Since my first half-marathon in 2011, late October has been “race season” for me, with a couple of months of whipping myself back into shape culminating in a 13.1-mile run through the streets of Conway, Arkansas, on the last Saturday of the month. This year, my wife Liz has been training with me, and I just hope to keep up with her when we run the race together this Saturday. And for the first time this year, I will be adding distance in the weeks following the race, gearing up for a full marathon on December 3rd, just five days after my 40th birthday.
Running long distances takes a certain mindset. I first got the idea to get into long-distance running, because I could hear in the Bible God calling me to learn to run with endurance and finish well in the calling He has given me. And the time on the road has given the Lord time to put dreams and thoughts on my heart for what He wants to do in my life.
One of the themes on this series is learning to have endurance in small-town ministry. Most small-town churches have a new pastor every few years, a practice that is devastating for the churches and isn’t good for the pastors, either, whether you’re talking about the guy leaving or the next guy coming into the position.
This week will also mark six years since we moved out to Stephens (not a “marathon” tenure, to be sure, but maybe it qualifies as a 10K or better). Drawing from the “course” I am running here as well as my time out running the roads, here are five factors that contribute to running the race with endurance in small-town ministry.
1 – Make long-term plans
The first thing you have to do before you can go on a long run is to have a course laid out. Whether you’re talking about a training program to build up strength over weeks or a course for that day’s run, you need to have a plan. The most important factor for a pastor remaining at a church is a decision that he is surrendering to stay until God gives him peace that his assignment is complete. It’s sometimes helpful to commit in your heart to stay a certain number of years (maybe five or seven) years, unless something extraordinary happens that forces you to leave.
Along the same lines, plan projects that will take years, rather than weeks or months, to complete. This December, I will be finishing up a three-year sermon plan that was an overview of the story of the Bible and the church. There are on-going goals that are yet to be accomplished. When a pastor arrives at a church, he should seek the Lord’s guidance on what “completing the task” would look like, take a realistic view of how long it would take, and be ready to stay long enough to see it through.
2 – Guard against envy and the wandering eye
When I run a long race, there are always people that discourage me. There’s someone up ahead that’s older and even more overweight than me that I just can’t catch, or some 10-year-old kid running with his dad that just passed me up. Near the end of one particularly brutal race, an octogenarian pulled up beside me, put his hand on my shoulder, assured me I could make it, and then left me behind.
Looking around and comparing yourself with others in ministry is poisonous. When you’re doing well, it leads to pride, but there’s always someone who seems to be doing better. There’s always someone whose ministry assignment seems more exciting. Once you’re on the course, there’s no reason to keep questioning your path. Run the race God has marked out for you, and don’t let envy steal your joy or cause your heart to be unfaithful.
3 – Pace yourself
Every run has difficult moments and moments that seem easier, times when you feel strong and when you have to push through. But there’s nothing you can do once you hit the wall. It happened to me in my race last year, because my one-year-old couldn’t sleep in the hotel. I was running great–even ahead of my pace–for the first nine miles, then I lost it.
It’s a cliche, but people do get burned out in ministry. We have to learn to rest, to say “no” (even when it upsets people), to not try to get everything done right now. It’s a long race, not a sprint. This truth also applies to your people. They may be willing in the beginning to work hard at whatever you want them to do, but congregations burn out even faster than pastors.
4 – Build relationships
One of the most helpful things that large races provide to their runners are pace groups. Experienced runners who knows how to pace themselves agree to run the race in order to finish at certain goal times, and the only thing the less experienced runners have to do is try to keep up. They’re often more than just pacers, though, as they provide encouragement and wisdom on the course as we go along.
God has created all of us to live in relationships, and to run the race well, we need to cultivate the relationships He has provided. The most important is your marriage and family. Invest in your spouse and your children. Take time to visit parents and siblings that you’ve left in order to follow God’s call. Family stability and support provide a foundation to our well-being.
Also invest in local relationships. Love your town, build relationships with other pastors, and love your people. When you truly love the people around you, it makes it much easier to stay.
5 – Keep running through the pain
There is something called a “runner’s high,” achieved when a runner hits a point of exertion where pleasure chemicals course through the body and produce a feeling of invincibility and power. I have never experienced that (unless it was those times when my head started to tingle, but I think that was really me about to pass out).
Running is hard. There is pain in your knees, your feet, your sides, and just about anywhere else if you run long enough. But if you quit any time pain hits, you’ll never finish.
Ministry is even harder. People will break your heart or fall away from the faith. You will be rejected and hated without reason. If you stay long enough, someone will write a letter to the deacons trying to get you fired. A pastor has to work through conflict, sometimes head-on, or the task will always remain unfinished.
One of the things that’s most damaging about short pastoral tenure is that neither the church nor the minister learns to work through conflict. Instead, they learn to cut and run, and the church withers.
The famous quote from Eric Liddell (of Chariots of Fire fame) goes like this: “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Well, God made me slow, and when I run, I often feel like quitting. But that’s why I do it. I need to learn the lesson, again and again, not to quit. And when I run, I often hear God telling me what is next, cheering me not only to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but to draw closer to Him as I run the race He has given me.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” – Hebrews 12:1–3