Let’s just say, I’ve never been much of a runner. I know how embarrassing it is to cross the finish line last (and have the grade school yearbook photos to prove it). As a result, I stayed away from the track during my high school and college years. However, as an adult I enjoy jogging and try to get in a good run at least three times a week. When I’m in my regular running routine, I often have a certain reoccurring dream.
In my sleep, I am running a race. I feel weightless. The wind is loud in my ears as my arms pump in rhythm with my legs. Even though I am going faster than ever before, my breathing is never labored. My eyes stare straight ahead, focused on the crest of the next hill. My feet barely touch the ground as I move closer and closer to my goal.
Over the last five years, I’ve been running a ministry race that has been quite laborious. Unlike my dream, I often feel like my feet are stuck to the ground. My legs keep cramping up. My arms are out of rhythm with my body; and instead of the rush of wind, I hear someone yelling, “You’re going the wrong way!”
During high school, my passion for camp ministry led me to consider becoming a Director of Christian Education. I saw DCE ministry the best program to equip me for full time Outdoor Ministry. My college years were spent training for what I believed would be an incredible life-long race in the camp setting. I stretched my muscles at four different camps in four summers. I bulked up on carbohydrates and protein during DCE classes. I wanted to run this race well and I trained for it. I had several coaches who gave words of wisdom to help me succeed. The Head Coach, my Father and Creator, was my ultimate personal trainer. I looked to Him for guidance and encouragement.
My ministry race began with a bang in 2002. Off and running faster than you can say “Capture the Flag,” my first Call was to a synodical camp. Things were good for a while. However, after a couple months, the shin splints of conflict started. It was early in the race, so I was determined to run through the pain. After about six or eight months, I got a stitch in my side from loneliness that just wouldn’t go away. My sprint slowed down to a limp as I began to realize my specific gifts might not be best suited for camp ministry. This insight echoed advice I had ignored from DCE coaches in college. I wondered if I was on the wrong track. All my joints started to throb with self-doubt.
The Head Coach was near at every turn of my race. As He paced alongside me, I yelled at Him. I kept asking Him why I hurt so badly and what I had done wrong. He kept silent. I suggested He coach me at swimming instead. He smiled and kept silent. I was ready to quit. Why did I have such a passion for a ministry that actually made me miserable? From my perspective, I couldn’t see the whole race and wasn’t thinking about what might be coming down the road. I only thought about the here and now. The Coach knew what was ahead. He broke His silence to say, “I love you and have brought you through this pain to make you stronger for the coming road. I will sustain you.” With His Breath of Life, He rejuvenated me.
Only a year out of the starting blocks, Coach pointed me toward a different opportunity. It was an opportunity I never thought I would take. The road of parish ministry looked similar to camp ministry, but somehow on this new terrain my feet seemed to run smoother. The shin splints lessened, the cramps in my side diminished, and my joints started to feel relief. Coach reminded me that I had trained for parish ministry and that He had equipped me with gifts best suited for it.
As I kept running, I kept getting stronger. The pains didn’t disappear, but I learned to deal with them in new ways. The Coach, unlike all earthly coaches, sustained me with Himself. His Words, the Bread of Life were my nourishment. His Breath, the Holy Spirit filled me and enabled me to continue. His Living Water, Word and Sacrament kept me hydrated.
When I think back to the pain that seemed so significant that first year, I cannot help but laugh a little. Since that time, I have faced other troubles and various roadblocks that will always be involved in running this race. Satan has tried to trip me and to injure me, but I know that first-year pain was about discipline. Hebrews 12:11 (ESV) reminds us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
Youth ministry is definitely a long distance race. Our Coach is right here by our side. He doesn’t want us to run silently. He wants us to talk to Him throughout our journey as He talks to us through His Word. Jesus offers us energy through Himself when he says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)
I could have quit because of the pain. By God’s grace, I kept running. God has used me as His instrument to strengthen families and lives by the power of the Gospel and to help youth encounter Christ as their Savior. If I had given up at the starting block, I would not have seen Gods Word impact so many lives in such powerful and humbling ways.
My students often ask me if I will be in youth ministry when I’m “old.” I tell them I’m not sure where my journey will take me, but I hope I’ll still be working with youth when I get there. Only God knows where my finish line in youth ministry will be. No matter where this race takes me, I’ve learned to keep trusting in His leadership for strength. Blessings to you wherever you may be in your race!
Proverbs 3:5-6 (ESV) Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.