The Dash or the Distance: An Essay on “Sprinter Pastors” Vs. “Marathon Pastors”

In high school, I ran cross country. Cross country is a unique sport, at once solitary and collective. The parts of training that I looked forward to the least were the long runs.

At one point, I ran roughly a half-marathon, traversing unknown back roads, meeting nary a person. This was no amazing feat relative to top runners, but I recall being staggered by just how long it took. I was a basketball obsessive, used to run-and-gun offense and full-court pressing. During a half-marathon’s worth of running, all you did was run, not super fast, pacing yourself, using your energy wisely, your body at once under duress but able to handle it.

Since my halcyon days as an athlete in Washington County, Maine, I haven’t run a cross country race in a good long while. But now that I am in ministry, and now that I seek to train pastors—to “make ministers,” as J. I. Packer once potently put it—I think regularly about running. I came up in the “young, restless, Reformed” heyday some 15 years ago. As many have observed, something exploded in this time—something God-centered, gospel-driven, and exciting. Following those heady days, much has transpired in this movement. Here’s just one development we need to think about: we’ve seen men approach pastoring as a sprint, a 100-meter dash, only to crash and burn just a few years after they start. Why has this model become so prevalent? In what follows, I’ll give one angle to this question, comparing “sprinter pastors” to “marathon pastors.”

Starving the Devil of Pastors

“Sprinter pastors” blast out of the gate. They are often talented, gifted, charming, and in a hurry. Their abilities not infrequently outpace their character, a precarious situation. Indeed, this model of the pastorate is either practiced by a mature Christian man who allows worldliness to rule and consume him, an immature and poorly-trained Christian man who regrettably acts out his immaturity, or a wolf in pastor’s clothing. The sprinter does his MDiv as fast as humanly possible, racing through his coursework, missing the opportunity to see seminary as a retreat, an intellectual oasis, a season to muse and ponder and debate and process.

When he gets a formal pastorate, he leads change at the church as quickly as he can. Focusing on self over church body, he sets up platforms to expand his voice as far as he can, making decisions that allow him to make public waves rather than build private trust. His marriage is usually stretched thin—even to breaking—throughout all this, but the worst is yet to come, for roles with greater responsibilities are ahead. Ministry begins to fill his wife with dread, and his children rarely see him despite being in their most formative years. His health is not infrequently on the line, and a few brave souls raise concerns with him, but he keeps sprinting, sprinting, sprinting.

Some version of aggressive ministry isn’t all bad, of course. We want young men to want to lead churches. We want them to have spiritual ambition, and every last one of us is a work of progress and has much growth and sin-killing in store. We don’t want to anesthetize young men, to drug them for having testosterone (1000% more than women on average), and we certainly don’t want them to treat ministry preparation as an exotic, languorous, indulgent season. Mature manhood often means putting a load on your back and persevering in great difficulty (see 1 Cor. 16:13, 2 Cor. 10:24-28).

We think of the Lord of the church here. In the three years of his ministry and ministry training of the apostles, Christ and his band of brothers did not take on a light and glancing task. They were not “chocolate soldiers” as C. T. Studd once wrote in a striking essay, a sharp cut if there ever was one. In other words, theirs was less of an airy calling to a series of vacation seminars and more of a preparation for war, dangerous and gritty war against a foe who shoots with live ammo from day one. This foe seeks to take down every minister without exception, and unless a pastor is equipped with an intransigence mentality, a tough-minded and Spirit-powered commitment to stay the course (see Romans 8:37), this Satanic foe may well succeed. Too often the last decade or so, this Satanic foe has succeeded.

How do we starve the devil of the pastors he hungers after? Here’s one major move we make: we reject being a “sprinter pastor” and we embrace being a “marathon pastor.” From his earliest training days, a man seeking to be a pastor-theologian works hard to learn as much as he can during his MDiv, but he is not straining to graduate. He sees seminary not as the place that will teach you everything you need to know about churchmanship (#ExpectationFail, this), but rather as an intellectual and theological retreat that will endow him with all sorts of nourishing knowledge and wisdom and doctrinal instruction. He is eager to minister in any role he can get, but he does not bolt from seminary easily; he resists the temptation to microwave his training, and instead holds steady for several years to drink in what you could call “deep training,” listening and learning and growing in humility, not in pride.

Withdrawals from the Bank of God’s Mercy

The marathon pastor’s goal is not ultimately a professional one, but a personal one. By this I mean that he wants to acquire godly character as much as he wants to acquire doctrinal knowledge (both valuable, but each dangerous without the other). This is because the pastorate is not something you do; the pastorate is something you are. Recognizing that local church ministry is Matthew 28 ministry—“teaching them to observe everything  I have commanded you” (20, emphasis mine)—he seeks to learn doctrine and godliness. He vows that he is going to be counter-cultural and form disciples, what you could call whole counsel disciples, and not simply head count disciples  as God allows.

Such a pastor is pointedly not sprinting. Though his flesh is pulled like anyone else’s, he knows not to read the possible multiplication of services and locations as the undeniable validation of his ministry ability, but as a potentially dangerous idea that could well sap him of his spiritual health and ability to love the sheep God has given him. (Have you ever tried preaching five services a Sunday? Have you ever done it for five or ten years straight? Please have a heart surgeon on call if this is your ministry goal.) His ministry may well be blessed, even incredibly blessed in God’s kindness, but size and numbers and clicks are not the defining metrics nor the tone of his vocation. Instead, he is running a marathon. He is not running alone, though. He is not Lord of the Elder Board. He is rather a shepherd of souls, a physician of the spiritually needy, to use a favorite Puritan metaphor.

He does not despise the sheep, grumpy and tough and discouraging as they can be. He is not in ministry to escape from them, dodging pastoral care and biblical counseling and regular discipleship to do the stuff he likes the most. Costly as all this on a personal level to the pastor, he loves the sheep. He loves them not because they are lovely or because he is righteously loving, but because Christ loves them, and Christ loves him (John 10:11, 27). Even as he fails and gets grumpy himself and tries to start sprinting sometimes, he applies gospel truth to himself. He is no perfect man, but he is self-controlled. He stays in the Word and prayer on a daily basis, fighting for his devotional time, eager for it. He makes regular withdrawals from the overflowing bank of Christ’s grace. He is a debtor there, and he has never himself made a single cents’ deposit, but he keeps making withdrawals, and somehow his account never runs dry.

Alas, the sprinter pastor doesn’t normally let himself make withdrawals. Too often, he’s ministering in his own strength. As such, he gives off a sense of frazzled, nervy exhaustion. He is often on the edge, twitchy, touchy, alternately unable to think or a lightning-fast-decision-maker, tempted to sensitivity, hard to reason and talk with, for he has no personal margin. Conversations with him often sputter as his phone drags him away. His attention is a precious commodity (as for all of us), but he has lent himself to so many causes and conversations that he simply cannot afford you for long. He seems to have lost the ability to listen extendedly, and so he cuts you off continually, dicing the second half of your sentences like an Iron Chef cutting sashimi.

The sprinter pastor pushes himself to the wall at all times and in all seasons. He does not rest, because rest would entail that he is not sprinting and thus cannot win the races that he wants to win. (Do not underestimate the competitive nature of sprinter pastorates. I had a conversation once with a major leader in the centrist evangelical world—you know his name, I assure you—and he spoke openly and cheerfully of “competing” with other churches. I just stood there, horrified, speechless, bereft of a response.)

Deep Rest as a Foundation for Faithful Ministry

By contrast, the marathon pastor gives off a sense of deep rest. This is not confined to one dimension alone. Such a leader works very hard for his Lord and master, but he drinks deeply from the reality that he has endless Sabbath rest, rest from his works, spiritual rest without interruption or exception (Matthew 11:28-30; Hebrews 4). This is not a vague theological promise for him that has begun ever so slightly at Calvary—so much of not yet, and just a thin trickle of already. Though it will surely be realized finally  on the last day, Sabbath rest has fully  broken into ministry and the Christian life now, executing a glorious takeover from the cruel rulership of demonic self-sufficiency. Rest (or the lack thereof) shows where a man’s identity truly lies. The sprinter pastor’s identity comes in substantial measure from his successful endeavors, while the marathon pastor’s identity comes solely from Christ’s successful redemption. For the sprinter pastor, Christ is his product and his marketing. For the marathon pastor, Christ is his identity and his treasure.

The marathon pastor’s sense of rest extends beyond the central element of spiritual Sabbath rest. He physically cares for himself and stewards his body. He may or may not be in the running to win a Mr. Universe competition, but he is a flourishing person, caring for his body as he cares for his soul, knowing that he is not a soul imprisoned in a body, but an embodied soul. That which is material is not evil or unimportant to him; God has made the material world, and so it is enchanted in a theistic way. He exercises, eats healthily, sleeps regularly, refuses the allurement of addictions and abuses of food or alcohol or other outlets (which are generally forms of coping with ungodly and unwise patterns of life), enjoys recreation, and knows how to sit on a patio, looking at the clouds or lake or—best of all—into the eyes of his beloved wife.

The marathon pastor’s wife is not an afterthought to him. She is the love of his life, and because he lives in what you could call “social and emotional rest” that flows from spiritual Sabbath rest in Christ, he cultivates her, washes her with the water of the Word, and sees himself as her head, her protector and provider and leader (Ephesians 5:22-33 being key here). Above all, he points her to God, who is her absolute sufficiency. In response, she enjoys church work, up-and-down as it can be (while the sprinter pastor’s wife only endures church work, or worse yet, despises it). He not only carves out little tiny pockets of time for his children but relishes hours and days with them. They are not a carbon-copy of him; they are little humans, and he is their father, and thus is at all times giving them a distant but real reflection of the heavenly Father.

The Fruit of Holiness Is the Fruit of Ministry

The marathon pastor knows he is not Jesus. He is not afraid of acknowledging sin and weakness. When he gets it wrong, he confesses his sin, repents, and thus displays that he bears the fruit of the Spirit by the grace of God. This point on “fruit” is an important one. The ground of his ministry is truth-driven character, and thus the fruits of the Spirit are truly the fruit of his ministry. The two are one. Peace, gentleness, being open to reason, self-control, love, joy, patience—these and all the Spirit’s fruits are not outliers in his pastoral vocation, but shape and drive his pastoral vocation (Galatians 5:22-23). Like a tree planted by streams of living water, he bears fruit, spiritual fruit, and makes disciples in home and church who likewise bear the good fruit of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:21-23).

This is in contrast to too many “disciples” of too many sprinter pastors, who may talk Christianese and enjoy soaking up the talents of the pastor and the exhilarating experience of the church service, but have not often been taught that the Christian life is not a life of therapeutic self-actualization and unending affirmation, but a life of repentance. Some disciples are genuinely made in such a context, but others are worldly, a confusing blend of secular and spiritual, untrained in biblical doctrine, susceptible to ungodly systems that take them captive, fed a diet of milk and not meat.

This is in part because the sprinter pastor has set up a sprinting church. Why would we expect anything different? The focus of the sprinter pastor’s church is on getting as many people in as fast as they will possibly come. (Fast is a very important word to him, nearly the most important word of them all.) He doesn’t hate people, and he may well be a winning, charming person; he may truly inspire people, and some under him may seek to serve the Lord in a meaningful way. But alas, biblical polity and ecclesiology more broadly are not his primary concern; he in fact may take pains not  to be seen as overly “biblicist” in his methodology and doctrine. (Watch very closely those who use “biblicist” as a pejorative term.) Innovation and entrepreneurship and raw speed are his friends, and patience and deepness and past wisdom are his bugbears.

His preaching is not grounded in deep exegesis but is catchy, clever, soothing, generalized, friendly, full of soft words, and easy to digest. Though a gifted communicator, he does not preach books of the Bible that people would call “boring” or find unaccommodating to their natural views; he is careful about what he preaches on and what he doesn’t touch. The natural man is not really confronted by such homiletics; that’s not the point of this pulpit (contrasting with Paul in 1 Cor. 2:14). This is preaching that goes down easy for the natural man; do enough of it, play your cards right, and TEDx might come calling, or Oprah. The sprinter pastor may preach the gospel (or may not), and people may get genuinely saved in the church, perhaps a good number of them. Nonetheless, he tragically fails to see that his church is not only called by God to preach the gospel but to promote and protect the gospel through its polity, membership, and discipleship.

Hosting Services Versus Making Disciples

The marathon pastor has a church that feels different than one that is dashing. Because he and his elders value thinking, contemplation, meditation on truth, unhurriedness, pacing, and sound doctrine, the sheep do, too. The church is not a sped-up treadmill of activity; it may have a good deal happening, but it nonetheless feels like a “simple church” (a marvelous term). It does not have any one interest group or focus or proclivity or specialization defining it. Some might call it, rather cheekily, a “churchy church.” Whether huge or medium or small in size, it doesn’t feel like a church routed through a Fortune 100 company, Silicon Valley startup, political advocacy group, personal wellness center, or life coaching apparatus. It feels like a church, and while humble in spirit has a reverent and transcendent character to it.

The preaching is richly biblical, gladly grammatical-historical (Neh. 8:8), and carefully redemptive-historical in its method (2 Cor. 1:20). The sermons are aimed at discipleship, albeit with an eye to unbelievers. The members seem cared-for and loved by the elders; if you want to speak to a pastor, it doesn’t take you 27 emails, 9 months, and the acquisition of a sense of harassment of the pastor on your part to make that happen. The marathon pastor’s church feels like a place to become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, not to become a statistic, a tiny cog in an impressive spiritual bureaucracy, a person seemingly loved by the Lord but forgotten by all in the church except a harried “small group leader” with no theological training and 47 people to contact each week.

Churches led by marathon pastors (teams of them) are not perfect. They have their frustrating realities. They will not appeal to everyone. They have a low likelihood of meeting the requirements of many modern churchgoers for a “comfortable” or “super friendly” or “ultra-authentic” or “relevant” experience. They are not set up, after all, simply to host effective services. They are set up to make true disciples. They thus do not feel like a spiritual microwave, hot and intense and rapid-fire. They feel like a forest, a forest of trees with deep roots in rich soil, soil full of the nutrients of the Word that flows weekly in the worship service. This soil strengthens the members of the church, most of whom do not lead the exciting airbrushed life of a cultural “influencer,” but instead lead the anonymous, ordinary, rugged, doggedly joyful lives of average Christian people. These disciples are not fireworks, shooting into the sky, awing all who see them. These disciples are more like trees, rooted and steady and stable, growing over time.

Most marathon disciples made in marathon churches are not flashy. But they tend to endure. When you consider these faithful Christian men and women at the end of their lives, they are not spent fuses, discarded and forgotten on the ground, a relic of an enthralling spiritual event that happened long ago led for a time by a sprinter pastor who then left, crashed, burned out, or just plain lost steam. (There is not only a cottage industry to fill such voids in evangelicalism today, there is a genuine industry to aid such congregations, many of whom bought into the sprinter pastor model as their ticket to relevance.) These disciples are in many cases oaks, tall trees, their branches stretching into the skies (Psalm 1:3). They were tended and cultivated over time by faithful foresters, skilled workers, men of spiritual iron who cultivated the soil, trimmed unhealthy branches, and protected their corner of the forest from the many enemies that would invade it and choke the life from the trees.

These trees testify to such careful cultivation: the pastor who sticks by them may or may not have explosive numbers to report, but he has many signs of health to praise God for nonetheless. He sees “marathon marriages” in the church, couples who fought sin together in gospel power and now have a six-decade covenant testimony. He sees children from these godly families who trusted Christ as Savior and now live for his glory, making good on their spiritual heritage. He sees single Christians who battle the flesh for purity and now stand as a testimony to the truth that Christ is sufficient for every believer. He sees Christians who have grown in evangelistic faithfulness, in submitting to the hard truths of Scripture (and not merely the palatable ones), in the precise callings of biblical manhood and womanhood, in a life of obedience.


 As the pastor surveys what God has wrought, he sees a forest nurtured continually by the water of the Word, and he is able to be free of jealousy, and competitiveness, and despair. Perhaps the pastor thinks back to past days, to the halcyon days of athletic competition. Perhaps he muses for a moment on how he used to sprint, and how his heart naturally yearned to sprint (for all of us must be broken, and re-broken, of this sinful instinct). Perhaps he thinks of his failings, real as they are, and how utterly far short of the standard of Christ he falls. But then he thinks about how grace intruded and freed him from a sprinter pastorate, and how God rewired him to run long and patiently and steadily.

At this point in his contemplation, the pastor knows that the marathon is almost over. Soon he will welcome his successor, graciously handing off the baton to him, secure not in his church’s esteem of him but in Christ’s justification of his eternal soul. As he runs on, he can see eternity’s light just over the next hill, bathing the forest in its warmth, telling of wondrous things to come. He kept the faith all these years, and he ran the marathon, and there are just a few miles left to go.


Books (most Christian, a few not) that can inform, in different ways, a marathon pastorate:

J. I. Packer, Quest for Godliness

Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church and The Compelling Community (with Jamie Dunlop)

John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals

Thom Rainer, Simple Church

Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors

Cal Newport, Deep Work and Digital Minimalism

Alan Fadling, An Unhurried Life

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian

Greg McKeown, Essentialism

Richard Swenson, Margin

Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine

Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian