I have been doing a lot of thinking and reading about finishing well in the past several months. In part, this is because I turn 70 in November and will retire at the end of 2021. But I am also interested in this subject because SEND U has been asked to develop and find resources to help SEND missionaries finish well whether in a ministry assignment or at the end of a career. When reflecting on finishing well, I find it helpful to view ministry as a relay race. 1Tom Steffen’s book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting That Empowers also uses this analogy.
Over the next few months, I will be writing a series of blog posts on finishing well in ministry assignments as a leg in a relay race. In this series, I will be applying the analogy of a relay race to finishing well in a ministry assignment. Presently, I plan to write six more posts. This will be followed by a shorter series on finishing well at the end of a ministry career.
In this post, I want to sketch the analogy between ministry and a relay race.
Ministry as a Race
The apostle Paul describes his ministry as a race in a number of passages (Acts 20:24; 1 Corinthians 9:24-26; 2 Timothy 4:7). In the Acts and 2 Timothy passages, he uses the same word in the original language2 (the ESV translates it “course” in Acts and “race” in 2 Timothy). Interestingly, in both passages, he writes about finishing his course or race. In the former passage, he expresses his desire to finish his course and ministry well. In the latter, he expresses his confidence that he has finished his race well.
The Uniqueness of a Relay Race
Part of a Team
Running in a relay race means you are part of a team.3See a previous blog post about mission teams described as track teams. So, success is a group effort. In ministry situations, most team members are usually active simultaneously. Yet finishing well requires that one also recognizes as part of the team those who have preceded us and those who follow us. Paul alludes to this team effort in 1 Corinthians 3:5-11 when speaking of his own ministry followed by the ministry of Apollos. He recognizes that both he and Apollos played vital roles in planting the Corinthian church, although they were not in Corinth at the same time.4 See Acts 18:27-19:1.
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:5–6
Similarly, we are building on the ministry of those who have run before us and need to prepare those who will follow us.
In a relay race, the baton is essential. In fact, to run without it results in disqualification no matter how fast the runner completes the course. Furthermore, there are specific rules for passing the baton. For example, there is a prescribed section of the course within which the baton can be passed. There are also rules about recovering a dropped baton.
In ministry, the gospel is the baton. There is no ministry without it. Paul describes the “course and ministry” he received from the Lord Jesus as “testifying to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-38), he emphasizes the importance of gospel teaching in his own ministry and for the elders’ ministry after he leaves. Likewise in 2 Timothy 2:1-2, Paul writes about entrusting the gospel to others. These faithful individuals will in turn pass the gospel on to others who will continue passing the baton.
Developing the Analogy
Finishing well is not just about finishing the race. It is not just about persevering in your ministry until you are reassigned to another location or retire. Finishing well is also about keeping the faith while you are persevering.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.The Apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7
Moreover, it is about recognizing ministry as a stewardship from God (1 Corinthians 4:1; 2 Corinthians 4:7). As stewards, we will be held accountable for how faithfully we take care of that which has been entrusted to us.
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 4:1
Finishing well requires a firm grip on the gospel we have received in Scripture. This gospel was passed on to us through those who have run before us. We are now to pass it faithfully on to those who run after us.