As we continue to think about finishing well in a ministry assignment, let’s return to the beginning of our leg of the race. Starting well sets the stage for finishing well. In a relay race, the team that exchanges the baton most efficiently usually wins. So beginning our lap by smoothly receiving the baton will increase the likelihood that we will finish well.
In a relay race, a runner must pay attention to the preceding runner. Particularly, one needs to know which hand holds the baton so a smooth transfer can happen. The assigned lane one’s team is running in is also essential to know. Moreover, the placement the previous runner has achieved is also important information for the team’s success.
We tend to act as if history started when we arrived on the ministry scene. I did when I came to Alaska back in 1978. Yet, it didn’t take long to realize there was much to learn from those who came before me. So, it is important that we begin our assignment by learning from previous runners. More importantly, how we receive the baton will prepare us to pass it on well to those who follow us.
Learning from Previous Runners
Often someone else has served in our role or assignment before us. As in a relay race, the timing of passing the baton in a ministry assignment is critical. In fact, relay races are often won or lost in the exchange zone. The baton must be exchanged within a 20-meter zone. This allows the receiving runner to get up to speed matching the stride of the other runner for a smooth exchange. So as we start our leg of the race we observe the way those before us served.
In a relay race, the exchange zone is not the time for a major change in speed. Yet, after receiving the baton, acceleration will be necessary to maintain and improve the team’s place in the race. This has clear application for transitions in ministry as well. I remember a seminary professor advising pastoral students not to make major changes in the first year of a pastorate. This is certainly a good rule of thumb.
Receiving the baton in church planting assignments
In church planting assignments we will learn from our predecessors the approaches that were effective and ineffective in communicating the gospel. Additionally, we can learn of cultural influences (our culture and the host culture) that hinder or enhance the advancement of the gospel. In other words, we can gain an understanding of the progress of the church plant. Are we still primarily sowing or are we watering as well (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)?
Receiving the baton in administrative and support assignments
Throughout this series, I have identified the baton as the gospel in church planting assignments. Indeed, it is essential to keep the gospel central in all our activities (1 Corinthians 9:23). Yet, in administrative and support assignments the baton would include other tasks and responsibilities. These responsibilities might include financial policies and procedures, donor relations, processing visas, or training. Nevertheless, the advancement of the gospel must remain the driving purpose for all these ministries.
In administrative and support roles we also must receive the baton well. Just as in ministry assignments, we need to start by learning from the strengths and weaknesses of predecessors. As in ministry assignments, learning from predecessors does not preclude innovation. In other words, we make our contribution by running our lap – after we have received the baton.
Learning as the First Runner
The first runner in a relay race needs to get off the starting blocks well, know the lane to run in, and the location of the exchange zone. For the pioneer church planter, this involves culture and language learning. Also included is studying the religious and national history of the host culture. Tom SteffenTom A. Steffen, Passing the Baton, 1993, p 1-125 and David SillsM. David Sills, Reaching and Teaching the Highland Quichuas, 2012, p 1-103. provide excellent examples of this process. Interestingly, Steffen’s research uncovered an earlier attempt to reach the people group with limited language and cultural understanding. This resulted in a distorted understanding of the gospel.
In developing a new administrative or support role, there is also a need to learn culture and language. That is, one needs to learn the culture of the organization including its mission and vision. There may even be language to learn. I am amazed at the number of acronyms used in mission organizations. Understanding the purpose of the new role and its relationship to the overall mission of the organization is also essential to assure one is running in the right direction.
Start Well to Finish Well
As we think about receiving the baton well to start our leg of the race, Richard Clinton and Paul Leavenworth note that:
Finishing well begins with starting well. . . .
Psychologists tell us that in our older age we don’t change much, we simply become more of who we really are. Young leaders, now is the time to begin thinking about finishing well. The kinds of attitudes and behaviors that you establish early in life and ministry will control how you will be during the end of ministry.Richard Clinton and Paul Leavenworth, Starting Well: Building a Strong Foundation For a Lifetime of Ministry, 1994, p.25.