No Small Calling: Thoughts for the “Uphill” Periods of Ministry

November 9, 2017
I have thought a lot about longevity over the past seven years. During these years, I have dedicated myself to remaining persistent in the task before me as pastor in my small town. These are also the years where I have learned to run long distance, and with those road-hours to think, God has taught me about longevity in ministry as I have tried to work on endurance as a runner.

In Arkansas, you can’t run anywhere without running a few hills. The hills seem to be harsher in rural areas, maybe because no one wanted to invest the money to flatten out the road more. So I have run my share of hills over the past few years. I can see the difference in the shape of my leg muscles, and I believe God is shaping my outlook in other areas as well. You can’t do small-town ministry without climbing a few brutal hills, either.

If you talk to different runners, you will get a lot of different strategies for running hills. I think those strategies are somewhat formed by the shape of the hills people are used to facing. Everybody faces hills. If you don’t learn how to get past them, they will defeat you. Here are a few thoughts for the “uphill” seasons of ministry and how to take on the difficult periods of ministry and still push forward.

There are always hills between where you are and where you want to finish

You really don’t know the topography of your town until you start trying to run or bike its roads. Hills you would never even notice in a car can exhaust you on a bike and utterly defeat you when you run. A place can look flat to the naked eye, but your legs will tell you that you are running uphill.

There comes a point, when the hill gets steep or the hill gets long, where you realize that you can’t put forth the same effort and keep the same pace. The same effort might not even keep you moving forward at all. If you are going to finish the race, you will need to push harder.

In ministry, the “uphill” season can be personal discouragement, dryness, or envy. It can be conflict in the church or other factors that have sucked life and energy out of the work, but whatever it is, you look up and realize that all your forward momentum is gone. Although seasons like this are inevitable, it does not mean they are not painful. But the only way to build endurance and longevity is to press on toward the goal and keep moving forward through the pain.

Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5 that he must “endure hardship” to fulfill his ministry. There’s always a hill. We have to learn to keep pushing.

Sometimes you need to keep your eyes up, looking forward

In my first foray into endurance sports, I was in a triathlon class with several coaches who gave us basic strategies for completing the three phases of the race. One coach would bark at all of us to keep our heads up and our eyes looking forward. “See where you want to go!” he would say.

Similarly, the author of Hebrews writes, “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith… so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2).

Looking at the crest of a hill reminds you that the hill is temporary and that a downhill stretch waits on the other side. It can motivate you to attack (or grind out) the last few steps to reach your goal. On a hill that is especially steep and where the top is not too far away, it is foolish not to look up and climb hard.

These are the short seasons of ministry that require the extra work, the extra prayer, the extra hours in order to get the reward that is on the other side. These hills can be so steep that we give up at the foot of the hill and never make the climb. We need to accept the challenge to lift up our eyes, see what God has at the other side, and climb relentlessly until we reach the goal.

Sometimes it’s good to keep your head down and focus on your form

During my first half-marathon, we were running up a slow incline that lasted for hundreds of yards. It wasn’t steep, but my legs were feeling it, and I was beginning to slow down. An elderly veteran runner beside me said to me, “If you look down, there’s no hill.”

Sometimes the top of the hill is so far away that looking up only reinforces how slow the progress really is. Hills always look bigger and steeper from a distance. In times like these, I have found it is wise to make sure my hips are pointed in the right direction, look down and make sure my feet are moving straight ahead. In other words, I focus on running the right way in the right direction more than I worry about how close I am to the top.

The big picture in small-town ministry can often be discouraging. During the long, slow climb, it’s vital to ensure that I am doing the little things right, that my “form” in my daily life is what it ought to be, and that I am pointed in the right direction.

When you’re running uphill, mindset is everything

As soon as I hit a point in a run when I tell myself, “This is terrible,” I am ruined. If I let myself feel oppressed or begin to believe that I have to slow down or walk or that I can’t make it, I am defeated already.

Many pastors play the victim to their friends and colleagues when it comes to their congregations, using pastoral hardships as easy fodder for laughs or sympathy. Pastoring is hard and pastors are often beat up, but we can never let ourselves believe that the calling is an unreasonable burden or allow ourselves to be oppressed by the difficulties that come with running the race marked out for us.

My best defense when running is to control my breathing. I concentrate on slowing my breathing to try to breathe the same when my legs are burning up on a hill as I do on level ground. Our breath in ministry is the Spirit of God. He encourages us, strengthens us to the task, and breaks the oppression that the enemy wants us to feel. In the uphill climb of the pastoral task, mindfulness of the presence and power of the Spirit on a daily basis gives us both endurance and joy.

I’m not a particularly skilled long-distance runner. I would be much better with more consistent training. I am constantly re-learning and refining the principles of endurance every time I whip myself back into shape for another race.

The same, unfortunately, is true of me as a ‘longevity’ small-town pastor. Too often I grow out-of-shape and lazy. I have to re-learn the principles and the same types of hills that should be easier by now sometimes still make me sweat. But I am determined to keep running until God shows me the finish line, building endurance on the way.

What principles have you learned for longevity in ministry? How can we learn to overcome the difficult seasons without stopping (or even falling off the pace)? How do we make the most of the “downhill” times? Please share your insights.

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