Earlier in the year, we featured a number of posts by Philip Jackson, a colleague of mine from Macedonia, on the parallels between running a marathon and the Christian life. In that same vein, I would like to reflect on my own recent experience of training for a half marathon.
This has been a huge learning experience for me. I have never been an athlete or competed in any individual athletic competitions since I was required to participate in kids races at Sunday school picnics in my childhood. I jogged in college and in the first years in the Philippines but never ran a single kilometer all those years in Far East Russia. Then about the time that we began serving with SEND U, I started again, simply for the sake of getting some exercise, running 5 km three times a week. That was hard enough, and even last summer, I found that I often could not finish the 5 km without walking partway. When a friend suggested that I should sign up for a longer race, I quickly dismissed the possibility. But this spring, through the repeated encouragement of Phil Jackson, I decided that maybe I should try a half-marathon. I was willing, but I knew I wasn’t even close to being ready to run 21 km. I found a 16-week training plan designed by a running coach and basically followed it from June until the race in Vilnius, Lithuania on September 15. And I finished the race in just over 2 hours, about 13 minutes faster than I had expected!
I learned that with a properly designed training plan that pushes you beyond your comfort limits little by little, you can develop your capacity to do far more than you had ever expected of yourself. Long runs have to be interspersed with short, easy runs and lots of rest, or you just get injured. But I found out that running at a slower pace but for longer distances has far greater value in developing strength and endurance than running 5 km as fast as I could. Finally, on the race day, I learned that when you run alone, you are not nearly as motivated as when you run together with a couple thousand others!
I think I can draw some parallels here to training for cross-cultural ministry.
Increase capacity with bite-size challenges. In order for us to develop greater capacity to handle stress and difficult ministry assignments, we need to be encouraged and even pushed to stretch beyond where we feel comfortable (in language learning, in trying new ministries). We need to know our limits, but often our capacities can be increased to new limits as we step forward in faith in God’s presence and power. But faith without appropriate training is foolish. New challenges need to be tackled in bite-size pieces and interspersed with rest and encouragement. This appears to be the way that Jesus trained his disciples. In what ways is our Lord challenging you to stretch your capacity beyond your normal comfort zone? Who will be your coach as you design a training plan? Are you inviting others to push you to step beyond your comfort levels?
Persevere and take initiative. There is no substitute for perseverance. I have been doing some research into what characterizes those who are effective in a cross-cultural environment. Even the Canadian Foreign Service Institute has concluded from their extensive research that perseverance is a key characteristic of effective cross-cultural advisors. In fact, it is more important in predicting effectiveness than having previous overseas experience. Many advisors who do become highly effective cross-culturally experience high levels of stress initially in adjusting to the new culture. There was no “honeymoon” period for them. Yet, by persevering and continuing to take initiative to involve themselves heavily in the local culture, they overcome the stress and find deep satisfaction in their work in another culture. The research encouragingly says, “In fact, there was evidence to suggest that those who undergo the most severe acculturative stress in adjusting often become the most effective advisors in the transfer of skills and knowledge to their national counterparts.” This level of effectiveness does not come automatically over time, but to those who continue to push themselves and take initiative to learn the culture, get to know people, and accomplish the goals they have set. Secular research can demonstrate the importance of perseverance. But we know the source of that persevering power (Heb 12:1-3). Where do you need to persevere “for the joy set before you”?
Sweat together. Lastly, I see again the importance of teaming. Missio Nexus says, “The Great Commission is too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.” The Canadian Foreign Service Institute, in their list of characteristics of effective overseas advisors, lists “teamwork, prefers to work with others, rather than alone”, right after “perseverance”. We are going to run farther and faster if we run together with others. Teaming has to mean more than having multiple units located in the same geographical area. I won’t draw much motivation to keep running if I only see my team members briefly once a month. and we only talk about the Edmonton Oilers. In fact, if I may, I would say a team needs to sweat together, sharing challenges side by side, or at least debriefing them face-to-face on a regular basis. Who are the people who run the race alongside you? For whom could you be a running partner, encouraging them to keep going when they feel like giving up? Phil Jackson has said this far more powerfully in a blog post earlier this year.