When I was a teenager I enjoyed running on the school’s track team. I usually ran in the 200 meter or 400 meter events. That was it. I like my races fast and short.
At one track meet our team was down one long distance runner so the coach picked me. “I don’t know what I’m doing running the 1600 meter race,” I told the coach. He pointed to two boys from Knoxville, our despised competition. “They are some of the fastest milers in the state,” he explained. “Stick with them and you’ll have a chance.” That sounded like good advice to me. All I had to was to just keep up.
When the start gun went off that’s what I did. I kept pace with those two boys from Knoxville. Stride for stride we ran around the track. As we came down the straightaway to complete the first 400 meters, I noticed a change. The distance between the boys from Knoxville and me began to grow. The harder I tried to pick up the pace, they ran further and further ahead of me. I finished the race near the back of the pack utterly exhausted, gasping for air. The world looked to be out of sorts, or at least I was as my legs were on fire. My lungs ached.
As I laid on the grass recovering from this mile-long punishment, the coach walked over. “Sorry coach,” I said between breaths. “I just couldn’t keep up.” The coach knelt down beside me. “You never ran such a long race. It requires a different pace. That requires practice and discipline.” Running a different race requires a different strategy and mindset based on the distance.
Sabbaticals provide an opportunity to find a new pace, to develop new strategies and nurture a new mindset. The challenge is whether or not I can maintain that pace when I return to work. Ministry is demanding and continually encourages one to pick up the pace; run a little bit faster. I remember eleven years ago when I returned in October from my first sabbatical it wasn’t long before that new pace gave way to the run-all-out sprint. The past two and one half years of the pandemic has only accelerated the pace as more was required of pastors as people isolated themselves at home.
What does a new pace look like for me? It begins with getting up earlier so that I am not rushing through my morning rituals of exercise, Bible study and prayer. I’m trying different hours I will be in my office at church. A professor of mine despised calling that place ministers work at church the “office.” He argued it was to be the pastor’s study. I agree but the reality is that there is a great deal of activity and people happening in the church offices hindering study. Therefore, Thursdays will be spent at home where it is quiet as I prepare my sermon. For those who want to meet with me or drop by, my church office door will remain open Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I also want to be mindful of how many evenings I am away from home. If one is not careful meetings can consume every evening. With that said there must be a balance between meetings related to ministry and meetings to develop relationships. We are about people and relationships; relationships with one another and our relationship with God.
It all sounds great as long as I’m prepared to say one word to others and to myself. That word is “no.” That’s a hard word for me because I am a “yes” person. I realize the 55 year-old pastor is not the same as I was when I was saying “yes” at 35. My ministry pace needs to change from a sprint to a distance run. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Run in such a way that you may win it (the prize)” (1 Cor. 9:24b). We have been called by God to run and finish not to flame out or call it quits. There is a lot of the race that remains. Let’s find the right pace and run that we finish and take hold of the prize that awaits.