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some thoughts on church planting, distance running, and pace

We have now helped in some capacity with four church plants.

For a while now I’ve thought of church planting as distance running. I’m a distance runner, albeit not a very fast one, and there was a church plant in Florida we helped with while I happened to be simultaneously training for my first marathon – the Disney (which I fully trained for but never ran because of sickness, but that is another tale…), and the similarities of church planting and distance running were unavoidable.

With running long and, in my case, slow, miles, certain things are needed. Vision, good training, endurance, good fuel, respect for one’s own body and instinct (rest when you need to rest), the learned ability to persevere, hydration, a support system, and the right pace.

If you dismiss any one of these things as important, or fail to truly implement just one of them, it can annihilate your race, and even lead to permanent injury.

So too with church planting. This is my fourth plant, and I’ve seen some crazy stuff.

Let’s talk about pace.

I’ve learned, the hard way, the humbling way, the necessity of pace. I simply cannot sprint 26.2 miles, and neither can most people, unless you’re from Kenya or Ethiopia, or a remote people group in the Sierra Madre of Mexico (see Born to Run)…

But sprinting in church planting is equivalent to having too many irons in the fire, joining too many groups, being responsible for too many things, going to everything, being part of everything, and signing up for too much.

If you try to sprint a marathon, even if you’ve trained for the distance, you will hurt yourself. You may never want to run again. You could even die. It is more important to start out jogging, get your muscles warmed up, begin to own your race, feel your heartbeat, listen to your knees and heels and hips, get in your groove.

I ran a half-marathon in Arkansas in 2015 with some friends, all of them faster than me. It is not hard to be faster than me. At first, I was bothered by this. And then I had a moment of clarity, in the raining, cold, pre-dawn darkness at the start line: This was MY race. No one else’s. I was going to run the way I trained, slow and steady like a tortoise, run my kind of strong, being good to my unpredictable knees, and finish the thing proud. I needed to respect my pace. It did not make me any less a distance runner. But it also did not allow me to be arrogant. Humility was necessary. And I still finished.

There were times in that race when I was warm and limber, feeding off the energy of the cheering bystanders, inspired, able to go faster and easily take on hills. There were other times when I was sick to my stomach, barely inching along, crying, feeling so alone, everything in my head telling me to stop, every step a Herculean accomplishment. Really.

Church planting is like this too. I’ve never been the pastor, but I’ve been lots of other things. You start with a bang, and most people are flat out sprinting. But they tire easily. Unless they have trained at that pace, they cannot sustain it. It is so important to be able to finish your race. It is such an accomplishment! Pace is vital. Or lethal. You choose.

You get to know yourself in distance running. You get real honest about pace real quick. You realize that you are maybe not a 7min/mi person, but if you hang back a bit and find your rhythm, you’ll actually finish the thing at 10min/mi. with joy. Joy is pretty cool.

Finishing is the goal. I will finish this race. Everyone who helps in a church plant is not meant to be there long term. Some people are seasonal, and it’s just part of their journey, part of a process. A short distance. But far too many long-distance runners in a plant bite the dust earlier than they need to, because of pace (Obviously there are other reasons too, but we aren’t talking about those right now). They burn out sprinting. They don’t finish the leg assigned to them. The pace they are running at simply cannot be sustained. They go off into the night, often hurt, exhausted, confused, depressed, angry, cynical. These can all be symptoms of trying to run long miles too fast.

With this last church plant we were part of, the Lord gave my husband and I a phrase. “Run strong.” This meant several things to us, but mostly distance running came to mind. So, in order to do that, we recognized that pace must be respected. Instead of signing up for too much, we decided to guard our margin and jog, getting warmed up. We had a vision for what our ideal niches were in ministry. We decided to jog steady in a couple roles each. I refuse to sign up for things just because there’s a need. Need will eat your lunch if you let it. It has to be out of obedience, from the heart.

“If you have received a ministry from the Lord Jesus, you will know that the need is never the call: the need is the opportunity. The call is loyalty to the ministry you received when you were in real touch with Him. This does not imply that there is a campaign of service marked out for you, but it does mean that you will have to ignore the demands for service along other lines.” -Oswald Chambers

We sign up for things because we feel led and there’s peace to do them. Sometimes we get this wrong. Or we get the timing wrong. Or we miss an opportunity. That’s okay. We regroup, get a drink (aka ask the Holy Spirit to lead, say we’re sorry for telling people we could do things we can’t do or can’t do things we can do), and keep jogging. As long as we respect the pace assigned to us in this season, there’s peace and grace for the distance. This is our race. My race. We ultimately answer to One. If we start sprinting, suddenly, we can’t breathe. We have to slow down, either by choice, or involuntarily, when we can go no farther and crash to the ground.

I have seen this scenario play out in people’s lives in all different ways, good and bad, mine included. Pace is extremely important. So, if you are helping in a newish venture, church plant or not, can I remind us of the goal? The finish line. Whatever that means for your family – 6 months, a year, 3 years, a decade, or longer.

Don’t worry about sprinting. Slow and steady wins the race. This is your race. You are allowed to own it, name it, choose it. He is that good to you. Pace yourself. Breathe, rest, hydrate. Listen. Remember all the training that has come before this, in all it’s different forms, all the glimpses you had of what this season would be. Of what to do, what not to do.

You can do this proud, with humility.

Focus on finishing.


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