Ministry is a marathon

“Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.”

I don’t remember when or where I heard that advice. A professor in a Seminary class? A wise pastor early in my ministry? I’m sure I bristled a bit when I heard it. The thought doesn’t naturally appeal to me any more than the idea of running more than once around a track.

It’s true, though. We might like to see instantaneous results. We might wish we could sprint to the tape and move on to the next event. But gospel work is one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Left, right, left, right. Law and gospel, law and gospel. Sometimes you can’t see progress any more than a marathoner can tell he’s a step closer to the finish. Sometimes you don’t see it at all.

I think it’s especially true in cross-cultural ministry, with its unique obstacles: language barriers, differences in customs, the instability of work and life that many immigrants face. It can take a little longer to clear those hurdles, establish trust, and find opportunities to share the gospel. I suppose it’s more steeplechase than marathon. Still, the essence of the work is the same. Preach the gospel. Let the Holy Spirit work when and where he wills.

The Guzman family is an example. When I was assigned to Bethel 11 years ago, Mario was a student at our English as a Second Language classes. Then we lost contact with him. After a while, he came back. On and off he studied, as life and work allowed. He would stay after class for our Spanish Bible study when he could. He, his wife Evelyn, and their children would join us for special events. Then we would go months without seeing them.

A few years ago, they wanted a new school for their two youngest children. They asked about our Lutheran school and we were thrilled to have them enroll. We got to see them more often at school functions. We started offering regular Spanish worship services, which they attended frequently.

A year ago, their daughter graduated from our grade school and was confirmed. After the service, Mario said, “Maybe we’ll get confirmed, too.” I was elated! But we weren’t there yet. Multiple jobs and four children make life pretty hectic. Finally, after half a year, we were able to schedule a class and, after another half a year of studying whenever we could together, finish it. This month, Mario and Evelyn will be confirmed.

It only took eleven years!

I’m not saying that they weren’t Christians before we met them—or that membership in a congregation is the ultimate goal. But it’s amazing to look back and see how the Lord kept bringing the Guzmans back to hear the gospel with us and now, finally, to confess their Spirit-worked unity with us. It gives me hope as I think of all the other people who appeared our lives and then disappeared just as quickly; the Lord may bring them back, and who knows what the Word we shared may be doing in their hearts even now? It brings me encouragement as we patiently invite and teach others over the course of months and years; who knows what the Lord may work in time?

Mario actually enjoys running. I’ll probably never join him on one of his long-distance runs. But I’m glad to keep putting one foot in front of the other in our ministry…and wait to see how—and when—the Lord chooses to bless our work.

Rev. Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel Lutheran in Menasha, WI

Photo taken on the day of the Guzman daughter’s quinceañera after the service at Bethel

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