By Eddie Pipkin

Last weekend I ran a half marathon.  It was the second one I had done, and it felt like I was woefully unprepared.  My training schedule had been disrupted by some unplanned travel, I was battling various minor injuries, and to top it off, I got sick the weekend before the race.  But, with the egging on of some of my running buddies, I showed up at the starting line, and off we went.  To my astonishment, it turned out to be a great day.  It was a gorgeous course.  The weather was perfect, cool and sunny.  I felt unexpectedly terrific as the miles piled up, and in the end, I outperformed my previous time.  Against all logic, things worked out – heck, I thrived – and while one could devise lots of theories about why that was true, I am attributing it to the cheerleaders.  In all endeavors in life, from road races to ministry, there is something wonderful and downright supernaturally powerful about somebody cheering you on.

Among the crew of friends who ran that morning with me – and you perhaps have had a similar experience yourself – there was agreement that there is just something definitively qualitatively different about race day.  The presence of the co-participants, the enthusiasm of the spectators, and the hype-it-up energy of the pre-and-post-race festivities are like a shot of pure adrenaline.  Whatever you could achieve while grinding out your long solo runs, when race day arrives, you can do so much more.

Sure, we got a cool medal for finishing, and that’s a nice keepsake for looking back on the day, but it’s not what kept me and others going during the race.  When we felt tired, when it got hard, when we started to ache, it was all the other positive reinforcement in the present moment that made the difference.

What’s that got to do with ministry?  Well, any significant ministry project is like a half-marathon (or, more accurately, like a full marathon), and while ministry leaders often do a fine job with the thank yous at the end of the race, we can miss opportunities to be supportive in the toughest stretches.  Beyond recognizing and rewarding people for a job well done after the fact, we could do more to bolster their energy and attitude along the way.

Here are some of the forms of cheerleading I saw along the half-marathon route last weekend, followed by their potential ministry parallels:

  • People along the route shouting encouragement. Some of these folks were volunteers who were in place for this express purpose (like all the high schoolers who were collecting community service hours).  Some of them were folks in the neighborhood sitting in lawn chairs in their driveways.  Some were people who had come to give encouragement to somebody other than me and my friends, but who joyfully extended their enthusiastic well wishes to us.  Some were our very own people!  I had a particular surprise because my wife and daughter showed up at multiple points on the route, shouting and cheering us on – I hadn’t expected that – and they’d cheer as we went by, then hop in the car and jump up the route a few miles – I never knew where – but I realized after a couple of times that I could pick out my wife’s distinctive “Wooohooo” before I could see her.

From a ministry perspective, a network of cheerleaders throughout a project is a powerful boost to those working in the trenches.  We can build a network of encouragers – this is a great gift possessed by some, and it is a worthwhile assignment for those who are homebound or limited in other ways in how they can serve.  Anybody can send a text or make a call and give words of encouragement and pray for folks who are undertaking a difficult task.  It is great for workers to hear from their leader, but leaders shouldn’t be taking on that mission exclusively.  (They shouldn’t be delegating it completely to others either.  It’s a balance.)

  • People held up homemade signs along the route! Some of them had on costumes, too.  Some were handing out leis.  This was a little extra fun for the runners, something to distract us, too, as the miles piled up.

From a ministry perspective, spoken attaboys and attagirls are nice, but a written card of encouragement, “You got this!” and “You’re doing a great job!” is a powerful addition.  A little whimsical gift or a batch of unexpected cookies is nice.  Again, this is something that can be delegated to an encouragement team or encouragement-gifted specialist who takes this on as their personal ministry.  And I earlier mentioned the joy of random dispensation of such encouragement.  The surprise element adds to the smile production.

  • There were bands strategically placed along the route! Including an Elvis impersonator!

From a ministry perspective, for big projects it’s a great idea to set fun milestone moments to celebrate the different stages of completion.  Sure, we sometimes throw a celebration dinner or after-party once a big project is completed, but what if we shifted some of that energy to the mid-point or crunch time of a project?  A little “blowing off steam” moment to defuse the tension at just the right time.  Pinata party, anyone?

  • Feeding Stations. One of the most wonderful things about a well-organized running event is that there are designated refueling stations that provide water, Gatorade, and energy gels.  Your body needs to replenish its resources.  Hydration is critical.

From a ministry perspective, it’s important that we provide the workers in the trenches with all the resources they need to stay healthy during the run-up to major projects.  This includes reminding them to maintain their physical health and well-being, as well as their mental health and spiritual health – don’t forget regular doses of that Holy Spirit hydration!

  • Help with the housekeeping details. On the racecourse, once you drink your little paper cup of Gatorade, you don’t have to go looking for a trash can.  In fact, you can just crumple it and toss it to the curb.  There are designated volunteers to take care of that trash for you.

From a ministry perspective, it’s a tremendous help when we can surround key volunteers and leaders with support personnel who can take care of some of the small but essential details which carry a project forward.  Every small detail that is taken off a team leader’s plate creates bandwidth for more focused leadership.  And there are people who love the work of the housekeeping details.  Let them do what they love to do!

  • Countdown clocks! Every mile of the half-marathon is marked by a banner, and periodically along the route, there are digital clocks which show the elapsed time.  There are even highly skilled running veterans who carry a handheld sign with a pace number.  For instance, if you want to finish the race in two-and-a-half hours, you just stay with the lady running with the “2.5” sign.

From a ministry perspective, it’s a great idea to pace the project crew.  Have a highly visible chart that checks off milestones.  Celebrate those milestones in leadership meetings and other public settings.  Provide leaders (especially new leaders) with mentors who have led these kinds of projects before.

  • Porta Potties! I am of a certain vintage that there is no way I am going to complete a 10-mile or longer run without a pit stop.  So, how refreshing that someone has anticipated my need and strategically placed those big green, plastic privies along the route.

From a ministry perspective, it is good policy to give people a convenient way to “unload excess weight.”  When the stress builds, we all need a way to offload that stress.  That can come in the form of strategically timed check-in sessions.  It can come in the form of team meetings specifically designated as “gripe sessions” or “letting off steam” sessions.  There are lots of creative ways to process these emotions and accumulated tension.  It’s good to give people opportunities for a healthy reset.

If we do all those things, we create the conditions for the strongest finish possible.  Plus, the people in ‘the race’ finish feeling good about themselves, the project, and the team.  They are not depleted and discouraged afterwards.  They are eager for what comes next. They are ready to push themselves for the next exciting challenge.

Just this morning, I read in the newspaper about high school basketball player, Hannah Kohn, who scored 61 points in a victory that also established her as a new national record holder for successful three-point shots in a girls basketball game.  She hit 19 three-pointers.  In one game!

Of course, basketball is a team sport.  What stood out to me in the article was Hannah’s quote to the reporter after the game:

“I achieved something. And I felt so loved today,” Kohn said in a phone interview. “It was easy to accomplish so much because of the way my team and my coach were today. All the girls were hyping me up. They were finding me open. They’re like the most unselfish teammates I’ve ever had.”

Every time we achieve something – every time we accomplish a ministry goal – every time we complete a big project, isn’t that exactly the way we ought to feel?  Isn’t that exactly the way we should be supporting and encouraging one another?  When we do, amazing things happen.

How are the support and encouragement systems at your local church?  Do you wait to congratulate people on a job well done only after the job is done?  Or do you cheerlead them along the way?  And do you try to take on all that cheerleading yourself, or do you make it a team sport?  What new elements could you add to your cheerleading and encouragement repertoire?