Jul 27, 2015


Don’t Bonk: Why College Ministry is NOT a Marathon

Steve Lutz debunks the idea that college ministry is a marathon and helps you not “bonk” this fall. This is a great companion to his popular post “Forget Balance. Get Rhythm.”

It’s that time of year again, startup time on the college campus. You know the feeling: a peculiar mixture of excitement and apprehension. Excitement because there’s nothing like the beginning of the year on campus. So much energy, new people, and yes, a lot of fun mixed in with the work.

But apprehension, because there is so much to do. Part of the pressure is the knowledge that the next 6 weeks will determine the course of our ministry for (at least) the next year. The first few weeks feel a bit like trying to get a loaded 747 to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. We have a very short time to accomplish a whole lot.

College ministry isn’t unique in this. Many jobs have their intense, make-or-break seasons. Accountants have tax season. Farmers have harvest season. Athletes have the playoffs. You dial in, double down, and give it all you’ve got. This is a good thing. The jobs that don’t have intense seasons are the boring, mundane, The Office types of existence that we loathe.

Still, in the intense seasons, the question comes up: How much should I work?

The answers given usually involve much hand-wringing about “setting boundaries” and “finding balance.” And the ubiquitous, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.”

You know what? All those stock answers are wrong. Or at best, insufficient.

We must remember that college ministry is not hourly (wage) work. In this sense, ministry is “professional.” In other words, we don’t work until a set time in order to punch the clock; we work until the job gets done.

But in ministry, the job is rarely, if ever, “done.” That’s why it’s easy to overwork. It’s almost all process, not product. So we do the best job we can, with the talents, abilities, time, and strength that God gives us. This includes the humility to understand and respect our limits as finite creatures, while doing justice to the needs of the ministry and the audacity of an all-sufficient God to include us in HIS mission.

So what do we do? Embrace a different metaphor. Balance is bunk. It’s a static concept that is impossible to sustain in real life. Ministry–and college ministry in particular–is NOT a marathon. It is a series of sprints, then rest. It comes in waves. It is rhythmic. We go hard, as hard as we can, for a season, then we rest up.

So don’t run a marathon; run hard, then rest.

If you do, it will keep you from “bonking.” Bonking is the term distance runners use to describe hitting the wall. It’s a feeling they dread. In a marathon, it tends to happen around mile 21 (or so I’m told).

Bonking isn’t unique to long distance running though. It happens in all kinds of areas where we push ourselves to extremes and even excess. It’s not uncommon for people in college ministry to push so hard at the beginning of a semester that they bonk only 4 weeks in. I think our mentality is to blame.

We have to pace our race the right way, or we won’t finish. We need to run our race NOT as a marathon, but as a rhythm of sprinting, then resting.

The marathon mentality implies that you need to go the same pace all the time. Sprint/Rest acknowledges that sometimes you need to go hard and fast, and sometimes you need to rest.

Marathon thinking doesn’t have much use for Sabbath. Sprint/Rest embraces the value (and command) of resting from our labors.

Marathon is a burnout-inducing extreme behavior that is stressing us out and using us up, in all corners of society. Sprint/Rest keeps things in their proper place.

Marathon aims to push at the limits of endurance and design, to unhealthy excess. Sprint/Rest is in touch with the natural rhythms that govern everything around us.

Think about it. Everything happens in rhythm. We operate on annual, seasonal, monthly, and daily cycles. These rhythms govern all creation, and human beings ignore those to our detriment.

For example, as I tell the college ministry staff I lead, you should expect to “sprint” and put in 50-60+ hours/week in August, September, and probably into October until our Fall Retreat. While much of that activity will be fun and social, the hours add up. The importance of relaunching the ministry, while equipping student leaders and gathering in new students, necessitates heavy hours.

Experience and common practice across many different college ministries indicates that working less than 50 hours in college ministry during launch season simply won’t get the job done. I know of at least one prominent ministry that tells their staff to expect to put in 70-80 hours during launch season!

But as hard as we’ll work in some seasons, it’s equally important to build in times of rest. What are the downtimes on your campus? If you say “none,” then you’re probably tackling some things you don’t need to do. The academic calendar largely builds in these rhythms to our year, but there are some other rhythms we should be intentional about.

  • Take off 1 day/week. That’s one FULL 24-hour day, every week. Be accountable for this.
  • Take a mid-semester personal retreat day, preferably one when you would have a lot of meetings. Don’t reschedule the meetings. Your meetings are with God that day.
  • Take off all of Fall Break.
  • Take Christmas week off.
  • I recommend periodic breaks from email and social media as an act of Sabbath-keeping. In college ministry, social media easily becomes work; and it’s rarely a resting, life-giving activity.

What do you think? Are you trying to run a marathon, or do you sprint then rest? How can you put in the necessary work without “bonking” this year?

about the author

Steve Lutz

Steve Lutz is the lead pastor of Wellspring Church in State College, PA Penn State University. He is also the author of two books, King of the Campus (2013) and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (2011). He frequently speaks and writes on college ministry-related issues, and consults with college ministries across the country.