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An Ironman for a Stronger Church

Gary Fowler of the Ohio Ministry Network completes an Ironman triathlon as he raises awareness and funds for planting AG churches throughout Ohio.

It's fascinating. The more people are willing to sacrifice in order to follow God's leading, it seems the more God responds -- and it's not necessarily with a financial blessing. Recently Ohio Church Multiplication Network Director Gary Fowler, 44, completed a 140.6-mile Ironman race in just over 12 hours to raise awareness and funds for planting Assemblies of God churches in Ohio.

Fowler and his training partner spent seven months swimming, biking, and running more than 2,500 miles, all in preparation for the Ironman Maryland event held Oct. 17. The Ironman event itself encompasses a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles) run.

Although the training mileage for Ironman competition is a total distance many would hesitate to drive -- as it's only about 2,100 miles from the U.S. East Coast to the West Coast -- Fowler says he also had to do something some people may find even more challenging: totally change his eating habits (healthier) and his sleeping habits (more sleep).  

Yet as impressive as the training miles, lifestyle changes, and completing such a grueling race sounds, Fowler had a personal revelation as he compared his Ironman efforts to church planters' efforts.

"Church planters typically spend much longer preparing to plant their church, they often totally change their lifestyles and locations, and their steps of faith and sacrifice are shared by all family members," he observes. "However, the one difference that really stands out is that when you're training for and competing in an Ironman, once you cross the finish line, you're done -- the pressure is off; in church planting, there is no finish line.

Fowler says his heart follows the AG's Church Multiplication Network's vision of a healthy church in every community. He explains the importance of having an AG church presence is personal to him as he only truly became a Christ follower after speaking with a youth pastor from a local AG church.

"After I spoke with him, I went home and I told myself that whatever he's got, I want it," Fowler recalls. "I started attending the church. I soon realized that what I had was religion; what he had was relationship!"

Several years later, when Fowler and his wife Deni lost their four-day-old baby girl, it was the church that supported them and stood alongside of them.

"Where would we be if the church had not been there?" he asks. "Every community needs a healthy Spirit-filled church!"

As Fowler trained for the Ironman, he was working with Ohio Ministry Network Superintendent John Wootton. They prepared a short video for churches throughout Ohio to show just prior to the race date, explaining the effort Fowler was making and encouraging each church to become a part of the church planting movement through an offering dedicated purely to planting churches in Ohio.

"Churches have responded positively to the video," Wootton says. "They have greatly appreciated the incredible commitment that Gary is showing to support church planters."

Although Fowler projects the effort will bring in at least $10,000, based on money received and pledged, he says that something totally unexpected happened during his training.

"My training partner, Adam," Fowler says, pausing to choose his words carefully, "was not in the best spiritual condition. He attended church, but let's say his relationship with Christ wasn't overly strong. He was having serious marital problems." 

However, as they trained together, the conversations sometimes grew serious.

"I never preached at him," Fowler says, "but I gave him some things to consider. It became a mentoring-coaching relationship. He would call me and ask questions about what he should do about something and I would direct him to ask God about it -- and he did! Today he is reading the Bible and praying on his own, he listens to podcasts I recommend, and his marriage is in a much better place. It's been a really cool journey."

Wootton says that Fowler's efforts have sparked others to follow his example. "I've heard that a half-Ironman is coming to Ohio next year," Wootton says, "and my understanding is that already 10 people have contacted Gary to help train them so they can do something similar to benefit church planting!"

With God clearly guiding the Ohio Ministry Network's efforts in church planting awareness, Fowler says the race itself almost never happened. "The race was originally scheduled for October 3," he explains, "but Hurricane Joaquin was bearing down on Maryland so the race director made the difficult, but proper decision to cancel the race."

Fowler says he was literally packed and headed to pick up Adam to start the long drive to Maryland on Wednesday, Sept. 30, when he got the news the Oct. 3 race had been cancelled. "It was the strangest mix of emotions," Fowler admits. "We were devastated that the race was cancelled, but at the same time praying for the people who would be in the path of the hurricane."

Although rescheduling of an international endurance race is unheard of due to the complexities involved, for the first time ever, Ironman did just that.

Even then, the Oct. 17-race-day weather proved far less than ideal for participants: 47 degrees with winds gusting to 30 mph, large waves, and a Choptank River temperature that resulted in numerous participants struggling with hypothermia. "People were coming out of the water with their lips white from the cold," Fowler says with an ache in his voice at the memory. "On the bike, the winds would catch bikers with disk wheels and just blow them off the road, and the run was alongside the ocean, so we were never out of the wind . . . , but we made it!"

Throughout Fowler's hundreds of hours of training, God was working. The more miles he put in, the more God spoke into his heart about the future for church planting in Ohio.

"Everyone can agree there are two things a church planter needs: people and money," Fowler says. "Our plan is for us to try to take the focus off of the money and put focus on people, on relationships. We want each church planter to connect with 20 different pastors before they're out of the gate. Those pastors would include other church planters, other field church planter pastors, and three different congregations -- I would take individual church planters to three churches, introduce them and allow them to share their passion for their ministry, and then ask for the churches' prayerful and financial support for one year."

"Church planters have expressed their appreciation for Gary being so public about the critical role church planters play and for presenting church planters in a way that increasingly mirrors how churches get to know missionaries," Wootton says. "His message also reveals the tremendous opportunities for all churches to benefit from the supernatural partnerships that take place when we commit ourselves to taking the gospel to places where they desperately need the presence of a Spirit-filled church."

Fowler says the Ohio Ministry Network's church planting mission is three-fold: Assess, to ensure individuals can handle the demands of church planting; Connect the church planter with other church pastors as relational resources; and Coach each church planter with a person of their choosing who they can rely upon for insight and help when they have questions or problems.

"I love church planting and I believe in it," Fowler says. "But church planting is grueling and exhausting, so anything we can do so set church planters up for success, we want to do it . . . because where would any of us be if it were not for the love of Christ and the local church?"

To view the video sent to Ohio churches from the OMN, click here.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.