By Rev. Karna Hagen Moskalik
Blazing heat scorched the pavement, causing the county road’s shoulder to buckle. What am I doing out here? Intimidated by the fitness gurus passing by, self-doubt arose. Am I even in the same league? Little did I realize that this, the hottest day in August of 2011, would lead me on a journey towards becoming a distance cyclist.
Kathy, a new acquaintance, heard of my interest in joining The Rochester Active Sports Club. As a long-distance cycling organization, this group of fit people embraced me eagerly. “Give it a try Karna, you’ll love this!” Kathy encouraged. Using her extra road bike, I took a 30-mile test ride. Although I wore a bicycle helmet, as a young pastor, I couldn’t afford the expensive padded bike shorts or jerseys. A plain t-shirt and basic shorts sufficed. Venturing with one water bottle in triple digit heat, I was ill-prepared for the long journey. When I was near collapsing from heat stroke at mile ten, a fellow cyclist named Dennis offered extra Gatorade. Soon an entire community surrounded me with gifts of electrolytes, encouragement and enthusiasm. Amazingly, I finished the trip in two hours with a permanent smile.
The Cycles of a Pastor’s Life
While the niche activity of distance cycling transformed many facets of my health (physical, emotional and social), the life of a pastor remains an arduous journey for many spiritual leaders. Like a cyclist ill-equipped for distances, pastors also often lack a greater sense of flourishing, resiliency and everyday happiness. Flat tires and broken spokes stop cyclists in their tracks. Similarly, a languishing spirit and hazards of ministry life often lead clergy to derailing off-course, or worse yet, to an early stop with little resources.
Clergy burn-out remains rampant as statistics reveal an alarming rate of ministers throwing in the servant’s towel. Increasing external and internal pressures create a challenging landscape for ministry. According to Dr. Robert Clinton in his book “The Making of a Leader”, “One out of three or four leaders finished well.” Clinton based his conclusions on biblical, historical and current data. For Clinton, finishing the race well involves possessing a greater love for God and people than when one first started ministry. Retiring as a pastor with a greater love for Christ and congregants remains rare. How does one beat the statistical odds of a clergy drop-out?
Do I Wish to be Made Well?
The vitality of the inner person is the pastor’s primary ministry tool toward a flourishing life. Relying on natural talents, the well runs dry. Deepening spiritual formation by continually returning to the source of our well-being, our Creator, empowers ministers to allow their service to flow from their being. In short, spiritual practices are key to flourishing and resiliency. Dr. Archibald Hart, a retired professor from Fuller Seminary articulated in the lecture, “The Pastor as a Person”, “Pastors are in the health and wholeness business. You can’t be a source of healing if you are not healed yourself. You are a person before you are a pastor. Pastors get into trouble because they forget they are persons first.”
Like the person sitting for 38 years near a pool of healing, pastors must also ask themselves the question, “Do I wish to be made well?” Jesus the Great Physician offers streams of living and healing waters to wash one clean and restore one’s soul. In his book “Fit to be a Pastor”, Lloyd Rediger stated, “Being healed allows us to focus our attention and energy on the practice of intentional high-level health. Being healed encourages us to rejoice in and be thankful for God’s restorative graces. And being healed reminds us to become witnesses in the midst of sickness, wounds, and disorders of all kinds. Wholeness is the spiritual context for healing, health and fitness. Think of the Biblical understanding of peace, wholeness and salvation. The Hebrew term shalom has come into popular use to refer to something similar.”
Connecting With Others
Distance cycling undeniably changed my life. When I was introduced to a cycling club, I was at a low-point in my personal life. The chronic demands of ministry created constant stress. Friendships were hard to form, and I felt the isolation of being single in ministry. One day, my life changed. As I attended a spin class at the gym, I was chatting with a new friend Carolyn. She noticed my Cannon Beach water bottle, compliments of my internship church in Beaverton, Oregon. Carolyn moved to Rochester several years earlier from Oregon and invited me to join her cycling friends for a distance ride. This diverse group included all ages, occupations, backgrounds and beliefs. We all united on our love for bicycling.
I was amazed at how quickly I was accepted into this fold, even after dropping what I often call the “p” word revealing my occupation as a pastor. The dynamics of the group equally fascinated me, as an atheist and evangelical in it are the best of friends. Where the wider culture may assume boundaries and divisions, all are truly welcome in this cycling group. As we bike for hours at a time, deep friendships develop and conversations about life’s meaning are commonplace. One friend even asked me to baptize her infant son. She told me that she trusts me. I am thankful to be her friend and a positive face for pastors.
Biking across Minnesota and Iowa, you really get to know people well. I even indirectly met my husband through this group of incredible cyclists. Our wedding day was filled with a diverse crowd cheering us on. Emotionally and socially, my life became far healthier from cycling. Physically, it is also a great opportunity to stay fit. Spiritually, my cycling friends also taught me a lot of what the beauty of the church, the Body of Christ could look like—a community where all are truly seen, loved and fully embraced.
Ministry is a long journey. The secret to my own sustainability, aside from spiritual practices, is my strong social network of cyclists, other clergy, a spiritual director, family and friendships. In an article titled “Clergy Burnout and Resilience,” Elizabeth Jackson-Jordan reiterates that support networks are vital for health. She stated, “Building a strong network of relationships may protect clergy from emotional exhaustion leading to burnout.”
After conducting a funeral and holding a room in pain, there is no greater release of stress for me than to bike 30 miles on a trail with my friends, lift at the gym or cross country ski in the winter. Without riding a bike for two hours with friends on a week night or for multiple hours on a Saturday morning, I likely wouldn’t survive the chronic demands of ministry. The “Flourishing in Ministry Research” backs up this notion that niche activities create a resiliency in ministry: “Restorative niches represent a new concept in the research literature. These activities create ‘flow experiences,’ that wonderful and rarefied state in which we find ourselves lost in the joy of the activity itself. Flow states happen when we see an activity as voluntary and enjoyable.” Biking paved a new pathway for life and ministry. Thankfully, in my new call, there are also bike paths everywhere—including a city trail in my backyard.
About the Author
Karna Hagen Moskalik is the Lead Pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Stillwater, Minnesota. She is currently completing a Doctorate of Ministry from Fuller Seminary on Compassion & Resiliency.
Photo by blyjak
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