CAPTAIN MARVEL:  THE RUNNING PASTOR

By 

Jeanne Halsey

 


 

 

 

"When I cross the Finish Line, I want to know that I could not run one step faster." 

 

That is the motto of Bob Marvel, the 40-year-old Senior Pastor of Cornwall Church in Bellingham, Washington, who has qualified to compete in the world-famous Boston Marathon.  Bob is not a "world-class runner" who expects to   actually win Boston, but he has worked hard for the past 6 years to qualify  and now he has reached his ultimate goal.  "I ran my Personal Best of 3 hours 19 minutes at the 2004 Las Vegas Marathon in January, which qualifies me in my age group for this year's Boston (and next year's too)." 

 

That attitude is the same Bob brings to his work at the 3,000-plus-member evangelical church in the college town of Bellingham, about 2 hours north Seattle.  It is obvious for Christians to equate running a physical race to running the race of our lives - after all, the Apostle Paul repeatedly compared athletic events with effective Christianity - but many miss the essential aspects of attitude and expectations.  Looking for a picture to describe Bob Marvel as runner and as a soul-winning pastor, recall the heart-wrenching scene from 1993's "Schindler's List," where Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) is

leaving the munitions factory and the labor force of Jewish internees - whose lives he has saved from sadistic concentration camps and eventual extermination - and they are bidding him farewell.  Schindler breaks down crying, saying, "I could have saved one more.  I could have sold this car and saved another, maybe two, maybe three.  I could have saved another."  That never-give-up attitude is the same perspective Bob brings to soul-winning, to disciple-making, to pastoring ... and to running. 

 

"As a kid, I was short and chubby, not athletic in team or competitive Sports, and I'm certainly not built like a runner.  Most of my life, I have focused on weight-training and outdoor sports like snowboarding and dirt-biking.  But I am relatively coordinated, so at age 35 I decided to start running.  I set myself three goals:  (1) to finish the race; (2) to finish the race in less than 4 hours; and (3) to finish the race with a time of 3:45."  Bob ran the 1998 Portland (Oregon) Marathon in 3:42.  Possibly this is when Bob discovered he is not competitive against other runners - his biggest competition is within

himself. 

 

Bob first started in ministry as the Youth Pastor of a small church, and he was quite successful appealing to the young people with his outdoorsy, sports-minded attitude.  But when the Senior Pastor of Cornwall Church moved to another church in Florida, Bob was called on to fill the pulpit while the new pastor search was initiated.  Within a few weeks of hearing him preach, the church unanimously agreed to ask Bob to step up to the role of Senior Pastor. 

 

By promoting a radical approach to worship - geared for non-churched people with a multi-media format, drama, upbeat music, and a seeker-friendly attitude - Bob saw an explosive growth at Cornwall ... and baptismal services were scheduled monthly rather than yearly.  Within 10 years, Bob shepherded his church from 300 to over 3,000 weekend-attending members - and this is in a college town where generally church attendance ebbs and flows according to the school schedule. 

 

In an urban population base of 70,000, Cornwall Church has become one of two "mega-churches" in Bellingham, a remarkable achievement for a person who says he

is non-competitive - except within himself.  "Our focus is on personal growth achieved in the small groups, not so much in the weekend services.  That's where we aim for the non-churched to feel welcome with us, where they can see the joy and enthusiasm we bring to our worship, and they can experience the fellowship of loving believers in a non-threatening way.  Then, in the small groups, they can be individually discipled and matured." 

 

During this time of increasing growth in his church, Bob decided to start running, and eventually aimed for the grueling requirements of a marathon.  "I didn't really have an organized or scientific approach to running, but the mental tenacity combined with the toughness of pushing yourself mile after mile - somehow that appealed to the inside of me.  That, and the encouragement and support I received from friends and family - especially my parents, my sister, and my wife and our daughters - all combined to make running a joy."  When asked if he worked with a coach or followed a specific program, Bob sheepishly grins and says, "I read a lot of Runner's World magazines and Jeff Galloway books." 

 

Bob himself is a dynamic and effective preacher, but he does not seek the limelight.  The emphasis at his church on personal growth through the small groups rather than the high-energy weekend services reflects Bob's own approach to his running - sometimes he runs alone, sometimes with a small group of fellow runners, and sometimes with his wife Dorene.  Together, Bob and Dorene have run 6 Marathons - and it is with Dorene that Bob's experience begins to show. 

 

"When Dorene first started running, we trained together and she would say, 'We just ran 5 miles; I can't imagine running 10 miles.'  Then we'd run some more and she'd say, 'We just ran 12 miles; I can't imagine running twice that distance.'  And we'd train more and she'd say, 'We just ran 20 miles; I can't imagine going another 6 miles.'  So when she ran her first Marathon - at Portland in 2001 - she posted a 4:25 finishing time.  I was very proud of her." Essentially, Bob "discipled" Dorene into becoming a runner ... much the same way he expects his congregation to welcome and disciple new believers. 

 

"During our training runs, Dorene and I would quiz each other on memorizing First Corinthians 9:24-27, the passage where Paul encourages believers to liken their Christian lives to running a race:  'Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? ... No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.'"  Now with a self-imposed training program that has included rigorous "Yasso 800's," at 6 feet 2 inches and 190 pounds, Bob is aiming to break his Personal Best of 3:19 at the Boston Marathon - which will also be his fourth marathon within 7 months.  "And no matter what happens at Boston, I want to know in my heart that I did my best" - which should be the

attitude of every person who names himself a Christian.  We all should aim to

"... run in such a way as to get the prize" (1 Corinthians 9:24, 25; NIV). 

 

SIDEBAR

Raised in a Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) pastor's family, Bob Marvel is the

youngest of three children, all who are following their father's lead into ministry.  His brother Jerry pastors in eastern Washington, his sister Lori Salierno (herself an effective speaker) is married to a pastor in Atlanta, and Bob started his ministry as Youth Pastor.  Among the most avid fans of his Marathon running are his parents, Gerald and Rena Marvel:  "One year as I was completing the Portland Marathon, I could hear my Mom and daughter screaming my name, cheering me on.  Despite all the emotional and physical drain of running a marathon, just hearing that encouragement helped boost me across the finish line." 

 

He also credits other friends who have, at times, "put their money where their mouth is" in helping him travel to different marathons, and whose encouragement and goal-setting have challenged him to reach higher and higher.  Bob has been known to run with his typed-out sermon outline in a Ziploc bag so he can study while he runs.

 

Bob and his wife Dorene live in Ferndale, Washington, with their two daughters,

Amanda (who enjoys soccer and track) and Alyssa (who excels in basketball and

softball).  Bob says, "After Boston, I don't think I'll keep on running marathons.  Well, except a fellow pastor here in Bellingham wants to run the Las Vegas Marathon next year, so maybe I'll train with him and help him get started.  And then Dorene and I want to run the Portland Marathon again next year.  And I am still eligible to run Boston in 2005, so maybe I will ...."  So much for meeting his ultimate goal - the Boston Marathon - and then hanging up his Running shoes for good.  Just like Bob's heart is to lead another missions' team to India again ... or to Tanzania again ... or to Haiti again - once a

soul-winner, always a soul-winner.  [To find out more about Bob Marvel and his church, go to:  www.cornwallchurch.com ] 

 

POST SCRIPT

Bob posted a time of 3:54:41 when he ran the Boston Marathon on Monday 19 April

2004.  No one - not even the world-class runners - broke any Running records because the weather conditions were unusually adverse, reaching 90-degrees plus (typical April weather in Boston is 50-degrees).  But at least Bob can say, "When I crossed that Finish Line, I know that I could not have run one step faster." 

 

***This article also appeared in AgapePress on April 23, 2004

***Photos by Doug Cole