‘Prayer runs’ a physical, spiritual discipline for youth minister

By Amy Forbus

Around the time school started last fall, Zach Schrick started running. And praying. For the director of youth ministries at First United Methodist Church Conway, the two disciplines go together.

“I decided that I needed to do two things: get back in shape and spend some more time in prayer,” Schrick said. “I used to run years ago and decided I missed that. It gave me a lot of time to think.”

The First UMC Conway youth group had just kicked off the 2016-17 school year with the theme #LeadWithLove, and Schrick decided to use running as a way to do just that—by praying for the community as he made his way through the city.

At first, his runs lasted only a mile or two “because that’s about all my 37-year-old body could take,” he said, as it had been about eight years since he had run on a regular basis. But soon he was able to cover a three-mile route, which he designed to include running past all the schools the youth of First UMC Conway attend, plus a bit of the downtown area and the city’s three colleges.

He started with the schools because of stories he heard from the youth about the types of experiences they encounter there in the hallways.

“As I would see different parts of the city that I would drive by all the time, you see them in a little different perspective… and I began to pray around not just the youth that are in the schools, but the families in the church’s neighborhood, to do two things. Number one, that God would lead them to our doors and number two, that he would prepare our church to receive them,” he said.

Schrick varies his route around town depending upon where he wants to direct his prayer focus. He has even had friends request that he run past certain schools or areas where people need prayer, so he varies his route. Sometimes he begins from home; other times he drops his children at school, heads to the church and starts his run there.

His prayers change according to his surroundings and circumstances; on more challenging runs, he includes praying for his own endurance. One big change to his prayers since he began has now become a ritual.

“I began to start my prayer with thanksgiving,” Schrick says. “I would catch myself starting my run and not really praying, then just all of a sudden, go ‘Thank you for allowing me to be able to move and breathe, and all the simple things,’” he says.

And the half-marathon he ran (and prayed) April 22 in Russellville? “It just kind of happened,” he said, after he ran a 5K with his daughter at her school and realized he could accomplish more. He credits First UMC Conway members and fellow runners Tricia and Todd Burris, who are parents of two youth group members, with providing information and encouragement for participating in that particular 13.1-mile run.

In addition to the obvious health benefits—such as having energy to do more with his kids when he gets home from work—Schrick has seen spiritual benefits to using his running to focus on prayer.

“When I’d get back from my runs I felt like I was more focused, I felt like I had opened myself up to see some things differently here within the church,” he said.

As God began to answer some prayers for growing the youth ministry, Schrick realized that it was now time to put more action behind his prayers. “One of my prayers was to grow our youth in numbers and in spiritual gifts. So we’re starting to see new kids show up, and it’s giving me ways to look at it and ask, ‘What do we need to do to change? What do I need to do to help these kids as they’re coming in?’

“It isn’t just about the words anymore,” he said. “I actually have to do what I was praying for.”