Interview with Climber and Pastor Jon Lemmond

This post is part of a series that summarize interviews I’ve done with rock climbers who are also leaders in some aspect of their life. I’ve long been a believer that beyond being a fun and challenging pursuit, rock climbing teaches us many lessons about leading ourselves and leading others. My goal in doing these interviews is to learn what other leaders have experienced to deepen my understanding of the transformative power that climbing can have on us.

I plan on launching a podcast tiled The Climb with the full interviews this month, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this interview with Jon Lemmond, who is a climber and a Pastor of a church. He shared some very cool insights with me.

“God places most of the best things in life on the other side of terror.”

Don:    Can tell us how you discovered rock climbing?

Jon:     Being a pastor can be quite stressful, and one of the ways I dealt with this was to workout regularly. I used to go to a gym at the local college, and I would run on the treadmill.

One day I walked in and just simply had an existential crisis. I said to myself, “I cannot get on this hamster wheel one more time. It feels like death. All I do when I’m on it, is think about work. It’s stressful. It might make me healthier, but to what end? I just absolutely hated it.”

And so I walked out of the gym. And yet I needed to do something. I was in my mid 40s and I needed a way to deal with stress. I needed to get myself out with a different community. And I just bummed around and tried to look for things.

And then one day, I got a Groupon in my email for the local rock gym. And I went, not expecting too much from it. And I so fell in love with it that first day, that I haven’t looked back.

It’s given me new community, it’s given me challenges that I never imagined. It has given me resources and ways of thinking about who I am and the world that I inhabit. It has just really been life changing. It’s probably one of the most significant life changes that I’ve ever experienced.

Don:    I love that story, Jon, because a lot of times climbing is a pretty self-serving activity. But I’ve come to believe that it can be transformational. And that’s part of the reason I started this project. So I love your story.

Can you remember when you first realized the significance of rock climbing in your life?

Jon:     I think that it was the first time that I climbed outdoors, where I had to face a sheer rock wall that didn’t have colored holds. I had to navigate elements of height that I had not had to encounter in my gym before. And the ways in which I was just laid bare by the power of being out in the world, and so up high, was so scary and so exhilarating.  And it made me feel so in touch with myself.

I remember the exact place where it was. I remember that climb. It was a 5.7 climb that I was doing on top rope. Man, I felt so alive when I was doing it.

And that really led me to the biggest thing about climbing that has helped me, which is the way in which I think about fear and failure.

Don:    Can you tell me more about that?

Jon:     I think fear was definitely something that I wanted to avoid. That seems a normal response I think for most people. And I think one of the reasons we really want to avoid it is because we confuse what fear is.

You can even hear it in the way we talk. We say things like, “I am afraid.” And when you say that, you’re actually making fear your very being, your very core, rather than recognizing it as a feeling, a feeling that can be both analyzed and overcome.

And so when I am climbing outside, it’s amazing how I’ve had to grapple with fear in ways that I didn’t have to in my normal everyday life.

A recent example that is interesting: I’ve recently got into Trad Climbing, which I’ve just fallen in love with. We were out at a local crag, and it was my first trad lead. I led it, and I was climbing at sometimes 20 feet above my protection. I was so focused in having such a good time, that I didn’t even notice the fear.

Then, my partner led the next pitch. When he was belaying me up, where I was essentially on a top rope, I felt very afraid. This really troubled me. I had led the previous pitch and had been exposed to places where a fall would mean sure injury, yet I was more scared when I was in a much less risky situation.

And what I began to figure out was that the wind had picked up on the second pitch, and it was blowing my clothes and blowing in my ears. And I had just this visceral response. It made me feel afraid and I think the old me would have just been stuck in that fear. I would have thought, “I am afraid,” and then “Oh my gosh. I’m going to fall and something bad is going to happen.”

But when you realize that fear is a feeling, you can look at it; you can hold it in your hand. You can put it in a part of your mind, where you say, “what’s going on? Why am I afraid? Oh, I’m afraid because the wind is blowing. And it’s bothering me.” And when you can name the fear and realize that you are separate from it, then you can enter into all kinds of situations in life, and not run.

This week, I had one of the worst experiences a pastor has to face, which was to be with a family whose young son had died. And in those situations you feel those same fears, “Oh, this is really scary.” And you have that fight or flight response. I want to run. I don’t want to be present. This is really awful.

But because of my climbing experiences, I am able to say that I am not afraid but I feel afraid; and to understand why I feel afraid; and then make choices that then counteract or otherwise help me deal with it or work in concert with it.

So that has been really helpful for me and my job, because I encounter a lot of stress and a lot of difficult situations that are really hard for people. And so fear can be a very lurking thing.

But now I’m not afraid of fear. It can often tell you something that’s really important. But you just have to separate it; you aren’t the fear.

Don:    I love what you said. I feel afraid; I am not afraid, right? That’s such a really cool distinction.

Because I think it is really about getting analytical about your fear, and one of the story I love to tell is, whenever I’m at a social event, and someone finds out that I’m a climber, the most common response I get almost immediately is, I can never do that.

A lot of times we rob ourselves of experiences, because we have for whatever reason, rational or not, made a decision that we’re not going to do something. It’s not really that we can’t. It’s just a decision.

Jon:     I think that plays into another thing that I’ve learned, which is even how I think about failure. People tend to say, “I don’t like being afraid”. We also say things like, “I don’t want to fail.”

As if, failure is a thing in and of itself.

Growing up, I always tried really hard. I did not like to fail. But what climbing has taught me is that failure is always a question of perspective. When I first got into climbing and found something I just couldn’t do, I would get frustrated. Other climbers would tell me that now I had a project. Well, I didn’t want a project. I just wanted to be able to do the climb.

If you think about it, that was such a silly way of thinking about anything in life. You always have to work at things. And when you cannot do something, and say that you’ve failed, it’s like putting up a tombstone on a goal.

Whereas, if I say now I have a project, now I have something to work on.

So I tried to bring the language of the project into my work environment, into my personal environment. And there can even be joy in it. And so just as I have these climbs that I can’t do, that I’m working on to make possible and enjoying the process, I now do that with work as well.

And even when something doesn’t go well. I try to not, with myself or with my staff, say things like, “well that was a failure” I try to make it an opportunity, a project.

Don:    I love that.

Can you give me an example of work, where you’ve used this idea of projecting?

Jon:     Well, one experience is related to me completing a Ph.D. I did a Ph.D. in history. I came into the Ph.D. program with 2 degrees, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree that weren’t in history. So I was coming in with a little bit of deficit.

And I remember feeling overwhelmed; all these people around me knew so much more than I did. I just felt like I wasn’t to their level.

I remember talking with a friend about it, and she said to me, “you know what? You’re going to look around you seven to ten years from now when you’ve finished that Ph.D. And you’re going to be surprised at who you don’t see there.”

She said, “Some of the brightest people that you’re now so enamored with won’t finish. And the reason that they won’t finish is because they’ve never gotten used to failure.”

And she said, “It doesn’t matter how fast you run a hundred yards, when the race is 500 miles.”

Don:    That’s some sage advice.

Jon:     I would say that experience in completing my Ph.D., really sticking with it, and rolling with failure, opened my eyes to the positive side of failure.

And I think the other thing I would say about this as well is that, you know people say, “well, you’ve suffered and you’ve had this challenge. And now you’ve really grown?”

Well, I think it’s missing a step in that statement. And the issue is that, any time you have a challenge, a problem or a failure, I don’t think the growth is always immediate or even natural. The step that you have to take is reflection. You have to think about it. You have to dwell upon it. And it’s when your experience has been reflected upon, that results in a positive growth and change.

Don:    Yeah, and what I found as an engineer is that what you first think is the answer to why something bad happened, it often really isn’t. In fact there was a tool we used called the 5 whys, where you would ask why did this bad thing happen, and you’d explain it. But then you’d ask the question, but why did that happen? Often, the problem isn’t in the first response, but much deeper. It’s not a five-minute-exercise.

Jon:     Well, it’s interesting that you say that. This was something that I’ve learned as a pastor. When people come to you to talk about something, what they say that they want to talk with you about, is rarely the real issue. And so you have to be patient and listen well. And it’s that why question. The why is not always as apparent as we might initially think. And that’s why it really helps to not be afraid of failure, because what you may learn is that, “hey, this was a great idea and would have worked except for this. We just have to handle this one part.”

And that’s just like climbing. There isn’t a climber out there who hasn’t said, “Oh my gosh! I moved my foot 3 inches,” and the whole route opens up.

Don:    Yeah, something you said spurred up a memory of mine from my engineering days where I worked for some really brilliant physicists and brilliant engineers, and have been involved in lots of inventions and lots of patents. And most of the time, the first idea is a really bad idea.

But it’s unique. It’s got flaws all over it. And then you write in on whiteboard, and someone else says, “Well, that’s interesting. But I don’t think this’ll work, but what if we did this?”

And after five “what if we did this?” later, is the brilliant invention. So, it’s similar to what you’re talking about.

Jon:     Yeah, absolutely. And there are seeds of greatness even in things that have terrible problems. I just think that’s life. And you have to work with what you’ve got. You have to try new things.

Don:    I’d like to hear an example of how you wove example of climbing into a sermon. Can you give me an example?

Jon:     One time, I was talking about a passage from first Samuel; it’s a song by Hannah, who was this barren woman who desperately wanted a child. She’s given a child, and she sings this song of praise to God. There’s a really interesting statement where she says that God guards the feet of his faithful ones. In the Bible, it’s really interesting that there’s a big focus on where we stand.

I talked to my own congregation about the difference between feet and hands in climbing. You know as well as I do that when someone’s climbing for the first time, they imagine it’s all about what they can grasp. They often falsely assume that those are their strongest muscles, and they often over-grip. And in the over-gripping, they actually aren’t able to climb what they’re capable of climbing.

I talked about how people around us imagine that it’s in reaching out and grasping things that control their lives. I actually think it’s more about where you stand, rather than what you grasp. So, in climbing speak, we always say trust the feet. We say that to each other all the time. Because we know that if the feet are good, you can hold on to very small things. Things that just seem practically impossible.

And I encourage my congregation to think about what are those things that they stand on? Because the things that you stand on will get you through life. In those sections of your life, when your hands are really thin, and when you feel like you can’t control anything, where do you stand?

You can read more on my blog post at

People remarked that they found that helpful. It’s those things that you stand upon that you come back to time and time again. That’s where you find real strength and peace, and not what you can imagine you can grab your hands on. And that’s like climbing.

Don:    That’s amazing, Jon. Thank you so much for sharing that experience. It’s wonderful.

So how about a leader that you admire, and why?

Jon:     There are lots of great leaders and great climbers, but the fact of the matter is the most important leader for me has been Chris Kelly, someone who has been a tremendous climbing partner and mentor over the past year or so. In terms of the encouragements that he has given me, the friendship, and make me try new things. And you’ve never heard of Chris Kelly. But he’s been the most important leader to me.

Don:    I think that’s important for the listeners to sit with for just a little bit and think about, that they may indeed be that person for someone else.

Jon:     In fact, I imagine that they are.

Don:    How about your favorite leadership quote?

Jon:     “God places most of the best things in life on the other side of terror.”

Don:    That’s great. I’ve never heard that one before.

Jon:     Let’s forget climbing for a moment. Think about all the really good things that happened in your life. For me, it was getting an advanced degree when I felt totally inadequate. It was the birth of my children and watching them grow. It was interesting myself in a woman after my divorce and getting remarried. All these things totally terrified me. And if I allowed the terror to be the thing that would deter me, I would have missed out on some of the biggest blessings of my life.

Don:    That’s fantastic, Jon. I love that. How about, what would you say to someone who was thinking about trying climbing, but was afraid?

Jon:     I get asked all the time whether I’m scared of heights? And what’s always funny to me is, people seem flummoxed by the fact that I always answer, “well, of course I’m afraid of heights! I’m a normal human being!”

The question is, not am if I afraid of heights, but how do I face it?

So, if you’re scared about rock climbing, there are certainly elements of it that are dangerous and you should be wise and prudent. You should be with people that know what they’re doing. Go to your local rock gym. Take a lesson, or two for that matter. Find out about being safe.

But if you’re going to let fear drive you, then you shouldn’t get out of bed. Because the moment you step out of bed, things can happen that are beyond your control.

Don:    Well, Jon. It’s been a fantastic interview. You’ve shared some incredible insights. I’m so happy we had this chance to chat.

Jon:     Don, I’m so happy for the opportunity to talk about it with someone besides my family. I talk about it all the time with them and sometimes they grow a little bit tired of it.

Don:    I know that you know that I love this.

Jon:     I do, and thank you Don.

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2 Responses to Interview with Climber and Pastor Jon Lemmond

  1. Deanne Breedlove says:

    Fantastic article! A relative of Jon’s (Grammy) once told me, “Fear is not from God.” I’ve thought about that so many times – that fear is actually a lie because it doesn’t control us. It is just a healthy warning sign for us to be alert and analyze our situation. Jon has done a great job here of explaining that philosophy! Thank you for this interview.