Running alongside your community

In 2009 PRAC interviewed Stan Fetting, then Senior Pastor of South Pine Community Church in Queensland and running coach; now Crossover’s Operations Manager, and running coach/Gym owner. While pastoring this church for the previous eight years, Stan has developed an interesting missional sideline based around his passion for running. And we’re not talking about the occasional jog here…

PRAC: Key us in to Stan Fetting the person. You originally hail from South Africa, but lived for some time in the UK. How did you end up in Australia?
The short story is that when I was working as an evangelist in Portugal, I met someone who married an Australian and moved back here. When their church was looking for a pastor they contacted me and that’s how the interesting journey began.

PRAC: Tell us about your ministry experience prior to coming to South Pine?
I started off in ministry working as a youth evangelist in the UK with Campus Crusade for Christ. We moved to Australia in 1995 and spent our first six years pasturing in the beautiful Northern Territory. We then moved to Brisbane in 2001.

PRAC: You’ve developed an interesting sideline ministry to long distance runners. Where did the impetus for this come from?
I have benefited so much from belonging to a running club and I wanted to start one in our region of the city. A club gives runners and walkers the safety and motivation of training together. It is the most natural way for me to build relationships with people outside the church.

PRAC: Running is obviously a personal passion for you. How important do you think it is to for pastors to have a personal hobby or even a missional outlet outside of the local church?
My first ‘boss’ in ministry said, “In this movement, only practitioners will teach!” It has always stayed with me. It’s no use me encouraging my congregation to live missionally if I’m not modeling it on a daily basis. I can choose to run alone or I can do it in community with others and achieve a missional purpose.

PRAC: Tell us about the running group you have established. What are its objectives?
We started the group three years ago with a dual purpose: Firstly, to establish a credible runners and walkers club that would be a community asset; secondly, to create an environment where believers could connect with people from our community and intentionally go about establishing relationships.

PRAC: How do members of your running group relate to you when they find out you’re a pastor of a Christian church? What kinds of conversations do you have?
Most are surprised because their first understanding of me is as a coach and fellow athlete. Most have never known a pastor, and find it strange that I’m “normal.” Some never go near the topic but others allow me into their lives for counseling, care, advice on almost anything, and in-depth spiritual conversations.

PRAC: How do people in your church respond to your extra-curricula activities? Does it ever raise any questions?
Some people have found it difficult to understand because the dominant leadership paradigm of the pastor is a shepherd and teacher operating within the walls of the church. However, most people respond very well to the fact that their pastor has a missional dimension. This situation frequently highlights the issues that missional transformation is throwing up.

PRAC: For many people, Sunday is their primary recreation day, yet we want them to be in church. Has this ever created a tension for you in your running group?
On any given Sunday at least a quarter of our people are not at church for a range of reasons, so it’s not an issue that congregation members are away with the club. But it has been a difficult issue for me both as a pastor and as a coach. I cannot always be in church on a Sunday morning and I am not able to be at most of the running events I coach people for.

Our church schedule conflicts with the lifestyle of this particular group we are trying to reach. We need to create ways in which we don’t force an either/or option on them if they want to engage in our worshipping community.

PRAC: Is there a correlation for you between spiritual fitness and physical fitness?
The Apostle Paul says physical training is of “some” value, but within reason because godliness trumps it. I try to combine fitness with godliness. Running gives me a time in my day, before most people have woken up, to commune with God, be blessed by His creation, reflect on my day, burn some serious calories and help both myself and others prepare for our next adventure! Ultra-distance running has enabled me to have many amazing experiences, and to connect with lots of beautiful people to whom I am a living letter of Christ. In a wider sense it keeps me very healthy, which has plenty of benefits. Hopefully I am an example to my congregation and the wider community.

PRAC: How do the people you run with view the church? What can we do about our corporate image and is it getting in the way of the gospel?
Many people are surprised because the athletic realm is not one in which they expect to encounter the church. Their perception of Christians is that they live in their own world. Once they’ve worked out that the running club is not a crafty honey trap, they open up and begin to share their lives more deeply with you. Credibility seems to be a big issue. Some of this stems from constant appearance of the sins of the church in the media, some comes from the negative experiences people have had in church-based education. The only way to build credibility is through building relationships and establishing trust, yet Christians on the whole seem happy living behind the safety of the church walls.

PRAC: What has your personal interaction with people outside of the church taught you about the mission we’re engaged in as followers of Jesus?
It’s not as hard as we think; it just takes a lot more time. We don’t need to be expert apologists or theologians. Long-term relationships earn you the permission to speak into people’s lives: there are no shortcuts. Normal church life is the biggest barrier to us taking up the Commission because it keeps us behind the church walls, busy with what we imagine is “kingdom business.” There’s nothing quite like helping people encounter Jesus.

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