I developed a love for running during my high school years as an average varsity cross-country and track runner. Years later after a knee surgery I thought my running days were over until one of my sons joined his high school cross-country team and I wanted to run with him. Since that time, I have gone past 5K runs and to my surprise completed four half-marathons and attempted three marathons, completing two of them. I learned some valuable lessons in my DNF (Did Not Finish) Marathon and the two marathons I did finish. I believe these lessons can help those of us in vocational ministry to finish our race. Ministry in many ways is like a marathon and I believe it is God’s desire that you would finish well!
6For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. - 2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)
I was surprised at the many different kinds of people who have completed a marathon. I have seen thin, big, young, and elderly men and women pass me! Some have completed a marathon with a prosthetic leg or in a wheelchair. But, not everyone is able to run a marathon. Some people are just not built to run that long a distance. Their reasons may be biomechanical (I have a friend whose ankles cannot support him for long runs) or they may have a heart condition. Marathons are not for everybody. You have to know yourself before you attempt a marathon.
While there are many different kinds of people in vocational ministry, it is not for everyone, because God does not call everyone into vocational ministry. One of the absolute necessities to finish the ministry marathon is to know you have been called by God. My experience in the last twenty years of vocational ministry is that there are some seasons of ministry where everything seems to be going right - where there is spiritual fruit and blessing - and then there are some seasons that are like a “living nightmare.” I have experienced several of those “living nightmare” seasons. During the tough times, you need to know that you have been called by God and that you need to stay put no matter how tough it gets. That “staying power” can only happen if you know you have been called.
You not only need to know your call into ministry, but you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Most of us know our strengths and if possible we should serve using those strengths. But few of us know our weaknesses. We need to know our weaknesses so we will see it as a blessing from God to bring others who are different than ourselves into our ministry to complement our weaknesses. In the same way God has given us strengths to complement their weaknesses. Knowing our weaknesses can help us to be humble and remind us of our need for God and others (Philippians 2:3-4). One tool we use to help us assess our strengths and weaknesses are personality assessments. Most of us have taken personality assessments (DISC or Myers-Briggs). But do you know how that translates into daily practical ministry and your interaction with your co-laborers whether they are volunteer or other paid staff? Tools like these can help us know and value ourselves and know and value those we serve with. Conflict is one of the major reasons people leave the ministry, knowing yourself and knowing others can help us understand where these tensions come from and deal with them constructively.
I know the difference a good coach can make. In my sophomore year we had a cross-country coach who was not a runner and often did not even show up to practice. Then in my junior year we got a new coach who was a runner himself and even ran with us. He corrected our running form “real-time” and filmed us to show us how to improve. He used his own time in the summer to drive us to Lake Merritt for a run around the lake. He believed in us, challenged us, encouraged us and got involved in our personal lives. He explained the purpose of different workouts and he worked us hard. But through his coaching we improved tremendously and I gained a lifelong passion for running! In preparing for marathons I still follow many of the kinds of workouts and advice I received from my coach today.
I am so thankful for the ministry coaching I received as a young Christian in college from a peer who was trained by the Navigators and Campus Crusade. As a young career man I was mentored by our church’s Christian Education director. As a young assistant pastor I was able to “shadow” our former senior pastor. In recent years the church and a generous church member provided the funding for a mentor for myself and another pastor. Today I meet weekly with a peer prayer partner and regularly with a men’s small group to keep me accountable. A good spiritual coach can help you avoid mistakes he has made, can help you navigate through difficult situations and be that prayer and accountability partner we need to finish the ministry marathon.
No one I know just wakes up one day and decides he is going to run and complete a marathon (26.2 miles) without training. You might believe with all your heart you can run a marathon but without training, I am very sure you will crash and burn before you hit the finish line. Some say that you ought to be able to run 10 miles without stopping even before you begin training for a marathon. My training for a marathon involves 16-18 weeks of training, running three times a week with cross training one to two times on the non-running days.
For the ministry marathon, heart is not enough; theological soundness is not enough. You need to have trained yourself spiritually if you hope to finish well. If you think that vocational ministry or seminary is going to automatically grow you spiritually, you are in for a rude awakening. That is why it is so important you are already established in the spiritual disciplines (training) necessary to be close to the Lord and hear from Him before you enter vocational ministry or seminary. You need to have established the discipline of a healthy spiritual diet before you run the ministry marathon to finish well.
Another aspect of training for a marathon is recognizing the importance of rest as a part of training. Few runners can run 7 days a week without injury or burnout. It is the same in ministry. You need to practice making times of regular rest before you enter vocational ministry.
It also is helpful to have already served in your local church or some similar ministry as “training” runs to affirm your gifting and abilities for the actual ministry marathon.
Learn the course
It is extremely important to know the course before you run it. There are often topographical maps of a marathon so you will know where there are hills, water stations and where the finish is! If possible, drive over the course in a car, study the topography, and -better yet - run some of it. In my last marathon I forgot that the first half of the race was rolling hills and so around mile 17 I started getting calf cramps that lasted until I finished. I should have better prepared myself by doing more hill training and by running the first half at a slower pace.
It is important before you enter a ministry, or, if you are new to a ministry, to find out what the landscape of the ministry is like. We need approach a new ministry as an effective missionary would - learn the culture and adapt your ministry to that culture without compromise to the message. Part of this process is learning about the church. A few questions you may ask are “What is the history of the church? How are decisions made? Who are the informal and formal leaders? How are changes made in this church?”
It takes time to learn the course (i.e., the culture of a church). In the last year and a half we hired four new staff. Because so many of our staff was new, we told them to spend that first year building relationships, observing and learning our church culture, before they could propose to make any major changes. Trust is foundational to effective leadership and it takes time to build trust through genuine love and care of your congregation. Too often, new staff make changes that offend the leaders or members in the church because they did not understand the culture and didn’t take time to build the foundation of trust with the people.
Pace Yourself - Listen to your heart rate monitor
Your body is like a car that has a limited fuel tank, when you drive you will get better fuel economy if you drive at 55 mph rather than at 25 mph or 85 mph. If you are smart before a marathon you will fill your body with a good quality “fuel” and then try to run at a pace that stretches out your fuel tank to get the best “gas” mileage. Many runners “feel” what kind of pace they should run. Another way is running with a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor has two pieces of equipment, a chest strap that sends an electronic signal each time your heart beats to a receiver - something like a special wristwatch. There are formulas that can roughly calculate the optimal heart rate you should have to get the best running “fuel economy.” I set my heart rate monitor to beep if I exceed that heart rate.
In my first marathon I really wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon and most of the training runs seemed to indicate that it would be a stretch, but definitely possible. On race day my heart monitor began to beep after the first half mile. I could not believe it! So I chose not to pay attention to the warning signals. In fact, while I was running I turned that feature off! I paid a terrible price for ignoring my heart rate monitor. I was tired at mile 13 and hit the “wall” at mile 21 with such severe cramps that I had to drop out of the race. I was a DNF. Four months of hard work was rewarded with humiliation! It was because of my arrogance that I did not listen and DNF. It was because of my ambition to qualify for Boston that deceived me into thinking I could beat the warning signals.
If we are going to finish the ministry marathon we need to humbly listen to the warning signals of your spiritual heart rate monitor, God’s Word, because nobody is above God’s warning signs. There are three common warnings that I have observed some have ignored in the ministry marathon and that have led to DNF’s. The first is unresolved marriage problems. When ministry becomes the “mistress,” when couples grow apart instead of closer together over time, when there are difficulties in the marriage and there is no resolution, we are in danger of not finishing well. The second warning signal is failure to practice the Sabbath principle and living a lifestyle that leads to burnout. Ministry will take whatever you can give it and more. Sometimes you are even rewarded for this kind of unhealthy behavior. We all need physical and spiritual exercise and rest to stay healthy and avoid burnout. If we do not heed this warning signal we are headed for a DNF. The third warning signal is unresolved conflict. It may be with your supervisor, your peers, volunteer leaders, or church members. Harboring bitterness is poison to our soul and our relationship with God. It leaves us wide open to the enemy of our soul. If we do not heed this warning signal we are headed for a DNF.
Fuel and Hydrate along the way
It is important to fill your human fuel tank before you begin a marathon. It is also important to partially refill it during a marathon. The trouble is that your body is not able to refill itself as fast as you burn your fuel. At the same time, for most people, if they do not do some refilling they will not have enough energy to finish. You can also lose up a lot of water every hour you run, so you need to hydrate yourself along the run to finish well. If you watched the Beijing Olympic Marathon you would have noticed that even elite marathoners drank water or special drinks with carbohydrates in them during the run.
If you are going to finish the ministry marathon, you must keep feeding your soul. It has been my experience that we can be so busy doing good things, like Martha in Luke 10:38-42, that we neglect the most important thing - growing our relationship with the Lord by feeding our soul. We all go through “dry” spells in ministry, but if that is our normal state we are in danger of not finishing. That which feeds our soul may change over the course of our ministry marathon and we need to be aware of where we are in our spiritual journey to discern what we need to “abide in Christ.”
Persevere through pain.
A marathon is 26.2 miles. Many marathon runners say the second half of a marathon begins at mile 20. Those last 6.2 miles are often tougher that the previous 20. The body is tired and energy reserves are low at this point. It takes perseverance through those final miles of pain to finish a marathon.
In order to finish the marathon ministry you will also need to persevere through seasons of trials where you need to simply refuse to quit and trust the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). As I said earlier, ministry at times is tough and your call will help carry you through. But it is also your responsibility to rely on God’s strength to persevere no matter what is thrown at you.
As a leader, I know that in any decision I make - no matter how carefully I or our leadership team, have sought to get ownership of a decision – will always have a few strong supporters, a few strong critics, some who trust and follow and many who are waiting to see who follows. Sometimes your critics will be close friends or even family members - it can really hurt! Of course, when we are wrong we need to be humble enough to admit our faults, but when we know - as best as we can discern it – that God has led us to a decision and there is opposition, we need to persevere through the pain. I often remember Rick Warren’s words, “When the pastor stays the problems leave, when the pastor leaves the problems stay.”
James 1:3-4 says that trials build our faith and Christ-like character. As unpleasant as tough times are, when you look back you will see that you will have grown the most in the Lord during these times. It is in tough times that we can experience God’s promise that He will never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5b) and we can love Him more for His faithfulness.
A Reward For All Who Finish The Ministry Marathon
I’ve received two medals from the two marathons that I have finished. I certainly did not come in first place. In fact, in both races, I finished in the last quarter of all the runners. Everyone who finishes a marathon receives a medal. In the same way God does not expect everyone in vocational ministry to build the biggest church in the city, or be a great preacher, or be a nationally recognized leader before He rewards us in heaven. Whatever this reward is, it is offered to all who finish the ministry marathon well.
6For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.- 2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)
Steve Quen, the Senior Pastor of the Bay Area Bible Church, is a 4th generation Chinese-American. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he has been married to Esther for 29 years and have three young adult children, James (25), Jonathan (22) and Jessica (20). He worked as a Software Engineer for 11 years after graduating from UC Berkeley with a BS in EECS in 1976. He received his M.Div. from Liberty Baptist Seminary and has been in vocational ministry for 20 years. He has served at BACBC as the Senior Pastor for 11 years. Steve enjoys running (as you can tell), ping pong and chess, he and Esther have recently started to play golf.