Knowing when you have “peaked”

Daily Office Readings for March 17:

Jeremiah 23:16-32

Psalm 118 (Morning)

Psalm 145 (Evening)

1 Corinthians 9:19-27;

Mark 8:31-9:1

1 Corinthians 9:19-27 NRSV: For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Admittedly, March Madness is on my mind, so I guess it’s no surprise that Paul’s sports imagery is what stands out for me out of all the readings this morning. In Paul’s day, track and field was probably what NCAA hoops is to many of us this time of year, or the World Cup is to the soccer-playing world. His metaphor brings up a very important point–although all runners certainly hope to win every race, the reality is that they know they will not. It’s also a harsh reality that the very best athletes in the world–people who are used to winning–know there is going to be a day when they will no longer be dominant in that sport. One of the hardest things for me to watch, as a long time sports fan, is the athlete who has peaked, and it’s clear they are heading to the twilight of their career. My hope is always that they find a way to go there with grace and class; unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

When it seems to happen in the right way, it tends to be in a way that brings out the best in others. One of the things I’ve noticed from the sidelines is that aging professional athletes who transition well in the latter half of their career are often spending as much time with younger players as they are working on their own game–quietly encouraging, coaching, and giving tips.

I’ve often wondered, when I’ve read this passage before, if Paul was starting to wonder if he had peaked in terms of his effectiveness in ministry. At the very least, in this letter to the Corinthians, he exhibits some self-awareness that people in the various Christian communities he has served see him how they need to see him, rather than who Paul understands himself to be. In this vein, he seems not that different from an aging athlete trying to give the youngsters a few tips.

It brings up an important aspect in ministry–that sense of when we seem to have “peaked” in our effectiveness. It’s a feeling we often don’t talk much about. Yet we certainly see statistics of it in terms of ordained ministry. We don’t, however, have much data in terms of lay ministry. What we mostly see is the toll when someone, for whatever reason, has hung on past prime, whether it is identifying something as “so-and-so’s ministry” vs. “the ministry of such-and-such,” or the squelching of ideas because the matriarch or patriarch of the ministry “won’t like it,” or a host of other manifestations. We see it in burned out parishioners who swear they will chew their leg out of a trap before they ever serve on the vestry again. We see it in people who will never accept being in charge of a fundraiser or a capital campaign again. Granted, there are many other reasons for those reactions, but “being in it past prime,” is certainly one of them.

Paul’s words speak to the importance of spiritual self-discipline and the gift of teaching, but most importantly they remind us that this is not about winning a tangible prize–not esteem, nor respect, nor even salvation itself. Jesus already handled that salvation part. It’s about the notion that whatever we do in serving God, we try to go about it in a way that we have tried our hardest and done our best. When we’ve peaked in a particular ministry, that might mean spending more time teaching others in a way that makes room for their gifts and talents, rather than a way that we get to do what we want.

How can you share your experience in a ministry, while at the same time, giving others room to add their various gifts?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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