PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Tim Dowdy had been in training for more than a year when he looked out over the Gulf of Mexico, ready to brave it for a swim.
Members of the church where Dowdy is pastor, Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga., had joined him on the beach to cheer him on.
The waves were choppier and the water colder than expected, and he was about to swim farther than he ever had.
A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and a marathon run would put Dowdy’s mind and body to the test for nearly 15 hours.
It would be a meaningful feat, no matter his reason for doing it.
But Dowdy wasn’t staring at the expanse of water just to prove he could finish the 140-mile Ironman Florida triathlon on Nov. 3. The 51-year-old pastor and his 25-year-old son Micah were in Panama City sending a message to Southern Baptist bivocational pastors.
Photo by Adam Miller
Tim Dowdy, pastor of Eagle’s Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga., swam, cycled and ran in the 140-mile Ironman Florida triathlon in honor of Southern Baptist bivocational pastors.
“The water’s a little chilly today, but it’s warm outside so hopefully they’ll balance each other out,” Dowdy said as the crowd of competitors gathered at the start gate. “Bivocational pastors, this is for you. I hope you’re praying for me. I’m going to float on the prayers of people today. Thanks for all that you’re doing.”
Iron Men of the SBC
Early last year, as then-chairman of the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) trustees, Dowdy was inspired by NAMB’s goal of a net gain of 5,000 congregations by 2022.
He was also struck by the reality that it would require many more pastors – and many would need to balance their ministry with a money-making career and a family in order to start churches in areas where expenses are high and congregations could be small.
“I had done a couple of races and a short triathlon and at the same time I was meeting all these bivocational pastors,” Dowdy recounted. “I saw the correlation. I got to hear some of their stories and thought, ‘These guys are the real Iron Men.’”
During the 2012 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans, NAMB President Kevin Ezell emphasized the need for bivocational pastors in penetrating lostness in North America with the gospel.
“[It’s] going to have to be with the help of bivocational pastors because there’s no way possible to completely fund missions work full time without your impact,” Ezell said at a luncheon to honor bivocational pastors.
On average, the SBC loses more than 900 congregations every year. To counter this trend and achieve a 3 percent increase in the SBC church-to-population ratio, it will require bivocational pastors to plant churches.
As part of its long-term emphasis on bivocational pastors, NAMB’s Send North America strategy includes a support network, resources and educational opportunities for these “Iron Men of the SBC.”
Going the distance
A few hundred yards into the Gulf, Dowdy experienced what everybody had warned about in competing with 3,000 other swimmers. He’d never raced with that many people.
“I was kicked in the teeth and elbowed, and people were getting sick in the water,” Dowdy said. “‘Wow,’ I remember thinking. ‘This could be over sooner than I thought.’”
A year of 5 a.m. pool swims hadn’t fully prepared him for the challenge. Then he focused, one freestyle stroke after another, a kick in the head, an elbow to the face, and after nearly two hours of swimming he was on the beach racing toward his bike and dry clothes.
He wiped the sand from his feet, changed, clipped into his pedals and was off into the rising temperatures for 112 miles of flat city streets.
“You never get to stop pedaling,” Dowdy said.
Though he’d trained extensively, Dowdy had never actually covered the full mileage required of an Ironman triathlete. The distances of each event by themselves require absolute determination. When grouped together in one day, they require the discipline of proper pacing and an iron will.
Dowdy said there was a third element that helped see him through the day.
“I realized you need encouragement from other people,” he said. “You could probably do it by yourself and I’m sure there were guys out there who drove down by themselves, raced by themselves and drove themselves home.
“But it makes a huge difference to have people encourage you – both people who are running it with you and people cheering from the sidelines.”
A person’s body can just lock up and say, “No more,” Dowdy said. His son Micah, in fact, had completed an Ironman distance race in North Carolina last year but was unable to finish this year because of a bacterial infection that cropped up and took him out of the competition after mile 19 of the marathon.
Still, Dowdy said, completing an Ironman is so much easier than living as a bivocational pastor.
“It was hard and there were a lot of early mornings and late nights of training,” he said. “But when I think of the day-in, day-out balancing act bivocational pastors endure, I remember that a triathlon only hints at what these guys experience in their ministries.”
After 140 miles, 14 hours and 47 minutes, of swimming, biking and running, Dowdy crossed the finish line of Ironman Florida.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Adam Miller writes for the North American Mission Board.)