The Rev. J. Taylor Haley will switch sanctuaries this summer, bicycling across the United States instead of presiding in his usual role as senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in La Crosse, Wis.
"I've often referred to being on my bike as a sacred place," Haley said, explaining his cross-country trek funded with a grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program.
"You can experience God's creation, and being on my bike is one of my sanctuaries," Haley said, adding, "This also has been a dream of mine — to bike across the country."
The 300 worshipers at First Presbyterian will be able to keep track of their pastor's progress on a huge map posted in the church lobby with guesses on daily progress and stops, and via a blog that Haley's wife, Cami, will update as part of her role as his one-vehicle support staff.
Haley acknowledges his athletic pursuits are inspired in part by the fact that he used to weigh 272 pounds. His inspiration came while he was attending programs at the Transforming Center, a facility where pastors go to bolster their own souls.
"As I was experiencing a transformation of my own life, my father-in-law had a heart attack," followed shortly thereafter by a stroke that has limited his abilities, said Haley, a Dallas native.
"That was my wake-up call," said Haley, 52.
He'd always loved bicycling, didn't mind running and, opting to become a triathlete, he learned to swim.
That was more than a decade ago. He completed his first Ironman Triathlon — 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run — in 2006 and has competed in 16 more triathlons since then.
The regimen "helped me create a much better balance in my life, something my father-in-law didn't have," said Haley, now 220 pounds.
His cross-country ride will start in Bodega Bay, Calif., and he plans to be navigating the Sierra Nevada Mountains by June 13. Cami Haley will drive the support vehicle, sometimes zipping ahead to the night's stopping spot and then cycling back to join her husband for the final few miles.
The First Presbyterian congregation and staff members are supportive of Haley's quest. Increasing numbers of churches are providing renewal leaves for their leaders, said Children's Ministry Director Cindi Kyte.
"Otherwise, they can get burned out," she said. "I think for the most part, people realize he needs renewal time, and they know this is his passion."
As for Haley's contribution to First Presbyterian members, she said, "I think he brings a lot of encouraging ways of deepening our faith."
The church just kicked off a program called "Celebrating a Summer of God's Gifts to Us: Our Bodies." There will be exercise classes and physical activities, including tai chi and yoga, and a prayer walk during the summer months. Haley also has left congregation members a pamphlet with weekly meditations and Bible readings.
The program is intended to knit together spiritual and physical health, said Haley, who plans to finish his ride in September in Virginia Beach, Va.
"We don't talk much about the body and how that relates to the soul," he said, adding with a laugh, "We don't even have the soul figured out sometimes."