Falling Forward: Three Contrarian Approaches to Sustaining Mission and Ministry

“Faithful ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.” Most of us who lead churches have heard someone use that phrase (or something similar). Eugene Peterson famously described ministry as “a long obedience in one direction.” But once we move beyond these idioms, can we learn anything about sustaining mission and ministry from this metaphor of an endurance race? As a minister and endurance runner, I think so.

In 2009, I first ran the Blue Ridge Relay, an endurance race where the nine runners on our team combined to run 36 segments totaling over 208 miles. We finished in just under thirty hours. One of my teammates, Dwayne, an endurance racing coach, encouraged everyone on our team to experiment with our running form as we prepared for the relay. When we were doing speed work or running on a treadmill, he told us to lean out over our feet, strike the ground with our mid-foot rather than heel, and spring forward into the next stride. Running with this form, Dwayne said, should feel almost like falling forward.

Dwayne was teaching us a new way of running that was, in fact, quite old. Falling forward running, which has become known as “natural running,” goes against established norms and deeply-ingrained habits. A generation ago, runners who spurred the revival of this form were seen as extreme. They often advocated for minimalist footwear or barefoot running. Falling forward runners were contrarian. The method they embraced as “natural” felt to most runners extremely unnatural.

Unnatural, that is, at first.

Recently, Christopher McDougall travelled the world to chronicle the emergence (or recovery) of this style of running in the book Born to Run. “Running,” writes McDougall, “is just a controlled fall.”(McDougall, 219) Maybe leadership is as well, particularly Christian leadership. Falling forward is a paradoxical, or contrarian, way to think about running and about leadership. The word falling points to the recognition that we as humans do not possess ultimate control. The word forward denotes a hope and trust that there is a direction to our falling, even when it seems risky or counterproductive. Denise Levertor’s poem “The Avowal” explores this paradox:

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so I would learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

As an attempt to “learn to attain freefall,” this sort of leadership runs contrary to common-sense, traditionally accepted modes of leadership. Falling forward leadership may even prove contrary to the types of leadership often exerted in congregational and other Christian settings.

In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample claims that effective leadership must “break free, if only fleetingly from the bonds of conventional thinking so as to bring your natural creativity and intellectual independence to the fore.” (Sample, 3) What would a contrarioan approach to Christian leadership look like? How might it lead to sustained ministry and mission? What are the intersection points between endurance racing, leadership theory, and church life? What contrarian practices are helpful in sustaining mission, individually and corporately?

I would suggest, as a starting point, three contrarian Christian leadership practices that sustain individual and communal mission and ministry: seeking irrelevance, getting used to failure, and relying on others.

1. Seek Irrelevance.
Ultrarunners do not run for win cash prizes or to garner shoe contracts. Most of them are not lured by accolades or awards. Even with a recent surge in participation in ultra races, the sport of ultrarunning has remained largely unknown in wider public circles. And while some run to push their limits, stir up their endorphins, or beat their previous times, these are not the most basic reasons why ultrarunners run. Ultrarunners run because they cannot not run. Something innate, something programmed deep within them, compels them to run.

As Christians and as church leaders, we have a deep, inward compulsion toward making known the good news of Christ. Henri Nouwen, writes that “the leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation." When we cultivate that divine vocation, we can let go of the drive to be culturally relevant. Many a minister has burned out, many a church has lost sight of vision and mission in the quest to be relevant.

One August, I received an e-mail from Judy, who had recently become a member of our church. It said, rather simply:

I would like to speak with you about making a commitment to work with the Youth on Wednesday evenings.
Judy Holliday

Judy would not have been at the top of my list for youth worker recruitment. Judy was old enough to be the grandmother of most of our teenagers. Judy did not have a magnetic personality, a hip wardrobe, or any knowledge whatsoever of pop culture. I was excited about her willingness, but wondered whether she could connect with our teenagers.

As we talked, Judy became excited about leading a small mission group on Wednesday nights. She would be mentoring a group of five teens as they worked at a ministry site. Judy’s group began by visiting homes for adults with disabilities. They lead games and karaoke, read books, and did make-up and nails. The first few weeks, I overheard teenagers calling Judy “grandma” behind her back. In the spring semester, Judy’s group shifted their focus to caring for two men struggling with HIV.

Slowly, as the group realized her commitment to being there and her genuine care for each of them, the tone of the group changed. Judy laughed and cried with, prayed and cared for this group of teenagers. She led them to care for one another and for each person with whom they worked. As Judy devoted herself to entering the lives of our teenagers, she taught them a beautiful way of sharing their lives with each other and with the people they encountered.

Ultrarunners cannot not run. Judy could not not give herself away in relationship to teenagers. Bill and Evelyn could not not walk the path toward transformation alongside their neighbors. At their best, congregations and their leaders call people back to the way of life God intends. When we let go of the drive to be culturally-relevant, we are freed to passionately pursue our divine vocation, wherever it may lead.

2. Get Used to Failure.
While in Washington DC, this past Spring Break, my family visited the National Air and Space Museum. In the gift shop was a rack full of black t-shirts with large white lettering that read: “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!” This tagline, though not officially a NASA mantra, found its way into the movie Apollo 13 and into the American psyche. Many businesses, many families, many individuals, and many churches embrace this aversion to failure. “We’ve never done it that way before.” “You can try new things as long as they succeed.” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” One of my colleague’s mother warns her (jokingly, as far as I can tell) each time she steps into the pulpit: “Don’t embarrass the family!”

In Adapt, Tim Harford offers a contrarian view, “We will have to make an uncomfortable number of mistakes, and learn from them, rather than cover them up or deny they happened even to ourselves. This is not the way we are used to getting things done.” Harford argues that failure is necessary, even essential, to eventual success. His keys for failing well are: “Try new things, in the expectation that some will fail… make failure survivable… and make sure you know when you’ve failed.” (Harford, 33)
More than a decade ago, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina hired Bill Stanfield and Evelyn Oliveira to do something in North Charleston. At the time, no one was quite sure what that something was. Stanfield and Oliveira moved to North Charleston, the community in South Carolina with the highest level of childhood poverty. They committed their first year there to living, listening, observing, asking questions, building relationships, and learning about community development.

As they approached the end of that first year, Stanfield and Oliveira travelled to Washington, DC to spend some time with Gordon Crosby and other people at Church of the Savior. During one of their conversations, they shared with Crosby the projects they intended to undertake and their hope for transformation in their community. Crosby paused, and then spoke with deliberation: “It strikes me that one of the things you’ll be doing most is getting used to failure.”

They returned to North Charleston and established Metanoia. Through the community development project’s first ten years – which included regional and national accolades as well as organizational setbacks and growing pains – Crosby’s words about failure have informed Stanfield’s leadership. “After all,” says Stanfield, “we trust in a God whose greatest victory looked on the surface to be nothing but a tremendous failure.”

Stanfield describes the keys to retaining institutional vibrance as “setting ambitious goals and then creating the space to work them out, to fail and learn from failure.” He talks openly about employees who turned out to be the wrong people in the wrong places, about good ideas that fizzled in implementation, and about having to say “no” far more often than he could say “yes.” The one non-negotiatiable for a team-member, says Stanfield, is “the willingness to be open to their own growth, through both successes and failures.”

Difficulty, discomfort, and failure can be signs that point toward growth. Endurance coach Ken Mierke describes his frustration in helping runners to change their form:
“When I teach this technique and ask someone how it feels, if they say ‘Great!”…that means they didn’t change a thing. The change should be awkward. You should go through a period where you’re no longer good at doing it wrong and not yet good at doing it right.” (McDougall, 206)

We tend to avoid that awkward, but necessary, period at all costs. We have been taught in life and in leadership that failure is not an option, that difficulty and discomfort ought to be avoided. We have learned to see failure as the enemy, not as a coach guiding us toward improvement. As Christian leaders, we follow the God whose greatest success looked by all accounts to be a complete failure, death on a cross. So, maybe it’s time we started getting used to failure.

3. Rely on Others.
Ultra racing could be seen as primarily an individual pursuit. After all, ultrarunners spend hundreds of hours on the road logging miles, not to mention time spent strategizing for, preparing for, and traveling to races. For the most part, other than endurance relays, runners enter and compete as individuals. All this considered, the role of community in endurance racing should not be underestimated. Highly successful endurance racers affirm the value of training with a partner who can encourage, pace and push, as well as pay attention to flaws in form or other harmful tendencies that might otherwise go unnoticed. And for ultra races, all but the most extreme runners need a “crew.” The crew helps the runner by supplying nutrition, maximizing rest stops, and running alongside as a companion particularly at night or during the later stages of the race. This past March, I was part of a five-person crew that helped my friend Lee complete his third 100-mile ultramarathon.

McDougall writes: “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, but to be with each other.” In a dangerous prehistoric world, humans hung their hopes of survival on the fact that they “ran like crazy and stuck together.” (McDougall, 242) And so it is with the church and its potential to survive and thrive in a hostile world.

Pastors and other church leaders may be tempted to hold onto the work of the church and shoulder a greater burden than they should on their own. They become like the Maximillian sunflower, described by Wendell Berry, that grew tall and wide on its own, apart from the rest of the sunflowers in the flowerbed. Its gangling arms broke off, heavy laden with blossoms. “It had failed,” writes Berry, “because it had lived outside an important part of its definition, which consists of both its individuality and its community.” (Berry, 138)

I have now run the Blue Ridge Relay five times, each time with a slightly different collection of teammates. When you spend thirty hours with one another, constantly running, piling into cars, trying to stay dry and hydrated and nourished, struggling with inevitable stomach issues, a strange and special sort of community emerges. The mystery and grace of these relationships is not easily described. Shared experiences move beyond our capacity for words.

Relying on others, sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness, is actually a great well of strength, whether as part of a relay team or a congregation on mission.

I have been a competitive distance runner for more than twenty years now, since my days as a high school cross country runner. A few weeks ago, I did something I have never done in that two decade span. I fell! I was running along the sidewalk, looking ahead to the next intersection, hit an uneven spot, and fell hard! I guess, after all these years, I am still learning to attain freefall, both in running and in faithful leadership. These three contrarian practices – seeking irrelevance, getting used to failure, and relying on others – do not fully articulate an alternative form of leadership for the church of the twenty-first century. But, hopefully, they do begin the conversation.

Thanks be to God that life and leadership are marathons not sprints, and that we have the Spirit as our endurance coach, teaching us the importance of being intentional, working on our form, until the unnatural – the contrarian – becomes natural…again.

David Brown is Student Ministries Coordinator for Pinnacle, while also on staff at Oakland Baptist Church in Rock Hill, SC. Soon David will complete his DMin at Duke Divinity School. When you contact David for coaching, consulting, and training related to student ministries, he will assist you in identifying what kind of services are best suited to address your needs.