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Columbia pastor sees running as more than a sport

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | 6:32 p.m. CDT; updated 6:18 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Phil Schaefer, the head pastor at Christian Fellowship Church in Columbia, stretches after a run with a group that gathers every Tuesday and Thursday morning for outings on the MKT Trail. Members of the group say they have come to know Schaefer and his beliefs better through the activity.

COLUMBIA – At 6:15 a.m. there are only a few signs of life at the Forum Blvd. entrance to the MKT Trail. Birds chirp while two women talk quietly as they stand next to a table full of blueberry muffins and a pot of coffee.

No more than 10 minutes later, the parking lot is full of men and women stretching and conversing between heavy breaths. In the background, a bell rings every so often as each runner arrives.

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One of the last to get to the meeting place, Phil Schaefer gives a friendly “hello,” then passes the bell and disappears under a tunnel. Seconds later, Schaefer sprints to finish his early morning run.

After Schaefer gives the bell a tug, fellow runners greet him warmly at the finish area. In a typical display of humility, he is wary of being the center of attention for interviews on a day that is meant to recognize the late Mark Volek.

Schaefer explains that the bell is in memory of Volek, who died April 4. This particular Thursday morning more runners than usual showed up for a memorial run in Volek’s honor, who was active in the Columbia running community.

Schaefer is reluctant to have a reporter ask the other runners questions about him on the morning that is dedicated to someone else. But his friends are happy to talk about him and know that he has no intentions of trying to steal the spotlight.

The one day a week that Schaefer does stand in the spotlight is Sunday. As the senior pastor at Christian Fellowship Church, Schaefer speaks almost every Sunday during services.

For the first 45 minutes of each service, Schaefer stands in the first row singing, not only with his lips but with his arms and head and entire body. He sways back and forth to the rhythm of the music.

After intermission, the second 45 minutes of service is much calmer. Schaefer sits alone on stage, perched on a chair with a small black table in front of him.

His message is unique each Sunday. But a common theme for him is running. Not the athletic aspect, but the religious one.

“The apostle Paul makes references in his letters to the different churches where he’ll say, ‘All run a race, run in such a way that you might win the prize,’” Schaefer said. “He seemed to like the running analogy in some of his letters.”

Schaefer likes the running analogy too. He says it is easy for him to connect and relate running, especially distance running, to religion.

“If we think we’re going to get to something right away, we’re probably going to be disappointed,” he said. “And so we have to learn how to run life in such a way that we’re running it well.”

Schaefer is a regular at long distance races and marathons. Last year, he ran the Boston Marathon and recorded his best time since he ran his first marathon more than 20 years ago.

But running wasn’t something Schaefer had planned to make a lifelong endeavor.

Discovering running

Schaefer attended St. Louis University High School. He jokes he was too short to play basketball and too small for football, but he loved to compete.

So, during his freshman year when the school announced that whoever wanted to participate in cross country could show up for practice after school, Schaefer decided to try it.

“I showed up for a cross country practice and ran two miles straight and said, ‘Hey this is great, I love this,’ and decided I’d run cross country,” he said.

Schaefer ran all four years in high school, but when he entered college, he stopped.

Schaefer said he worried more about partying than staying in shape while he attended MU. Then, after he got married, he realized how much he missed it and picked up long distance running as a hobby. He hasn’t stopped running since.

Schaefer worked in Columbia as a counselor after receiving a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in counseling and psychology.

Schaefer continued to run regularly by himself, until about three years ago when one of his friends told him about a group that meets at 5:30 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday morning on the MKT Trail.

“I’m not a morning person, but it was the middle of summer so it was very hot,” Schaefer said. “And I said, ‘Ya know what, I’ll try to go early,’ because the heat was pretty bad then.”

Now, Schaefer can’t recall ever missing a Tuesday or Thursday run since going to that first one.

The motto of the group is, “Sleet, rain, snow, so?” And Schaefer said he and some of the others live by that.

“For some of us, we try to get there especially when the weather’s bad, just for the fun of it,” he said. “So we’ve run through thunderstorms, we’ve run through blizzards, we’ve run through ice storms, we’ve run when it’s 12 inches of snow.”

But Schaefer has risked worse conditions than those.

One morning, Schaefer’s wife had a flight scheduled to leave at about 8 a.m. Still, to the displeasure of his wife, he showed up for the morning run, but he cut it short to make sure he could get back in time to see her off.

“Everyone joked I was dead meat,” he said.

Schaefer also runs with another group of friends every Saturday morning. He’s been running with that group, the Long Run Lunatics, for a little more than two years as a way to train for marathons. He and the others usually run between 12 and 22 miles.

Brett Barton, a member of Christian Fellowship Church and a lawyer in Columbia, helped form the group.

“My sister and I started running together on Saturday mornings … and Phil would be out on his Saturday morning run and we kept bumpin’ into each other,” Barton said. “So he’d be by himself and he’d join up with us.”

While Barton’s been attending Christian Fellowship since he was a child, he’s really gotten to know Schaefer outside of the church.

“What’s great about running is when you run with someone and when you run with them on a consistent basis, there are not many things that are more bonding,” he said. “You spend two hours talking to someone once or twice a week and you really get to know them, you know where they’re coming from.”

Joe Greaves, a member of Christian Fellowship and one of the regulars at the Tuesday-Thursday runs, said Schaefer’s humility is what most appeals to him.

“When the messages are delivered without blame, that’s really important for me,” he said. “I’m sitting there and I’m sure people around me are sitting there going, ‘Man this guy’s just got it so put together, he’s got it so goin’ on.’ And I guarantee he’s got issues just like you and just like I do, and it’s never condescending.”

Finding faith

In his youth, Schaefer never imagined himself working as a pastor.

“It was about as far away from my framework of thinking as one could possibly ever conceive,” he said.

Schaefer was raised Roman Catholic, so whenever he thought of working in the church, all he could envision was becoming a priest.

At MU, Schaefer periodically attended Mass at the Newman Center. As friends began inviting him to other services, he found himself moving away from Catholicism.

“I found myself heading more into those other settings and then that put me into a Protestant context as opposed to a Catholic context,” Schaefer said.

As Schaefer searched to find a faith that he felt comfortable with, his friends had a major influence on him.

“I had a friend who was pretty heavily involved in drugs and he got converted,” he said. “He flushed all his drugs down the toilet and he started telling us about Jesus. We thought that was very strange, and we were fairly offended by that, and yet the more I listened to him, the more I realized he had something that I didn’t have, and I saw the change in his life. So after several weeks of listening to him and arguing pretty strongly with him, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m the one arguing against something and maybe he has something that I really want.’”

Those conversations led to a powerful conversion experience for Schaefer. When he was 21, he knelt down at a party one night with his fiancé and said a prayer along the lines of, “God, if you’re real, reveal yourself to me, and I will give you 30 days. And if after 30 days nothing changes, I’m just going to go back to my old lifestyle.”

“It was a sincere, kind of funny sort of prayer at the time because I wasn’t really sure that God was there,” Schaefer said. “That in praying that kind of prayer, he was going to meet me like he had met my friend.”

Within 24 hours both Schaefer and his wife felt a change in their lives.

“I felt like I had made a step in the right direction, a direction I never thought would be the right direction, in terms of inviting Jesus to be my savior and to allow my life to come into his life,” Schaefer said. “I felt a burden lifted off my shoulders of guilt and frustration. I felt a genuine peace that something right was going on in my life just by that prayer and by that decision.”

Schaefer then got involved with Christian Fellowship, which began as an informal organization at MU that would meet in different places each week. Various people would attend regularly, from college students to adults in their late 20’s to veterans returning from Vietnam.

As membership expanded over the years, so did Christian Fellowship. It eventually bought land and built a church in Columbia. Schaefer remained a part of the community after graduating, but didn’t work for the church until 1982.

He began as a church administrator and continued to put his college education to use by providing counseling services. Schaefer took Bible classes while he worked there, and 10 years after joining the church, he became the senior pastor.

Growing and reaching out

Barton has been attending Christian Fellowship for about 28 years. In that time, he’s seen a lot of change. Barton said the church used to be wilder, with people jumping around as they worshipped, like something you might see on TV.

But things have toned down, and part of that is because of Schaefer.

Mike Acock has served as an administrative pastor at Christian Fellowship for seven years and said Schaefer fosters a relaxed working environment.

“He’s the antithesis of high pressure,” Acock said. “He’s focused on the things we want to get done, but he’s laid back with how we relate together and work. And he believes that we should be friends. I have more of a friend in Phil than I do a boss.”

For Greaves, it’s Phil’s demeanor and delivery that keeps him coming back to Christian Fellowship. He simply enjoys Phil’s messages and the way in which he relates them to the congregation.

“He does a very good job of bringing life and the message together,” Greaves said. “And he’s just a good speaker. He’s just easy to listen to.”

While running serves as a constant analogy for religion in Schaefer’s sermons, it has also allowed him to deliver that message beyond the church.

“Phil’s congregation extends beyond these four walls, not just to the people that show up here (at Christian Fellowship Church),” Barton said. “Because there are other people that he is imparting a positive influence on, mainly due to his running.”


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