I’ve heard it said throughout my life in ministry that “ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.” Early on this word picture was helpful for me, serving its intended purpose to build a long-view perspective of faithfulness in work that can often be slow to produce immediate and satisfying results. I’ve used this phrase countless times myself challenging ministry leaders, pastors, church planters and many others to press on in the work they are doing with a future goal in mind that will prove to have been worth the journey it took to get there. I believed it in so much that we even printed it in a book we published earlier this year! Uh oh. However, while well-meaning and good-intentioned, I’ve now come to find this statement to not only be inaccurate, but potentially destructive. Maybe ministry isn’t a marathon.
On one hand, ministry is a long run in the same direction toward an intended goal, however the imagery of “marathon” implies a grueling, continuous race with no points of stopping, resting and getting renewed along the way (outside of the occasional drink station). It can subtly suggest that exhaustion and depletion are signs of commitment and faithfulness. That only the strong can survive the demanding journey—at all costs. That to finish well you just need to keep running. Don’t. Stop. Running.
Now we’ve all seen videos and images of marathoners barely crawling their ravished bodies across the finish line, or of other runners coming to the aid of one whose legs have gone limp and simply cannot make it to the finish without some assistance. We marvel at those stories and applaud them as noble and heroic displays of strength and grit and determination needed to achieve a goal. They truly are inspiring!
But I just don’t think that’s how ministry is supposed to feel, nor is it how we’re supposed to cross that proverbial and elusive “finish line”—wherever that may be. Men and women have been know to crash and burn in ministry, and in some cases literally take their own lives trying to run this “marathon” without regular intervals of rest, replenishment and renewal. I’ve seen marriages fall apart, health fail, parents’ relationship with their kids deteriorate, and friendships suffer and die—all in the name of ministry. I simply don’t believe that God expects us to steward and shepherd the resources and people He has entrusted to our care by saying, “Ready, set, GO…now don’t stop running. Whatever you do, don’t. stop. running.”
An especially telling season in the ministry of Jesus can be found in Mark chapter six. His dear friend and ministry advocate, John the Baptist, has just been brutally beheaded by a vicious king. It’s a devastating and senseless tragedy. In the midst of that His disciples are experiencing great victories in ministry—people were being healed, miracles were being performed, lives were being changed. It’s in the midst of this very pregnant ministry season full of the hardest of hards and the highest of highs that Jesus puts out a profound invitation to his disciples. He doesn’t say, “We’re going to press on, boys. Soldier on as if nothing has happened. Keep running. Don’t. Stop. Running.”
Instead He says, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (v.31). Jesus invites His disciples to stop, sit, be still and be renewed. I can’t say with certainty, but I can imagine He whispers this invitation to them with a hand on their shoulders as the sadness and gravity of John’s death begins to steal their joy and excitement over all they’ve been able to see and accomplish. In His tenderness He says to them, come with me…let’s go take a break.
I recently heard a very wise woman describe this as “strategic withdrawal”—meaning it’s on purpose and with purpose. The quiet and the rest are strategic, not pointless. They are achieving something deeply profound and important, not simply wasting time and being unproductive.
Jesus made this a central component of his ministry. He’s sleeping in the stern of a boat while a storm rages around Him along with the fears of all those on board. He goes off by Himself—all night—to pray to the Father as the dawn of His death loomed heavy. Luke 15:16 says it most clearly and succinctly—“Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” His life and ministry were marked by seasons of intensity and activity punctuated by moments of rest and renewal. Early on in ministry my dad poignantly asked me, “How arrogant are you to think that if you weren’t around for a while the whole thing would fall apart?” Ouch, thanks Dad. Add to that the fact that Jesus Himself, the One who does hold all things together, felt it necessary and appropriate to “not be around” sometimes, then maybe I can (and should) too.
While every illustration breaks down eventually, perhaps ministry could be better described as a consistent and patterned regiment of “interval training.” In this type of training we push our bodies for specific periods of time (intervals) and then give our them patterned and ritualed periods of rest and renewal. In the immediate it could be the rhythm of 60 seconds of sprinting followed by 30 seconds of walking then a spurt of jogging followed by walking, then sprinting, repeat cycle, for example. On a broader scale it could be weeks or months of specific and focused training for an event or a desired weight loss goal, followed by a season of maintenance, refreshment and rejuvenation. Whatever the balance may be, the goal is sustainability—positioning ourselves for the long-haul—not just speed. This certainly does not mean that in those “strategic withdrawal” seasons of rest and renewal we abandon our commitment to a goal, it simply means we begin to understand rest not as a non-productive hindrance to the more important work, but instead as a crucial and essential component to the long-term sustainability of our work. Rest IS important work. Jesus seemed to think so.
Research shows that building in patterns of “breaks” throughout our days every 90-120 minutes increases energy, focus and ultimately productivity. This is the equivalent of getting up from your desk every couple hours and climbing a few flights of stairs in your office building to get the blood flowing and heart rate up a bit, or grabbing a cup of coffee and taking a walk outside around your block or building to get some sunshine and fresh air. Maybe it’s following an especially long and intense meeting with something that gives your mind a break from the hard and heavy—like listening to your favorite song, calling a friend or your spouse, reading another chapter in the book you’re engrossed in, etc.
Ministry is not a marathon; it’s periods of sometimes sprints, sometimes walks and sometimes jogs (and maybe even sometimes crawls) punctuated by strategic times of rest and renewal. This is how God designed our lives to rotate—within a cyclical pattern of being awake and active and then asleep and motionless. Going to bed every night is a consistent reminder of the fact that we simply cannot keep going and going without stopping and resting. This is how God created it to be, how Jesus proved it needed to be and ultimately how we grow stronger, stay healthier and sustain in ministry for the long-haul—not by running ourselves so ragged that exhaustion and burnout become marks of “nobility” and “honor” and true “sacrifice.” That’s just not sustainable, nor is it helpful for anyone we are working with in ministry or working for in ministry. Everyone loses when we don’t stop, rest and renew. Everyone wins when we do—most notably, us.
REFRAMING OUR RESTING
Resting is not synonymous with quitting. It’s also not a sign that you’re failing; and it definitely doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring. It actually means you care enough to not believe the whole thing is dependent upon whether or not you’re around all the time. We simply have to learn how to reframe our rest in those terms. And on the issue of what other people might say or think about you when they see you take a break? Who. Cares. They’re actually probably envious of the fact that you’ve developed the good discipline of rest and they have yet to find that allusive balance in their own tired and weary lives. They’re not judging you; they’re admiring you…and learning from you.
Foster parents, or anyone engaged in ministry for that matter…sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a break—and not feel guilty about it. But how can I possibly take a break when the need is so overwhelming and the work is so demanding? you might ask, These kids need me! you might say. To that I ask a different question—How could you possibly not take a break when the need is so overwhelming and the work is so demanding? You simply can’t survive this for the long-haul without stopping and resting every once in a while. And you’re right—these kids do need you—they need you healthy and whole, because you can’t pour into them what you don’t have in yourself. In the immediate it might mean being militaristic about taking date nights, spending consistent evenings out with friends or finding something non-foster care related that feeds and refreshes your soul, nourishes your body and fills your heart. In the long term it likely means there will be seasons when the most important thing you can do is strategically withdraw and say “no”—not “no forever,” but maybe just “no, not right now” for a little while so that you can rest, renew and be reminded in a fresh way of why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s where my wife and I are right now—keeping ourselves available for an on-going situation continually unfolding around us—but also saying “no, not right now” to bringing more children into our home. And at least for now, we’re OK with that.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
If all of this is true—what Jesus modeled in His life and what research shows is important in ours—then here are some questions you might consider asking and honestly answering for yourself as you work to establish principles of rest and renewal in your life:
- How’s your health? How’s your mind? How’s your soul?
- What “patterned and ritualed” practices of rest and renewal do you currently have in your life? If none, what needs to change in order to begin establishing those?
- Are those changes external (i.e., creating more margin of time in your schedule, finding good babysitters, establishing your “quiet place” in your house that’s just for you, etc.) or are they more internal (i.e., feelings of guilt for resting, a subtle pride for thinking you always need to be around, fear of what others might think of you, etc.)?
- Are you honestly in a season right now where you know a break is needed, but you’re refusing to allow it? Why?
- What activities, practices or disciplines help “restore” you? What do you love to do that you haven’t done in a long time? Art, exercise, travel, reading, etc.? What needs to change in order to allow yourself more time and permission to engage in those things?
- What’s the next, best and most simple step you can take to start establishing the discipline of strategic withdrawal in your life?
Ministry is not a marathon, and sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a break—for 30 minutes today, or perhaps a couple months between your current placement and the next. And that’s OK.
Now, go by yourself “to a quiet place…and get some rest.”