Get changed. Put on my shoes, lace them up tight, and double knot them just to be sure. Get out the door. Put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, for the next three to seven miles. Stretch, cool down, relax, and repeat again tomorrow.
That is my typical routine five or so days a week. Some days I feel great. Every step feels better, each mile feels easier, and the wind feels like it is always at my back. And then there are other days … days when it is simply hard to get out of the door; days when I want to quit after three or four minutes; days when every step feels more sluggish and the wind is always beating against my face and each mile seems to drag for hours.
You learn a lot about yourself while you are running. At least, I do. I learn that I am stronger than I think I am. I learn I can go farther than I think I can. I learn that I am good at certain distances, have greater endurance than many other runners, and don’t mind a little discomfort because I know that the end will be worth it. I also learn that I can’t do it all. I can’t run forever without a rest. They say, “No pain, no gain,” but sometimes there’s nothing to gain from the pain, either. I can’t always push through the pain, ignoring it and hoping it will go away. I also realize that there are others whose skills and abilities vastly outstretch mine. I don’t win races, I rarely come in the top ten percent, and the chances of me getting anything more than a participation medal are slim to none; that means my definition of success will have to change. I learn that I am more motivated by myself than by others. But on truly tough days I find friends to run with so we can encourage one another and push each other forward. Through running, I learn to persevere, listen to my body, and adjust as necessary for my best performance each day. But, if we are honest, there are days when I would rather sit on the couch and eat ice cream.
For me, ministry is often the same way. Many times it is the same thing day after day, week after week. There are always more meetings, more hospital visits, more time spent with that one member for whom life never seems to go well. You study Scripture, but typically for the purpose of preaching or teaching it because there’s always one more sermon, one more class, one more bible study. There are always more phone calls to make, more people to meet, more initiatives that need to be started. It is one foot in front of the other, over and over again, plodding along in ministry.
For me, some days in ministry feel great. I have moments of creative inspiration, sermons seem to write themselves, and the text comes alive. I have moments of wisdom and compassion, where I realize a better way to help the person sitting in front of me. I learn that I have skills and gifts I never realized before that can be used for the Kingdom to bless others. There are days when I can see how God is at work through me in the life of this person, in the midst of this congregation, working to bless our community in some small way.
But I also learn I can’t do it all. I cannot handle every crisis, minister to every need, speak words of hope into every situation. Some days the spark simply isn’t there, and the sermon is laborious at best. Sometimes ministry hurts. I let people down or vice versa. Sometimes the people I relied on don’t come through; sometimes they fall into sin or fall away from faith. Sometimes I have no wisdom to share… but I try to speak anyway. Sometimes I fall far short of where I need to be.
They say, “No pain, no gain,” but pain in ministry is one of the worst feelings I know. Sometimes it is difficult to push through. Sometimes you shouldn’t push through; instead, you need to stop and rest. You need someone to talk and share with, someone who can simply hear you and offer feedback. You can’t just push through the pain, hoping it will all go away.
And I realize there are other ministers whose skills and abilities vastly outstretch mine. I don’t minister for a thousand member church. I don’t have a top rated podcast or a book deal. My message isn’t being heard by thousands each week; I’m not even certain my congregation is hearing it every Sunday! That means my definition of success will have to change. What that benchmark is still often remains to be seen.
For me, ministry is a lot like running. It is about getting up each day and remaining faithful to my goal. It means finding my hope and motivation in God rather than in myself or in others. It means learning to persevere, even when things are tough. It means learning to lean on others when needed, realizing I can’t do it all on my own. I need my friends, fellow ministers, congregational elders, loving members, and a host of others who can help shoulder the burdens of ministry.
Paul writes that we should “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame” (Rom 5:3-5a). I am learning to put my hope in God, and to persevere in ministry. Some days are easier than others, but I am learning what it means to find my hope in God, even in the midst of difficult times of ministry. And I am constantly being reminded that God puts us in community to help us persevere when things seem most difficult. We learn to push one another forward, helping one another finish the race even when we want to give up.
So, my friends in ministry, you are in my prayers. May God grant you strength, hope, and joy even in the midst of the struggles of ministry. “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (2 Thess 3:5). And feel free to grab a bowl of ice cream when times are incredibly tough.
Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.