The most worthless class I took at Southwestern was Pastoral Ministry. Our professor told stories about how he gained respect by challenging a deacon to a fistfight, said little of consequence and taught me nothing about pastoral ministry that did me any good when I finally changed my first name to “Pastor.”
But I experienced something a few years back that taught me more about ministry than I ever learned in ministry classes. I am now 55 years old (212 in blogging years). I have had my fair share of ups and a number of downs. Several times during the thirty-one years I have been in pastoral ministry I have gone through times of darkness, despair, perhaps even depression. I realized a while back that I am never going to be a mega-church pastor – I just don’t have the personality for it. I don’t think that makes me a failure anymore than statistical increases experienced at times in my ministry make me a success.
I have wanted to quit more times than I can count – not just my church, but the ministry in general. When I pastored in Virginia, I would peruse the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Saturday trying to find a job I could get to keep my family eating and sleeping indoors, if I chucked my preaching gig.
Now, with more decades of ministry behind me than likely lie ahead of me, I have gained some perspective about what it takes to make it in the ministry. And, as I said, my viewpoint crystallized one day, a lovely March day in 2008 at the White Sands Missile Test Range in White Sands, New Mexico.
The Bataan Memorial Death March
The Bataan Memorial Death March is a moving experience. Survivors from the original death march (they are very old now), many of whom were from the White Sands area, are honored and then a combination of soldiers (from America and around the world, many carrying 35 pound back-packs, more than a few on prosthetic limbs) and civilians then embark on our own Death March – a brutal 26.2 mile marathon through the desert and over a mountain.
The marathon begins with about 7 miles of relatively flat hiking (I didn’t do much jogging) through the desert. That is followed by a 7 mile hike uphill to the top of the mountain – a climb of nearly 2500 feet. Then you swing around the mountain and the next few miles are mostly downhill. When you hit mile marker 21 you enter what is lovingly called the “Sand Pit” – a mile and a half of soft sand. When you get out of that, you have a four mile hike left to get back to White Sands and the finish line. The word brutal is not an exaggeration.
The biggest challenge of the race is the fact that it takes place in the desert, in sand. The sand gets into your shoes and your socks become sandpaper, tearing your feet apart. There are aid stations every couple of miles which not only provide snacks and water, but also have medics who treat your feet. Do you know how they treat blisters? Duct tape. That’s right, they clean the dirt off and slap duct tape on your feet.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m not petite. I am nearly 6’4″ in my shoes, and at the time of this race I weighed somewhere around 325 pounds. I was 52 years old and was not adequately trained. I had completed the race the year before when I was in better shape, but 2007 had been a rough year and I was not in great shape (duh). I used to call myself the best conditioned morbidly obese man in America. But by March, my finely-tuned physique (?) had started to get a little more squishy!
So, here it is. I was more than 100 pounds overweight, under-trained, and embarking on a brutal marathon through the desert and over a mountain. It did not look like a good idea. It probably wasn’t.
But I did it. In around 11 hours and 30 minutes, I completed the 2008 Bataan Memorial Death March. I felt like death at the end, but as I reflected on the day, a lot of my thoughts about ministry coalesced. Permit me to share the story of my marathon that day and tie it to some reflections about successful ministry.
1) Face it – You don’t have what it takes.
I knew going in that I was not likely to finish the race. I was overweight and out of shape and this is not an easy course. But I loved the 2007 race and when my friend asked me back to try it again, I wanted to go.
To be honest, the ministry is beyond my abilities as well. I am called to be an agent of transformation and I struggle just to keep my own life in order. I can be a mess sometimes, and I am supposed to lead others, counsel them, proclaim God’s truth and be an example of godliness.
The moment I begin to think I’ve got it all together, that is usually when I fail. Paul warned those who think they stand so strong to take heed that they do not fall in their self-reliance.
2) Take one mile at a time
I had a simple approach to the marathon that day. I kept telling myself to go a few more miles, then I could quit. My real goal was to make it to the top of the mountain (about mile marker 14) and then quit. As I trudged up the 7 mile hill, I kept telling myself to just suck it up and get to the top, then I could quit. When I got to the top, I realized that the next few miles were downhill, so why not let gravity be my friend and tick off a few more miles? When I got to the Sand Pit, I thought I’d just get through that torture chamber and quit there. By the time I was through the Sand Pit, I told myself I was only 4 miles (relatively flat) from the finish line – might as well take it home.
There are a lot of challenges in ministry and sometimes it can seem overwhelming. But it is easier if we take things one challenge, one day at a time. Break it up into smaller pieces.
3) It’s gonna hurt.
No one tells you this when you go into the ministry, do they? It is going to hurt; hurt a lot! Ministry is pain, suffering, rejection and sorrow. If you want everything to be “happy, happy, happy” then get a job selling duck calls. The ministry is not for you. You are serving Christ whom the world rejected and crucified and its not likely to treat you much better as his representative.
I knew going in that I was going to experience a lot of pain that day. My legs were gonna be sore. My feet were going to hurt (you try carrying 325 pounds 26.2 miles). After 15 or 16 miles, my arms got sore, just from swinging back and forth.
And, the blisters. Wow. The blisters you get from White Sands are not little and annoying. They are large and angry and excruciating.
But if you are going to get to the finish line, if you are going to make it, you have to embrace the fact that life is pain! If you’ve never done a marathon, I probably cannot explain to you why we do them, but finishing a marathon is unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It makes all the pain worth it when you cross the finish line.
But you never cross the finish line if you expect everything to be easy and painless.
We are sinful people serving sinful people, calling them to die to self and live to Christ. Of course it isn’t easy. If you are doing God’s work, you will suffer as did Jesus and every one of the Apostles.
Quick question: Can you name a single person in the Bible who had an encounter with God, was called into God’s service, and then his or her life became easier? I can’t. Life gets harder when you serve Jesus.
The fact is that many of us who reject the “health and wealth” gospel still believe it in our deepest hearts – that serving God will bring us success, popularity, and spiritual prosperity.
Since we know that the pain is coming, we need to prepare for it.
The first time I competed in the Death March, I didn’t realize the challenges I would face. This time, I remembered the blisters and took some steps to prepare for it. I brought 4 extra pairs of socks with me in my Camelbak (a backpack that also carries water). Every five miles or so I put on a new pair of socks to protect from the blisters.
There is a lot I can do to prepare for what might come. It is important in the good times that we prepare for that which lies ahead – the struggles and trials we will face. I must walk under the Lordship of Christ in the fullness of the Spirit to be the man I need to be to face what God will send my way.
5) Fuel up.
The Death March takes place in a desert. Dry. I was out there for over 11 hours, burning fuel the whole way. Success depends on keeping the body fueled. Every two miles there was an aid station and I could eat oranges, bananas, power gels and such things. I drank Gatorade and water, then refilled my CamelBak to continue hydrating during the time between aid stations.
If you don’t fuel up, you will die in the desert.
I’m an idiot and I know it. I know my body needs fuel and I know my car needs gas. But sometimes, I forget that my soul needs to be fueled as well. Do you ever feel like ministry is just give, give, give? It ought to be. But that is draining. I can’t do it without fueling up.
God’s word is our milk and meat to fuel our souls. Worship. Prayer, fellowship – all of these spiritual disciplines are more than just a checklist of religious duties. They connect us the One who sustains and renews us.
If you don’t stop to feed your soul, don’t be surprised when you collapse during the hard times.
6) Rejoice in your progress.
Sometimes we don’t realize just how much progress we have made.
The seven mile hill starts around mile 7 – a gradual but consistent climb. Step after step you force yourself to continue the climb. Tired. Achy. Discouraged. You just have to keep going. And it feels like it will never end – you are never going to reach the top.
But then you can do something interesting. Stop, turn around and look at how far you have come. I did that, around mile 11 or so. Way off in the distance of the picture to the right is White Sands, the base where the marathon started. It was hard to believe I had made it that far!
You may not be a star, but if you are faithful, God will use you to make a difference. Stop, look around. See where you started and where you are going. Rejoice in what God has done. Maybe you have made more progress than you might think!
7) Enjoy the downhills
I kept going, slowly, oh so slowly, up the seven mile hill. Mile 11..12…13, then finally 14. I was at the top of the mountain ready to start heading down. That’s when something weird happened. I had my phone with me, and some earbuds, so I thought that I might listen to some music.
As I headed down the hill on mile 15, a song came on. Steven Tyler – “Walk This Way.” As that song played (and I repeated it) and as I got my corpulence headed downhill, suddenly I had an unexpected burst of energy. I hope I didn’t look as stupid as I probably did, but for a short time, I really enjoyed myself.
Ministry is hard, but sometimes it is really good. Enjoy those moments. When someone says something nice, or gives you a gift, or responds to your message. The downhill may not last, and in the ministry it often seems as if there are more uphills than down, but when you are in one of those blessed times, pump up the music and enjoy the ride!
8) Don’t Stop
When I got near the finish line, I was amazed. I never really expected to make it all the way. I assumed I would have to quit at some point. How did a morbidly obese man complete a 26.2 miles desert marathon? I didn’t quit. I just kept going.
The ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. There are a lot of sprinters out there – fancy, impressive, speed merchants. They blaze brightly and then they burn out. When times get hard, they pout, get angry and bitter, and run away and hide. I’ve sen it over and over.
Most of the great works of God in the Bible followed a pattern. God called someone to a great work, and then things got really difficult. Opponents arose. Doors closed. People let them down. But the servant does not give up. Noah kept building the boat. Abraham held out for the promise to be fulfilled. Joseph suffered betrayal and persecution for year after year – the list goes on. They kept obeying and doing what God told them to do even when it got difficult.
At the top of the list of qualities needed for successful ministry is perseverance. When it gets hard, take another step. When people oppose you, do not give up. When you feel like quitting, don’t! God’s rewards come in due time, when we are steadfast and do not become weary in doing good.
9) At the finish line, it’s worth it.
When I crossed the finish line at the end of the 2007 Death March, I broke down into tears – tears of joy and extreme exhaustion. This time it was different. I was enjoying myself more, even though I was completely spent. The last mile of the marathon goes around the outside wall of White Sands base, then crosses a patch of grass onto the road where the start/finish line was.
As I came around the bend and was walking the last 150 yards, I found myself wondering what the spectators were thinking. “Gladys, look at that. Do you think the fat guy really did the whole thing?”
But crossing the finish line of a marathon is profound – so much so that the pain and suffering of the race fades.
It’s worth it at the finish line!
Paul said (Romans 8:18) that our sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us. Our sufferings may be great, but they pale in comparison to the ecstasy that awaits us at the end. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.
Do you want to be a “success” (that may not be the right word, but…) in ministry? Expect a hard race, a marathon with mountains and deserts and sand pits and blisters and weariness. But just keep going. Keep serving the Savior until you see him face to face. Never give up, because your labors in Christ are not in vain.