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Op-ed by the Rev. Andrew Ware

Clergy self-care is preached into us from the very beginning of the journey toward ordination. I learned early on that my greatest outlet of caring for my body has always been running. However, in being a runner I have always been driven by outside motivation; namely races, but specifically in-person races.

When the pandemic first hit, I lost several races that were cancelled, postponed, or moved to a virtual format, and in talking with fellow runners we all expressed the same difficulty in motivating ourselves to just go out and run on a regular basis.

Then in May, Sportsbackers, the organization that puts on races in the Richmond Metro Area, announced a special and unique virtual event. They called it the Great American 5,000. It is a 5,000 kilometer (3,106 miles) race that would virtually traverse across the United States. Teams would begin in San Francisco and finish in New York City. Advertised as a team event, the organizers encouraged teams of 12-24 people.

The Rev. Andrew Ware

As soon as I saw the race announced I knew I wanted to participate. I thought the challenge would be good motivation to keep running consistently, and the team aspect would add to that motivation as well. With my struggles with motivation, I considered that other leaders in the church may be having the same struggles.

With the conference’s emphasis on self-care, I thought this would be not only a great motivation but a great way to be an example to of community and care in the midst of a pandemic. I began reaching out and advertising to gather a team and, in the end, gathered 20 United Methodist clergy and laity from around the Virginia Conference. From local church pastors and laity, to a seminary student, to conference staff, and even a district superintendent.

We all had our own reasons for participating, but most of us became attracted to the team format, the group accountability.

Eastern Shore District Superintendent Alex Joyner said, “I had several races that I had hoped to do in person that I would not be able to do because of the pandemic. So this came along as a group experience of people going through the same thing.”

We were all in the same boat of looking for a fun challenge to get us moving during the pandemic. Some ran more than others, but it became, for those who participated, a judgment-free and encouraging group that had a goal to accomplish. We became a community that found ways to lift up one another and care for one another while caring for ourselves. The group used popular cell phone app WhatsApp, and constantly communicated throughout the challenge to encourage each other. We shared struggles and achievements alike. Often our conversations just included how many miles we ran or making sure everyone was inputting their miles on the challenges website. However, we also expressed feelings and provided care for one another too in joys and struggles. We lifted up prayers for one another and ran miles to support one another.

We finished the challenge in 44 days and 13 hours, and the growth we experienced in the process became immense in becoming community together.

Joyner noted that his self-care practices got better during this time and references that it transcended beyond running. Personally, I felt like being a part of this group made me want to strive to care for myself better as well.

Since finishing the challenge we remain in contact as a manner of continuing our community and accountability. I know that as life continues, that I have gained friends who will help me achieve my goals going forward. We have talked about getting together to run races that have transitioned to virtual formats. The challenge may have ended, and we may have gotten our medals and T-shirts, but the community and friendships formed in those 5,000 virtual kilometers continue to be a reminder of what is possible when we grow together as the church.

We read of our communal task in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider each other carefully for the purpose of sparking love and good deeds. Don’t stop meeting together with other believers, which some people have gotten into the habit of doing. Instead, encourage each other, especially as you see the day drawing near.” May this be at the forefront of our minds as we not only find ways to care for ourselves in the midst of this pandemic but to be a caring and loving presence for others as well.

The Rev. Andrew Ware is pastor of Beech Grove UMC in the Elizabeth River District.