Who’s Your Training Partner?

I changed out of my dress slacks and button-down into spandex tri-shorts and my favorite red technical shirt as slowly as I could. It had been a long day at the office with several meetings and requests for assistance. I knew what was ahead so I was in no hurry.

Most days I looked forward to training outdoors, but today was different. My regular training partner had completed his workout earlier in the day and Cami, my wife and other training partner, was unavailable. Tough workouts are always better to do with a partner. Knowing I’m meeting someone gets me out the door on days I would rather take a nap on the couch. Working out with someone else also allows my competitive nature to kick in, pushing me to do my best. And in truth, misery really does love company.

I sent out a Facebook plea in a last-ditch effort to find someone who might go with me, but got no responses. The air was chilly and there were dark clouds just waiting to release their contents. I’d have to face this workout alone and I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant.

My prescribed workout for the day was intense. After a fifteen-minute warm-up run, I’d face Granddad Bluff for fifty minutes of hill repeats—three minutes uphill, three minutes downhill; four minutes uphill, four minutes downhill; five minutes uphill, five minutes downhill—until I hit six minutes. All on a hill with a 10 percent grade. Then I’d do the same thing in reverse—five minutes, four minutes, three minutes. On ascents, I was to maintain a heart rate of 88-90 percent of my maximum capacity. It would cause my legs to burn and my lungs to gasp for oxygen. It would not be fun. I felt weak and unmotivated.

Hard to Go it Alone

Consistency in my training this year has been a challenge for a number of reasons. But consistency is key for race preparation. It’s critical to being prepared to compete successfully in an Ironman competition, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. I wasn’t looking forward to those hill repeats and I knew I would have lonely moments, but I also knew I needed to do it. I checked Facebook one more time to see if anyone responded to my plea for a willing companion, but I found no takers.

I began to plod toward Granddad Bluff.

After about a mile I passed my friend Bill’s house. He happened to be outside, just back from walking Toughy, his huge black Labrador. I waved and said hello.

“What are you doing?” Bill asked.

“Going to the bluff to pound my legs—hill repeats today,” I said.

“I’ll meet you over there and do them with you.”

My spirits instantly lifted. I suddenly found myself looking forward to the workout that was no longer ahead of just me, but was now ahead of us.
The work of Christian leadership and ministry is demanding—just as demanding in its own way as competing in an Ironman. When I became a senior pastor, I experienced the joy of serving God and using my leadership gifts to serve my congregation, but it wasn’t long before the inherent loneliness and isolation of that position began to take a toll. After a few years in ministry, I was exhausted and uncertain if I could continue in Christian leadership for the long haul. As a pastor, I routinely helped other people navigate their struggles, but I began to wonder who might be able to journey with me through my own rough waters.

Who cares for the souls of pastors? Who keeps them from levels of depletion that eventually cause them to crash and burn? Who accompanies them on the journey and helps them remain consistent in listening for the quiet whispers God wants to speak into their lives?

Training for Transformation

In 2002, the Transforming Center was formed to care for the souls of pastors, Christian leaders and the congregations and organizations they serve. Through the two-year Transforming Community®, pastors and Christian leaders train together so they can finish the race to which God has called them.

The Transforming Center has helped me to experience a transformation that has strengthened and restored me—a transformation that continues to nurture me in my leadership today. The Transforming Center has helped me remain consistent in pursuing the practices that open me to God’s transforming work so that I can lead from that place.

In his younger years, Bill was an accomplished runner; now in his fifties, he is a generous running companion who pushes me to work hard.

The skies did open, but it no longer mattered.

Bill’s willingness to join me on Granddad Bluff helped me nail the workout and remain consistent in my training, which is what I need in order to compete successfully in an Ironman race. The community of pastors and leaders that I have become a part of in the Transforming Center supports, encourages, and joins me as I seek to follow Christ in my call as a senior pastor. As an Ironman athlete, my deepest desire—to complete the race— is what will carry me through. As a pastor, my deepest desire—to know Christ and love him forever—is what will carry me through and strengthen the soul of my leadership. I thank God for the ministry of the Transforming Center, which helps me and, indirectly, my congregation, to practice consistent disciplines for following Christ.

This year marks the fifth time I’ve competed on behalf of the Transforming Center. This is one way I can give back to the Transforming Center so that other pastors and leaders might experience the nurture, care and transformation that have changed my life and my leadership. Please join me in supporting this vital ministry.

Support one pastor to help many more by making a gift in honor of our Ironman Pastor. October is Clergy Appreciation Month– a great time to show your support of clergy. Designate your gift as “Ironman Pastor” to support Jonathan and help many more pastors.

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© Jonathan Taylor Haley, 2010. This article is not to be reproduced without permission from the author or the Transforming Center.

[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/qjxxYoL7nSU”]


Rev. Dr. J. Taylor Haley

is senior pastor/head of staff at First Presbyterian Church, LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Jonathan holds a Master of Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from McCormick Seminary. He serves on the board of the Transforming Center and has competed in over ten Ironman® races.
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I’m sure you are recovering for a day or two, but hope you will post a report about the event for those of us who couldn’t follow it online- thank you!

Thanks for asking. Visit the Transforming Center Facebook page to get the latest. I posted an update he sent here: http://ow.ly/DPsGJ

Jonathan, thank you so much for this analogy. Having only done sprint tris to date (Olympic next season is my goal!) I have tremendous respect for IM athletes and the level of commitment and discipline needed to train for such a race. I agree that physical training has helped to alleviate dualism in my walk with Christ and brought greater integration and wholeness into my relationship with God. As with any discipline (or lack thereof), there is the temptation to make the discipline the end and not the means but this should not be used as a reason not to engage but rather to practice awareness of the fruit of that discipline (or lack thereof! 🙂 in our lives. Pushing myself in physical training brings an exhilaration and gratitude that spills over into other aspects of my life and I always find myself in a more centered place with God and all areas of my life when I’m engaging in it.

One aspect of doing this I enjoy so much is the warm community. People of all athletic levels, ages, and body types are working out their race with “fear and trembling” – out there together acknowledging their fears and yet willing to race and face the unknowns of what each competition and the response of their own bodies will bring. I find it a completely energizing experience to be part of such a group. As you stated, its also a way to connect with people outside the church walls that reminds me that at our core we are all created for and designed for a great and significant purpose…I see the seeking of that purpose among my competitors and pray my presence at races may shine light toward that greater purpose and the only finish line that truly matters.

Thanks for your post again Jonathan and prayers for a personal best at the Florida IM!

Mike – thank you for your reply. I didn’t feel like my story was diminished as much as I was appreciative of the opportunity to share more of it to better convey who I am as an athlete. I crossed my first finish line with tears of joy and gratitude; those same attitudes still hold true today. As you enjoy God’s gift of your body, keep the rubber side down.

I am deeply moved by Jonathan Haley’s testimony because it captures the spirit of the Apostle Paul in the following passages:

“Now compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prisons and hardships are facing me…(nothing else matters) if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given to me…the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:22-24).

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord…will award to me that day….” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Jonathan, like Paul, uses an athletic event as a metaphor for the deep work of the Spirit in his life, and the ministry that results. Notice that Paul expends enormous energy in order to proclaim a message of grace. On its face, Paul’s assertion sounds contradictory, emphasizing how much effort it takes to announce that we cannot be saved by our own efforts! But as Dallas Willard says, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. In fact, nothing inspires and enhances effort like the experience of grace. (Indeed) becoming Christlike never occurs without intense and well-informed action on our part” (The Great Omission, p. 80, emphasis his).

Video braggadocio aside, I’ve not experienced Jonathan as wanting to impress me, or pressure me with his incredible exercise regimen. Nor does he claim to earn any brownie points with God by his efforts. But I will admit that his “intense and well-informed action” to prepare for the Ironman competition does inspire me, not to participate in the Ironman (not in the cards for me!) but to reject passivity and do what is in my power to do to make myself physically fit. And…to do it not so I can look good or appear in a flashy video, but so I can be a strong vessel of the Spirit within me, and an energized tool for God’s grace.

What is true of the soul is also true of our body—the practices we engage for the transformation are not important in themselves, but rather for the opportunity they give God to work within us. Whether we are kneeling in prayer or running hills, there is no end to what God can do if we avail ourselves to him!

Mike -Thanks for seeking clarification. Sharing a little more of my journey may better explain how my doing Ironman relates to the Transforming Center. When I went to the very first Transforming Center retreat I was not a healthy man. As that single retreat grew into what is now a 9-retreat transforming community I experienced transformation on many levels – including physical well-being. In the midst of healing old wounds, encountering God in life-giving ways, experiencing community as never before I also got in touch with one of my deeper God-given desires.

A colleague, whom I was close to, near the end of his active ministry, suffered a heart attack and subsequent stroke. As I considered the apparent seventy to eighty hours per week he gave in ministry, coupled with a lack of caring for his own body, it gave me pause. A few weeks later that summer, while on vacation, I was reading in Sacred Rhythms (chapter 5, “Honoring the Body”) about caring for the body as a spiritual practice. A voice deep from within welled up, not the voice of God, but my own “I want to experience my body as God’s gift to me.”

Upon returning home something deep had shifted within me. My relationship with food was not the same. I stepped on a scale and it read 272 lbs. the heaviest I had ever been in my life. I rediscovered the joy and freedom of biking and road 600 miles in 6 weeks. I live in Wisconsin and wanted to remain active outside through the winter so I decided to pick up running. I went to the track at night so that no one could see me. I started by walking half a lap and jogging half a lap and began to work my way up. I decided I needed a goal. That winter at the age of 39 I decided to take swimming lessons and set a sprint triathlon as my goal.

For me a triathlon, whether a sprint or an Ironman, is truly a time of experiencing my body as God’s gift to me. Physical exercise became a part of my rule of life and is important for my own spiritual and physical well- being. Triathlon in a true sense has helped me develop more appropriate boundaries in life and ministry and is the exception when I work 60 hours a week than the rule. My long runs and bikes have become sanctuary to me and my triathlon friends have become community beyond the walls of the church. The Transforming Center has taught, offered experience, and provided community, which has truly been transformative in my life both physically and spiritually.

I do Ironman as a fundraiser for the Transforming Center in gratitude for what they have done for me. I hope that my efforts will provide more pastors with the opportunity to be a part of a transforming community.

Thanks for taking the time to reply. Your story sounds inspiring, and I am sorry if my reply diminished in any way your journey or the healthy steps you have made. In a world where we are inundated by so many messages, and we have to communicate quickly and succinctly, it is easy to miss the context.I am sorry if I did that.

I am not sure why your initial post felt like pressure to me, but it did. I do exercise and have done so for 20 years. So, it is not that I somehow feel bad about that area of my life. I also have competed in triathlons, so I get the accomplishment and the pride you feel.

But somehow, it feels like everything people do is just out there, in your face. People posting their workouts all over social media, etc. Telling you about their Triathlons, marathons, Crossfit. That is probably why I reacted. Especially coming from a ministry that seems to be more about community, less ego driven, more internal work.

Your story is obviously great, but without the context it just feels like pressure or bragging to me. Kind of like, I know you exercise, but if you were really dedicated, you would do…..

I’ll shut up, because I don’t want to drag this on. Thanks for your work and God’s blessing on your races.

I find it a little off message for a ministry that so regularly on slowing down, stepping out of the rat race, being less ego driven, to be putting in front of everyone a story of a 10 time Ironman triathlete, senior pastor, board member, etc. Certainly sounds lie a “you can do it all” message to me.

I know this may sound like my insecurity talking, but I have done several triathlons myself, so I do respect the accomplishment and understand the discipline and focus it takes. Literally as I am typing this reply, there is right next to me a pop up that says Leading in Rhythm, the Bondage of Busyness. My honest response to this email was if i just push myself, I can do more. I hope this does not sound too negative, but I am not sure the two messages are congruent.

As the one who is most responsible for our messaging and its consistency, I wanted to thank you, Mike, for letting us know how this came through to you. It is a conversation I feel privileged to have.

Jonathan’s story of spiritual transformation as it relates to life in his body is actually speaks to one of our central themes (we actually have a whole retreat on this in our Transforming Community experience) so it is definitely on-message; however, I can certainly see how his story out of context coupled with the video might have struck you as being very different tone and message than what we usually highlight. The video IS a little braggy and yet, having participated in IM as a spectator, I can attest to the fact that what most characterizes the IM is an amazing humility and respect for the human spirit and the human body that I have rarely, if ever, experienced anywhere else. It is women and men, professional athletes and those physically challenged, old and young, all different body types putting themselves out there to function as fully as they can in the body God has given them–with all their gifts AND limitations. Everyone receives equal encouragement along the way and it is such a triumph in the best sense of the word. The truth is, only one person (two if you count one male and one female) gets to be the best. Everyone else, in the most humble and profound way possible, must accept who they are and what they can do, call it enough and feel God’s pleasure on them. That is a deeply formative lesson that is really hard to learn. Truth is, I cannot watch these things without weeping, it is so stirring to me to see people so completely in their bodies, accepting who they are while at the same time honoring God by being the best they can be in their bodies.

That said, I SO hear the pressure you feel to do more and be more and this communication has clearly touched that place in you. It is a pressure all of us feel in different ways at different times and I’m glad you are paying attention because; is a conversation we need to keep having.

On a more personal note, I have had the privilege of walking closely with Jonathan on this journey and what I have seen is the tremendous humility it took for him to acknowledge that he had never experienced his body as a gift from God and had not been caring for it well. Then he further humbled himself to walk on the track at night until he could run and learn to swim because he didn’t know how. Then he dropped 70 pounds and actually became healthy for the first time in his pastoral life. He started to have boundaries in his life because he now had a hobby and a goal that had to do with being a well-rounded human being rather than just being a pastor workaholic. (We all know enough of those!) Every time he competes, he knows he will not be “the best” but will be “his best” as God has created him in his body. I have walked beside him in the late night hours of an IM race when he could no longer run because of shin splints but was determined to simply finish. There is nothing more humbling and clarifying than that! Having the IM in his life as a practice has helped him to be healthier in ministry than he has ever been.

For all these reasons and more, I have found the IM to be a wonderful metaphor for the spiritual life and for life in ministry–because long-haul ministry is a marathon and not a sprint. We don’t all need to be an IM to live our lives in God well, but we each need to find our way of glorifying God in our bodies because they are his temple and the only vehicles within which we can finish the race God has set before us. AND that is why the Transforming Center exists–to help pastors and leaders be strengthened in every way for the long haul of ministry… until He comes.

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