I’ve been told that I (or rather we, since Willie and Waylon are on this journey with me) are only a quarter of a mile from the end of the trail in Columbia that we’ve been running for over a year. Every time we run this particular trail, we don’t reach the end. Those who have told us how close we are to the end have reached the end and offered guidance based on comparisons of trail markers. We’re so close, which makes each run frustrating and alluring and challenging all at the same time.
Today as we turned around, yet again shy of the illusive end of the trail, it reminded me of conversations I had with classmates who are a year behind me at Gardner-Webb and how they are counting down until graduation. As I shared in their excitement and in their proximity to concluding the journey of seminary, I also warned them that once they graduated, there weren’t really any more finish lines.
Sure, as ministers we know there are times that are busier than others (Advent, Lent, and the summer), but these aren’t finish lines for in just a short time they will be around again. And that’s certainly not why we chose a life of ministry. We didn’t choose to be ministers, but instead were called. And part of being called is learning a different evaluation system than other professionals, right?
But how do we make the transition from having known squarely whether the work we were doing in the classroom was an A, B, or C to the knowing whether work we are doing in our congregations is making a difference or is in fact good?
There will always be weeks where I wish I could have done more or done differently because ministry isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle. So, how do I, as a minister, know when I am at the trail end for the day or the week or the year? How do I know when I’ve reached the finish line and can really and truly rest for a bit?
I’ll be honest and admit, I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that my friends and colleagues who haven’t found the finish line and still keep pushing themselves further and further, aren’t in ministry anymore. They burned out trying to do more and more and more. I also know seasoned ministers who have been in the ministry for years who have reflected that they wish they hadn’t spent as much time striving for the finish line at work because they more they did, the more time they were on the trail and away from their family and friends.
I can’t help but think about this as the sun is shining and the evidence of Spring and new life is everywhere. Surely, this Lenten journey is over, right? Surely, we can put off the challenging messages of welcoming the little children to Jesus and not standing in their way and the challenge of selling all of our possessions and giving them to the poor to follow Jesus until next year. Let’s get to the finish line of Easter morning that’s filled with hope and new life and joy. But when we push on past all of the turns in the road and uncertainly of where the journey will end, we lose part of the struggle of the journey, and we lose part of the training of ourselves. Reaching Easter isn’t really the finish line: becoming more like Jesus is.
For me, I’m ok with being really close to finding the trail’s end without actually reaching it because once I do get there with my two running partners, I want to be able to enjoy it. I don’t want to be so exhausted that we can’t make it back relishing in each and every inch of the whole and complete trail.
It’s hard to explain to people, especially people who have been following Christ longer than I have been alive, but it is not time to rest and be assured that we will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant,” because we haven’t reached the finish line. As long as we have breath, we have more work to do. As long as we continue to wake up each morning, there’s something else we could do to become more like Christ. We aren’t at the finish line yet, as individuals, as churches, or as ministers.
And so we press on.