October 9, 2021

30,000km of ministry marathon

Tomorrow morning I will get up in the cool of an early Perth Spring morning, throw on shorts, a singlet, a pair of Sauconys, and a Garmin and I will run. And by the time I have run for five minutes I will have clocked my 30,000th kilometre of running on Strava. I am sitting on 29,998.8km. Why I didn’t round up this morning, I don’t know.

30,000km since the start of January 2013. Tomorrow morning, God willing.

Tomorrow morning, God willing (as I am always willing to run, but don’t get the final say) I will run up past the old town centre of Bassendean, around the perimeter of the Swan Districts Football Oval, down the path to the stately oak-lined North Road and when my watch hits 1.2km I will have done it. 30,000km on Strava.

I will also have prayed for about five minutes by that stage of the run too. Sunday morning runs this year have been early, prayerful and considered. I have been working in a church all year that has needed some help and restructuring, and I am preaching morning and night tomorrow, with a welcome lunch in the middle there somewhere for eight families. There have been significant struggles and pains, and tears. It has been a marathon in and of itself these past nine months.

I will be preaching about church tomorrow morning. I will come home from my run, eat, shower, dress, and drive 19km (I often envisage running to and from work) to the church of which I am currently interim lead pastor.

I will be preaching to God’s gathered people “now” about the hope of God’s people gathered “then” on the Last Day. It will be a “now versus then” sermon. That day “then” will complete the marathon of gospel endurance that Jesus ran before us. It will be a day of a victorious conclusion as the finishing line is broached.

On that Day they will gather to sing victory songs and hear “well done” from their Champion. Tomorrow they will be modelling that hope in a broken but real way, in a fairly nondescript warehouse in an industrial part of town. On that Day it will be in the new creation city of God.

On that Day the pain will be behind them. The tears will be behind them. In fact the tears will be wiped away for them, by the very God they worship together. That’s the alluring promise of the Bible.

But for now? As the marathon of living for Jesus continues, there will be times of pain and times of tears. Painful and tearful times in life. Painful and tearful times in church. Much joy too – of that there is no doubt. But marathons don’t come easily, and the greatest Marathon of them all is the reality to which all others point. So pain and tears there will be.

The ministry marathon for me since January 2013 has been exactly that. A marathon. Providence Church plant had begun as a new church in our lounge room, and had just outgrown the house a year before. Our tiny house church with seven or eight couples and a whole bunch of kids meeting for church meandered its way through three or four building moves, before settling into a school theatre. It’s now around 150 people (not led by me), and is healthy and happy.

But ministry has been a marathon. And I’ve had to tackle it like a marathon. The spiritual training has had to be on par with the physical training. No use being super fit physically and being a slob, a sinful slob, spiritually in the marathon of Christian ministry (or Christianity for that matter).

Nothing has come easy in church ministry across those 30, 000km. True there have been great moments, and plenty of satisfaction seeing families and singles and young people and old people united together as God’s people and growing in love for Him and for each other (and for their communities outside church).

But so much of church leadership is about being the one left staring at the ceiling at 2am figuring stuff out, so that the rest of your people don’t have to! If you think that’s not the case, then probably you need to ask a person who is a ministry leader in a church, because chances are you are not one! So much of the marathon is internal. So much of the mileage that wears you out is on behalf of your people.

And not everyone finishes the ministry marathon (and I’m not finished it yet). I’ve seen burn out, cop out, and “I’m out”. Not simply out of ministry, but out of Christianity. That’s what hurts the most.

Well almost the most. Getting burned by others in ministry hurts the most, and I’ve spent the last two years (from about the 23,000km mark to now) helping those who have been abused by wolves in sheep’s clothing, and big bad sheep who rough up the smaller sheep in the kind of way that Ezekiel the prophet warned about. And to be honest I can’t tell sometimes if it’s just a bad sheep or a very good wolf. At the end of the marathon the Race Official will determine who is a DNQ.That will be a surprising, shameful day for some.

Next Sunday I run an actual marathon. The Perth Marathon, with a Sunday off from “work” or whatever we are allowed to call church ministry when no one is listening! I’ve been aiming for a sub-3, but the last few weeks of the ministry marathon might put paid to the actual marathon goal. But as I said to one of my running buddies this morning, “Sub 3 cannot become an identity”, which for so many it seems to be. I want to achieve it, but if I don’t well there’s always next year (though at 54 years of age and slowing down, perhaps there isn’t!).

So marathon running is a great servant and a terrible master. But so too is the ministry marathon. And what’s more, because it seems so godly and you can use the word “gospel” to cover it up, the mastery that ministry has over you, and its ability to find you out, and poke and prod at your need for identity, it’s more dangerous! The past few years I have seen so much destruction among those, and by those, for whom ministry became their identity. The pious language can fool the faithful ones, but it cannot fool the Faithful One. He sees our hearts and our attitudes.

And to be honest it can’t fool the faithful ones for ever either. Sooner or later, anger or despair, when the ministry equivalent of the “sub 3” is not achieved, will come to the surface. And it will come to the surface in ways that are destructive for the church, full of false piety presenting as holiness, and lashings of legalism presented as grace. God’s people will eventually sniff it out, but not before a whole lotta damage is done. A marathon injury will take you out for a season, but a ministry marathon injury can take you – and a whole lot of other people – out for a lot longer than that. Even take you out eternally.

So with that in mind, tomorrow I clock my 30,000th km on Strava, with a commitment to how ever many thousand God gives me going into the future. But also with a commitment to the ministry marathon, with all its pain and tears, and – yes – joys. And all of that in the certain hope that I will run that final stretch over the timing mat, cross the line, and be granted, along with all who run the marathon of the Christian life, the unfading crown of glory that will never tarnish like my marathon finisher’s medallions have so easily.

Looking forward to seeing you all at the finish line.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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