When A Sprint Becomes A Marathon: Pastoring In A Long-Term Pandemic

Here are 7 key changes pastors need to make as we adapt from running a sprint to running a marathon.

What happens when something you thought was a sprint becomes a marathon in the middle of the race?

That’s what we’re dealing with.

A few months ago we had an abrupt change in the way we do everything. We closed down normal in-house operations, expecting to open up the doors again for church-as-usual in a few weeks (a few months at most).

It felt like a sprint. A quick start and a fast pace with a high output of near-frantic energy. But it would be over soon.

Now we all know that this is not a sprint. It will be a marathon. Perhaps more like a decathlon, with the events changing at a moment’s notice.

However we frame it, this will last a long time – and “as usual” is unlikely to ever return again.

Now what?

What do you do when you’ve been leading your church for a short-term emergency situation, only to realize you’re only in the first stages of a marathon – one you never saw coming and haven’t properly trained for?

You adapt.

No one runs a marathon the way you run a sprint. Everything is different when you’re in it for the long haul.

Here are 7 key changes pastors need to make for the long haul:

1. Slow Down

If you were to judge the comparative speed of sprinters and marathoners 30 seconds after the start of the race, sprinters would win every time. But that’s not a fair comparison because they’re running different races.

Marathoners run slower than sprinters for a reason. Because it’s the best way to make it through without burning out early.

As Carey Nieuwhof recommended in a recent Tweet “Go easy when it’s hard and go hard when it’s easy.”

Things are hard now. They will be for a while. Go easy – on yourself and others.

2. Find Your Long-Term Pace

Most churches and pastors have been running in sprint mode through the changes required by the pandemic. We’ve had to adapt quickly from in-person to online services, then to masks/no-masks? sing/don’t sing? and so on.

But most of us did so on a week-by-week basis, anticipating that this unusual situation would be over relatively quickly.

We now know this is not so. It’s way beyond a sprint, and it’s likely to be a very long marathon.

Long runs require a different pace than quick dashes.

Week-to-week must become month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter.

The sprinting pace you’ve been keeping will burn you out if you try to keep it up.

Find a sustainable long-term pace.

3. Refuel On The Run

It’s unimaginable that someone running a 100-meter race would grab a bottle of water halfway through. They’d be laughed out of the sport.

But all along a marathon route you’ll see fueling stations where a marathoner can grab a cup of water or other hydration.

That’s how it is in long-term pastoring. Even as we keep pace with the demands of ministry, we must make the most of moments to receive blessing from church members, our family, our devotional time, and so on.

Healthy ministry requires input as well as output – even while we keep running.

4. Take Regular Breaks

Jesus took breaks constantly. He napped, he prayed, he sat down at a watering-hole while his disciples went to town for supplies.

Our bodies, minds and spirits need rest. And when we’re going through the trauma of a universal pandemic, we need more rest than usual.

A rest for refueling does not mean you’re failing. A pause is not a departure from ministry – it’s fuel for ministry.

5. Lean On Your Team

Once the race starts, a sprinter is on their own.

But marathoners often run in a team, with different members trading the lead and keeping the pace for each other.

Pastors that last for the long-run lean on their team members and share the load.

6. Be Willing To Change Your Strategy

A lot has been said about innovation in church in recent decades. I’ve even used that word as a tagline for my writing.

But even if you balk at using the idea of innovation in church leadership, there’s no question that we’re in a time when we need to adapt and update.

The mission doesn’t change. In fact, now more than ever it’s essential to remind ourselves to stay on mission. But if we’re unwilling to change our strategy we’ll lose more than our ability to innovate – we’ll lose our ability to fulfill the mission.

7. Reframe Victory – From Being Fastest To Finishing Well

In a sprint, there’s only one person who breaks the tape and finishes first. In a marathon, they celebrate the overall winner, but there are trophies for winners in various categories by gender, disability, age, half-marathon and more.

Then, long after hundreds, even thousands of exhausted runners have crossed the finish line, there are still big celebrations for friends and family members who finish their first marathon, set a personal best time, or just get it done.

We live in a culture in which being first, biggest and strongest is celebrated. But it’s often a false measure of success.

And it’s infiltrated the church.

Congregations and the pastors who lead them are celebrated for being bigger, growing faster, or having larger campuses, while faithful, mission-minded smaller churches are often ignored or belittled even though they’re also fulfilling their call – sometimes by the very people who attend and lead them.

This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.

It’s not about how fast you run, but how well you finish.

For more resources on leading a smaller congregation through uncertain times, check out SPARK Online at KarlVaters.com.

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