Lessons from the Trail – John Stumbo Video Blog No. 127

Based on his own experiences, President Stumbo reflects on common mistakes made by mountain climbers and leaders alike.

– When we lived in Colorado, year after year, a group of younger guys would help this aging leader climb one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains known as “14ers.” Thanks for joining me today as I reflect on leadership lessons learned on the trail. I’m aware that not many of us have ever climbed a mountain or even want to climb one—for some of you, it’s proof that thin air kills brain cell—but I trust that you’ll be able to see how these leadership lessons apply to the ministry and family you’ve been called to lead. Mistake number one: starting out too fast. Excited. Adrenalized. Off we go! We’ve miles to cover, dreams to fulfill, a plan in hand, something to prove, a goal to accomplish, a peak to summit. We soon discover that the trail is steeper and longer than we anticipated. Rockier and “rootier.” Fatigue sets in far earlier than we anticipated. It’s a common rookie mistake that we’ve no need to guilt ourselves for nor be defeated by. Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean that it’s time to quit. What it probably means is that your pace isn’t sustainable. Your expectations, unrealistic. A recalibration is needed.

I was 26, in my first pastorate, teetering between discouragement and depression and increasingly certain that I needed to leave ministry. I wasn’t cut out for it. I had missed my call. In God’s grace, I was given the opportunity to learn that it wasn’t ministry that was the problem. It was my approach to it. I was trying to be my father, who’d been an Alliance pastor for 50 years, and I, as a young man, was trying to do all he did without his experience, gifting, or personality. I’ve watched this same scenario when there has been a major crisis: a hurricane, earthquake, fire, major headline, tragedy. The common response is, “We’re going to beat this! This isn’t going to overcome us.” A community-strong approach, which is noble but wears thin after a few weeks or months. Those coming out of a crisis eventually need to sit by the side of the trail and let their own sagging spirits recover.

Climber mistake number one: starting out too fast. When you recognize it, make an adjustment. Find a pace that you can sustain for the long trail ahead. To say it differently, keep in step with your Shepherd, who allows for times of renewal by quiet streams. If you’re always driving forward, you’re probably not following your Shepherd well.

Mistake number two: traveling alone. We all know we need others. We tell others we need others. Meanwhile, too many of us as leaders attempt to summit solo. It’s possible to reach your goal alone. You might make it, but it’s not wise. A lot can happen along the trail. Friends, support is not a sign of weakness. Be intentional about community. In a previous video blog, my friend, Kelvin Walker, reminded us of the African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We know these things, but too many of us still have the underlying presupposition that we’re more successful if we didn’t need any help.

Leader, let me remind us that there are no special rewards or recognitions for those who did it all by themselves. In fact, the New Testament is repeated and clear. We were put into a Body, a family, where each member is interconnected with each other. So, leader, let me ask you, “Are you in greater community today than when you started this journey, or have you somehow isolated yourself along the trail?”

Mistake number three, for climbers and leaders alike: undervaluing the journey. Summits are great, you’ll see. Completed goals are fantastic, but if it’s only the peak that we seek, we’ll miss out on most of life. Those who have the best experience and benefit the most from it are those who see the whole journey as having significance and purpose. Let’s admit it, leader. Some of us are so goal-oriented, outcome-focused, that we miss the pleasures en route. We overlook the people on the path. We underestimate the value of the experience itself. We neglect to see the beauty right before us. We miss the lessons of the trail. We came, we conquered, but we failed to see along the way.

This is one reason why I believe that a weekly Sabbath not only honors the Lord and His Word but is essential for soul health. One of the great gifts of Sabbath is learning to stop, get out of “conquer mode,” and become present to the moment. When life is only about the summit, when our eyes are fixed only on the “win,” we miss what it is that God has right in front of us. Sabbath is God’s gift among many other things to become fully present. Leader, speed is overrated in our society. If you accomplish your goal two months quicker than anticipated but left missed opportunities along the way, did you really win? There is value in the journey, not just the summit.

Mistake number four: not anticipating changes. Here’s a common scenario in mountain climbing. We see the trailhead, at some point, we had a view of the summit or at least what we think is a summit, but we underestimate the ever-changing nuance of the trail. I love the opening miles of a typical Colorado 14er. The trail often begins by following a stream, meandering through a lovely forest, but at some bend of the trail, the stream mysteriously disappears, and eventually you come to a place known as the “tree line.” Here the trees announce, “We’ve climbed as far as we can. You’re on your own from here. We’ve shaded you from the sun and protected you from the wind, and our fallen fellows have given you a bench on which to sit, but the air has become too thin and the soil has too. So, we stop here.” And so do many hikers. Facing the elements without the comforts we’re accustomed to is enough for some to say, “I’m done.”

At the tree line, we reevaluate, and so we should, for the trail is about to get steeper. It’s at the tree line, many ask the question, “Is this worth it? I know I had a goal of summiting, but maybe I just don’t have it in me.” This is an important moment, and let me say the unexpected. Not every journey began needs to be completed. Sometimes it’s wise to turn back, but when you get back to your car, at the bottom of the hill, waiting for others who went on ahead, what will your reflections be at that moment? “That was wise. I wasn’t prepared to go further,” or “I gave up too soon. I should have pressed on.” If wisdom won the day, great. If fear did, I’m sorry. Many of life’s greatest victories have come to those who won the battle of the tree line. Many of life’s greatest losses are those experienced by those who quit too soon—leaving the marriage without a full effort at restoration, choosing revenge rather than forgiveness, abandoning the project when it proved to be more complicated than expected. Leader, think about the biblical stories. Do we have a single example of leadership that was a straight path from vision to victory? Isn’t every storyline marked by a changing terrain? Didn’t every leader have a “tree-line” moment? You’ve set out on a good path, but the terrain will change before the summit. May your tired legs and weary emotions not get the final say at the tree line. Instead, may we be truly led by the Spirit. He’ll let you know if it’s time to press on or if your leg of the journey is done.

Mistake number five: forgetting that the summit is only the halfway point. The true goal of mountain climbing is really not summiting. The ultimate goal is to get back to your car alive, which I almost didn’t one day, but that’s a story for another time. Don’t get me wrong. Summits are an achievement. They should be celebrated. They’re worthy of a high-five, a photo, a social media post. It’s a milestone moment. Enjoy it! But the surprise awaiting the rookie climber is that summits are rarely a place to hang out, and never are they a place to dwell. Just ask Peter, whose idea of building three shelters was rejected. The climb is only successful if you get back to the parking lot safely. Too many leaders have seen the church plant, the construction project, the new program launch, as the finish line. It’s great. It’s a moment to celebrate, enjoy a lunch, but the trail that follows has more great experiences awaiting. From day one of your dream, keep in mind that your journey doesn’t end at the summit.

There are many more I could mention, but our final climber mistake for today: misunderstanding the real value of the climb. In God’s kindness, and with the help of my friends, I was seven for seven on the climbs we took, having the pleasure of summiting each time and, yes, returning to the parking lot in one piece.

– [John] No way! I thought I had another quarter mile.

– [Friend] You got five feet yet.

– [John] Woo! Thank you, Jesus!

Each climb felt like a victory, a goal accomplished, a fun experience, good bonding with some buddies, and healthy exercise. Those were all great things, but the greater value had something to do with who I became in those treks. Each fear faced—I hate it when trails are too close to a precipice. And each element overcome—the weather can shift in a moment, and the wind can be fierce on the side of a mountain. Each internal battle won did a shaping work in my soul. That was the greatest value of the experience. Leader, isn’t God the ultimate multitasker? Well, He’s called you to accomplish a plan. He’s shaping you in the process, right? No leader in Scriptures is merely an errand boy or maidservant carrying out someone else’s assignment in a manner that doesn’t have personal effect. Rather, God’s called are chosen representatives of heaven to not only lead a community of people to a better place, but to be led by God through a transformative process in our own character. The multitasking God, always simultaneously working through us and in us. Alliance leader, I pray that we’ll passionately rise to all He calls us to accomplish for the advancement of His Kingdom while not missing the shaping refinement He’s producing within us. You may never climb a 14er. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to climb another one myself. But all of us are called to enter trailheads of faith. May these words strengthen us and beckon us to walk closely with the Divine Guide who walked these very trails Himself.