of the latter.

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