Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

How an Ironman Triathlete Made His Church Relevant

  • Chuck Bengochea Author
  • 2019 17 Dec
How an Ironman Triathlete Made His Church Relevant

I was riding my bike in northern Georgia, many miles from home, praying and praising our Heavenly Father as I often did during my Ironman training rides. It’s a favorite pastime to turn my bike into a “prayer closet” and get lost in worship of our King. But this day, out of the blue, God spoke to my heart. 

Eighteen months earlier, my wife and I had felt the Holy Spirit moving us to explore other churches. They were all amazing in their own ways, but none resonated with us. Ultimately, we realized we belonged back at our original church.  

This circular saga left me perplexed because I felt certain that God had led us to visit these other churches. I wanted to understand why God had done this.  

That’s when He spoke to me. His voice wasn’t audible, but His message was clear: “I took you on a tour of great evangelical churches to show you that they’re letting me down!” He said. “They’re busy preaching the gospel, but they aren’t living it out.”

God Moved Me, Close to Home

I got to the house, went directly into my study, and wrote out what God had communicated to me. “Transforming Communities,” was the title because that was the essence of His message: The church has a role and a responsibility to transform communities through love. That day Jeremiah 22:16 was imprinted on my heart: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and the needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” 

During the months following, I spent hours talking to local officials and parachurch leaders asking them what role my home church was playing in the community. Were we making a difference? If our church didn’t exist, who would notice? 

The answer I got was unanimous: Our church wasn’t affecting anyone beyond our own congregation. We weren’t known for love or for pouring our hearts and resources into the community. 

One night later, my wife and I were hosting a church training session in our home when, at the end of the event, the senior and children’s ministry pastors approached me and asked, “If you could run the church, how would you do it?” 

My mind was still full of the “Transforming Communities” message so I responded, “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” they said. 

Opening my laptop computer to the twenty-six-page PowerPoint presentation I said, “This is exactly how I would do it.” 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the pastor said. “You had this sitting there, ready for us?” 

God Plans to Make a Difference

Within days I stood before the elders and said, “Please don’t shoot the messenger, but our church isn’t making a difference in this community. We’re doing a great job of preaching and ministering to our congregation but doing very little externally.” 

After taking them through the presentation I concluded with this question: “Do we want to be a church known for its love of the community—a church that spreads the gospel of Jesus Christ while ministering to the least of these?” I saw heads nodding. Their response was unanimous. 

That meeting was a turning point—and the beginning of a lot of hard work. They asked me to join the elder board, which I declined, but they persisted. 

“We need a warrior who loves the Lord,” they said. “We need someone to help us make these changes, someone whose instinct isn’t to duck when the bullets fly, but to move forward. We think that’s you.”

They were right. Those traits had helped me carve a successful path in business and competing as an Ironman, but those strengths could become a weakness, too. 

Still, I heard the call and had to say yes.  

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages

Businessmen Do Belong in the Church

As CEO of HoneyBaked Ham, and in positions at Coca-Cola and General Electric, I had learned that leadership is caring deeply about everyone around you. I thought, Why not approach this role on the elder board the same way? 

I’m convinced that if you care more about other people’s success than your own, you have a reasonable chance of getting everybody moving in the same direction. 

But leading a cultural transition at our church proved difficult from the outset. People were set in their ways and resistant to change. This became vividly clear when we examined the mission and vision of the church. 

I believe deeply in mission and vision as plumb lines for where you go as an individual, a business, a nonprofit, or a church. Yet my well-meaning critique was met with this response: “That mission and vision stuff is businessman-speak,” they said. “You’re trying to bring business practices into the Holy Spirit’s domain.” 

Admittedly, that made me furious. I searched Scriptures and could find no secular-sacred division. If you’re selling hams for the glory of God, as it says in Colossians and 1 Corinthians, that’s sacred work. “No, it’s not ‘businessman-speak.’ It’s about bringing clarity to the assignments God has given to us.” Sensing we were at an impasse I recommended, “Let’s fast and pray and seek God for agreement.”  

We did that, and the elders soon agreed to change the church’s mission to, “We exist to glorify God by making disciples who love God passionately and love others unconditionally.” That brief statement became the floodlight for our future.  

New Missions Call for Brave Changes

A lot of “pick and shovel” work came next. Before we could cast our gaze outward, several internal changes were the stepping-stones. We made changes to the church’s governance and ministerial structure and established new principles for supporting missionaries. 

Then we opened the aperture to our community. The board wanted a community pastor who woke up every day calling schools, abuse shelters, foster care agencies, and other nonprofits and asking, “How can we serve you?” But hiring a community pastor to provide leadership was foreign thinking to many. They were used to senior pastors, missions pastors, and teaching pastors...but a community pastor? 

Next, we organized a Day of Hope, bringing more than 30 local churches together to help solve issues in our community. Multiple thousands came, and it was a beautiful thing. We did that in subsequent years as well. 

When the veil was lifted, we noticed there were many Spanish-speaking immigrants in our town. Day after day we saw them lining up as day laborers on street corners, waiting for someone to hire them. For our church, reaching out to the “Hispanic gap” appeared to be a bridge too far. Pushback included claims like, “They’re here illegally.” “They’ve broken the law.” 

“Okay,” I said, “then I want everyone here who’s ever looked at pornography or cheated somebody financially to leave the building. If they have broken the law, then why don’t we let the Holy Spirit convict them?” The point is we’re all sinners, and not one of us is worthy to throw the first stone at our brothers and sisters. 

Ignoring the doubt peddlers, we hired a Hispanic pastor and started ministering to our Hispanic and Latino neighbors. Because of these changes and more to our community engagement, we went from having no presence in the public schools to becoming their most valued partner.  

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: How Are We Doing?

On the surface it wasn’t a seismic shift, but we could feel the culture of the church changing. We began using a new scorecard to judge success and failure. We were no longer afraid of looking under the hood to ask, “How significant is our impact on people who don’t attend our church?” “If we closed down tomorrow, would the city weep?”

This cultural shift hit home one day at a HoneyBaked Ham store when the mayor of our city walked in to make a purchase.  

“Hey, Chuck,” he said, “are you guys doing another Day of Hope this year?” 

In that moment I knew: perception was changing, and in our community we were becoming a catalyst not a cloister. 

Pastors, leaders: your church is called to be the heartbeat of your community. Where we have ceded too much ground, we must retake it. We do that by loving and serving others well, courageously turning our focus outward and setting a standard of excellence that all can aspire to. 

As an Ironman you will burn 700 to 800 calories in an hour and only recover half of it. For 140 miles you face the growing plea of your body to stop, quit, rest, and replenish. But the finish line beckons louder with each stroke, pedal, and stride. 

With all my heart, I believe you are God’s Ironman and Ironwoman for your community. 

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

Adapted from CityServe: Your Guide to Church-Based Compassion. Copyright © 2019 by Dave Donaldson. Published by Salubris Resources, Springfield, Missouri. 

Chuck Bengochea is a successful businessman who has held many influential positions including CEO of Honeybaked Ham, CEO of Family Christian Stores, and controller of the Fountain Business Division at the Coca-Cola Company. He now serves on several corporate boards and coaches business executives. He is a founding member of CityServe International.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Mel-Nik