Sprinting into a Marathon: Leaders, Pace Yourselves

I still remember when it caught me. Hurricane Harvey had devastated our city in August 2017, it was now October, and I’d been working around the clock for six weeks. Exhaustion just ran me down. I had sprinted into a marathon.

Many leaders are doing the same thing right now as a worldwide disruption demands urgent decisions, adjustments, communication, and a different kind of energy. The relentless work is noble and understandable, but be warned: it’s not sustainable.

I ended up taking a 4-day trip to Galveston, holing up in a rental on the Gulf, taking long walks on the beach, eating in random restaurants, sleeping whenever I wanted, reading Ecclesiastes over and over, and brain-sweeping into my journal. My mind, body, and spirit had conspired to demand a shutdown, and there was no negotiating.

Maybe it was inevitable. We had a flooded and gutted building, 50 flooded families, an army of volunteers, a maelstrom of communication, a whirling mobile ministry, urgent fundraising efforts, a huge reconstruction project, a diverse flock to shepherd, inbound teams clamoring to help, and frustrated dreams about how to reach out to a region in upheaval. Looking back, I’m so humbled by how our team, church, city, and widespread friends came together and slogged through that crisis. But I know I wasn’t always wise along the way.

I just didn’t take the time to shut down, rest, delegate, or create healthy new rhythms for the long haul. I just kept sprinting.

The adrenaline of it all kept me going. Everything was new, everything was urgent, and everyone else was at full speed, so it wasn’t just easy to burn the candle at all ends in that early phase of the crisis. It felt natural and right, even inspiring. It felt necessary.

But I was sprinting the first mile of a marathon. The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey would consume our church for the next full year, with our final flooded families completing their renovations two years later—in 2019.

If you’re helping any group, business, organization, or church through this worldwide disruption, I can’t tell you this strongly enough: pace yourself.

When the airplane loses cabin pressure during a flight, we’re told to put on our own oxygen masks before helping those around us. Because you can’t help anyone else for very long if you’re not breathing yourself. When you take First Aid training, they teach you to check the immediate area before you start tending to a victim. Because you can’t help anyone else for very long if you get taken out by some danger you could’ve foreseen.

Sacrificial servant leadership is a good thing. It’s the way of Jesus, and the only path to true greatness in God’s book. Many leaders, teachers, administrators, supervisors, health workers, parents, and public servants are working overtime these days. You’re tracking the news, processing information, collaborating with others, making decisions, caring for your people, and implementing big adjustments both in your own lives and in your areas of responsibility.

But don’t stay in crisis mode for long. Be disciplined not only to rest but to create new patterns and rhythms. Disruptions like the one we’re experiencing will put your mind on a treadmill that keeps your spirit churning even when you’re not actively working or worrying. It will eat you up and wear you out, while your adrenaline and your noble desire to serve keep you blind to the burnout that’s chasing you down.

Depend on others. Create disciplines. Acknowledge you can’t solve every problem or save every puppy in the pound. Control your media intake to save time and sanity. And by all means, abandon perfectionism, self-sufficiency, and all traces of the messiah complex.

Remember, Jesus’ whole ministry was a crisis. When he wasn’t on the road, traveling from town to town, spreading his message and sleeping wherever his entourage was received, he was surrounded by the desperate, the hostile, the calculating, or those looking for a show.

His years of public ministry were the most important years in earth’s history, but he knew when to get away, when to take a break, when to say, “It’s not the time—my hour has not yet come.”

Jesus often pulled away from the crowds for time alone with his disciples or prayer walks in the mountains. He took private boats, sought out deserted places, and went below deck to grab some sleep. And if Jesus rested, so should we. Not only is he our ultimate example; he’s also the only one who’s fully satisfied God’s righteous requirements so that his followers can rest in what he’s done and freely join the work of his Spirit as we fulfill our own callings in this current crisis.

Hurricane Harvey taught me what pastoral ministry has continued teaching me: the job is never done. There’s always more to do than you’ve already done, and less time in the day than there was an hour earlier. You can cross and cross and cross tasks off your list, but you’ll never cross out a crisis. Only God decides when a crisis ends and normalcy begins again.

So don’t wait ’til the job is done to rest. Work hard, serve people, trust God, and rest well. God will be working while you rest, and the work he’s assigned you will always be there when you wake up.

You can sprint into a marathon, but you can’t sprint the whole way. So get oriented, stay hydrated, and take the long view. Leaders, pace yourselves.