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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Service

When I first read Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, I was surprised to find out that the work of service is considered a classic spiritual discipline. This helped me to reframe the whole concept of service: if I approach service the way I approach prayer, then I see how service is not only an act to care for others, but also something that will cause me to know God better.

Remember, these articles were initially written to guide vocational youth ministry leaders in how to pursue their jobs over time. Nevertheless, my hope is that the thoughts given here apply to each of us. The original article was posted here.

Thanks for reading. Hope it's a blessing to you.

This is the eighth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
One of the most challenging moments in my career came at my 10 year high school reunion. At that point I was working for Young Life as an Area Director. I had become a Christian through the ministry of Young Life in Northern California, and was well known by my peers in high school as an active member. I moved down to Santa Barbara for college, and started serving as a Young Life volunteer leader during my senior year. After graduating as an English major and getting a job as an editor, I continued as a volunteer for another year and was then asked to come on Young Life staff. Since I was supervising other staff, running six clubs and overseeing fifty volunteers, I considered this a “real job” and a fulfilling one at that! But imagine my horror when we were standing around at my reunion, catching up on each other’s lives, and when I was asked what I was doing now, was greeted with, “Wait, you’re STILL in Young Life?? Isn’t that just for high school kids?!” I felt demeaned and disrespected, but had no quick comeback to defend myself.
Unfortunately, it did not get much better when I first became a youth pastor. When asked where I worked and I said, “the church,” people would pause and slowly say, “Um, like you’re…a nun?” Laughter would ensue, and I would explain that, no, I was not a nun, but a youth pastor. I’m sad to say that the confusion didn’t stop there. More questions like, “OK, so that’s on Sundays, but what do you do the rest of the week?” would follow. Initially I was shocked and even hurt by such questions that seemed to imply that I had some sort of pseudo-job and needed to grow up and get a real one.
Despite these somewhat scarring experiences, once I grew up a bit and stopped being so defensive, and realized that times like these were great opportunities to change people’s understanding of the role and calling of the youth pastor, I started having some fun with it. I would joke about being “professionaly holy,” and then help people understand that my workweek was actually very similar to that of many other people. I had to return a lot of phone calls, send zillions of emails, manage budgets, meet with “clients” (parents, students, leaders), go to staff meetings, travel for work (AKA camp!), plan events, keep office hours…you get the picture. It was fun to help people see that in many ways pastors are normal people.
However, while there are many “normal” and “typical” aspects to our jobs, there is one part that I think is a truly humbling and sometimes difficult challenge. Since our job—the way we make our living—is to serve, I have found that it can be far too easy to approach that service without a sacrificial spirit. Even worse, I have often fallen into the habit of relying more on my expertise and routines than on God!
Let me give an example. As a young and earnest youth ministry volunteer, before I left for camp I would diligently invite my friends at Bible study to pray for my students as we headed off. Personally, I would spend time thinking about what I wanted to talk to each student about during the week. Significantly, I would also have to give up a precious week of vacation to go to camp, and happily choose to make that sacrifice.
Years later, as the one who was paid to run the camp, it became far less of a ministry moment and much more of a giant project to manage with many moving parts. Rather than delighting in the joy and privilege of serving my Lord and Savior, sometimes I would just go through the motions to get a giant to-do list completed.
It saddens me to see those words in print. If I have learned anything in these decades of youth ministry, it is that service to Christ is a stunning and remarkable privilege. I am amazed that He allows us to participate—He could get so much more done without our bumbling efforts! As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:1, Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. Powerful stuff! The second I think I am doing God a favor by serving Him, I have completely lost perspective. I am the one who benefits most by serving, regardless of how many times I am asked to complete the task, because everything done in His name helps to shape me for eternity.
Richard Foster, in his devotional classic The Celebration of Discipline, says this about service:
If true service is to be understood and practiced, it must be distinguished clearly from “self-righteous service.” Self-righteous service comes through human effort… True service comes from a relationship with the divine Other deep inside. We serve out of whispered promptings, divine urgings. 
He goes on further to say that "self-righteous service" requires external rewards, is highly concerned with results, is affected by moods and emotions, is insensitive and fractures community. Yikes! How can we avoid that?? Foster makes a masterful delineation between “choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant.” To choose to serve is to remain in charge, whereas choosing to be a servant gives up the right to be in charge. This teaches me that service is not an action, but a way of life. Consider these words:
Devotion is not a passing emotion—it is a fixed, enduring habit of mind, permeating the whole life, and shaping every action. It rests upon a conviction that God is the Sole Source of Holiness, and that our part is to lean upon Him and be absolutely guided and governed by Him; and it necessitates an abiding hold on Him, a perpetual habit of listening for His Voice within the heart, as of readiness to obey the dictates of that Voice. —Jean Nicolas Grou (1731-1803)
This quote says it all. All of my service, regardless of whether it is done “voluntarily” or as part of my employment, needs to flow from a deep-seated reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, Grou’s words sum up the entire reason for these 12 articles on spiritual disciplines for youthworkers. All of our work—one-on-one times with students, car wash fundraisers, weeks at camp, Bible studies, wacky events, seminars for parents, meetings to plan events, staff meetings, crises — MUST flow from what Grou describes perfectly as “a conviction that God is the Sole Source of Holiness,” and that we can do nothing out of our own power. Unfortunately, the longer we keep at youth ministry and the more experience we gain can lead us into the temptation of self-reliance. But if we see each day as a new way to depend on Jesus, and that he will reliably supply enough “manna” for each day, we can grow in ways we never dreamed possible, becoming more and more like Him through the transforming power of His love and salvation.
Thus our main “job” is that of knowing and loving Jesus Christ. Out of this intimacy, our humble, Spirit-filled service can flow. Ironically, I have found that the best ways to sustain this is by doing the very things I did in my earliest, most na├»ve years of youth ministry that I described earlier:

Invite others to pray for you.

Do not take yourself too seriously. Let others whom you know and trust to walk with you in your work. Over the years I have sat with so many youthworkers who suffer deeply from isolation. Much of this is a difficult by-product of our work, but we can deal with it if we take the time to pursue colleagues and friends who “get it.”

Be diligent in setting aside time to engage in what you are doing.

Never allow yourself to “phone it in” or take a “been there, done that” attitude. I reflect on those early years, where I would set aside a few hours to pray and think through what each of my students needed from their week at camp. Why would I ever stop doing that? Yet going to camp year after year had a tendency to make me complacent. So I have worked hard to spend time preparing for camp with my newest leaders. Their excitement is contagious and always reminds me of the privilege of working with young people.

Sacrifice. Stretch.

Though I still spend the bulk of my service working with students, I have sought out ways to serve that are not connected to my role as a youth pastor. Currently, once a month I go with my weekly Bible study (an amazing group of adults whom I love living life with) to do laundry with the homeless. We call it “Laundry Love,” and over the past several months have built some lovely friendships with these folks as we bring rolls of quarters and detergent to a Laundromat and visit with them as they then wash their sleeping bags, blankets and clothing. This ministry is a challenge for me because it is outside of my “expertise” as a youthworker. But it is also reveals to me that I still have a lot to learn.
I pray that each of us will seek, for the rest of our days, to pursue this spiritual discipline of service, paying attention to the Other deep inside.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/service-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.zJ045ATI.dpuf

Monday, December 7, 2015

Stuff You Might Use 12-7-15

If you're anything like me, I am constantly trying to stay on top a never-ending pile of emails, plus a lot of saved bookmarks related to resources and articles that might pertain to things I am working on. They all pile up, and sometimes I just erase everything, with some regrets.

As an early Christmas present, here's a shortcut for you to save a little time, with no regrets. These are 4 quick resources that might serve you and your work in some way...

Families and Digital Media - A Live Panel. Led by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), here is an hour-long conversation about managing the screens of your family. Honest in their struggles and questions, I found this useful in that it just acknowledged the fuzzy boundaries we all face.

Schools Can't Stop Kids from Sexting - New York Times. This came out in November after there was a large group of students at a Colorado high school who apparently participated in some sort of photo sexting group. Both of these links put words to our struggles as we work with and/or parent young people, and perhaps give a few useful guidelines.

Gallup's Theme Thursdays. If you've spent any time with me, I will drop a comment or ten about Strengths Finder. While it's not a sacred text, I have found Strengths Finder to be a useful tool for building self-awareness, team dynamics and recruiting. This little gem of a link gives you access to podcasts related to the 34 Strengths. I have listened to each one from my Top Five, and have listened to a bunch of others in order to understand how to best encourage and give direction to those I am working with.

New Research on the State of Discipleship - The Barna Group. I will be the first to admit that sometimes I find Barna research on the church to be less than useful. But occasionally they provide some feedback on topics and issues that shed some light on things I am working on and praying about. I recommend you spend some time on this one -- it made me think about the vocabulary of spiritual formation these days, and also how we tend to pursue this on our own rather than with others. This one was helpful to me, and perhaps a little sobering.

In the midst of stunningly bad news from around the world, I found encouragement and hope in these verses from Hosea today. Do not give up. Press on:

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth. 
(Hosea 6:3)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Fasting

I've posted half of the twelve articles here that were first released in 2013 on cymt.org. The original for this post is found here.

Spiritual Disciplines Series: FASTING

I have set many goals in my life—here are a few: learn biblical Greek, visit all the national parks with snow-capped mountains (I like alpine peaks), read everything written by C.S. Lewis, learn to cook well…some were easier to realize than others. But one goal I have never set for myself is this one: learn the spiritual discipline of fasting. I mean, really. Sure, it sounds godly to grow in prayer, or service, or worship. But fasting just sounded miserable to me!
Enough of true confessions. I’m here to tell you that I was flat out wrong. While there is nothing easy about fasting, it can reap profound benefits. Nevertheless, I will also admit to you that of the twelve classic disciplines examined by Richard Foster in his devotional classic Celebration of Discipline, fasting is by far the one with which I have the least experience. In fact, I am humbled to be writing about how to do it as a youthworker, because I still have so much to learn about it myself.
That being said, I still want to share a few things I have come to realize so far. First of all, it is something referred to with great frequency throughout scripture, but with surprisingly little explanation. It just seems to be a given that people yearning to know God better would practice fasting. As Foster says,
The list of biblical personages who fasted reads like a “Who’s Who” of Scripture: Moses the lawgiver, David the king, Elijah the prophet, Esther the queen, Daniel the seer, Anna the prophetess, Paul the apostle, Jesus Christ the incarnate Son. Many of the the great Christians throughout church history fasted and witnesses to its value; among them were Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, Charles Finney and Pastor Hsi of China. 
Importantly, let’s not forget that fasting is not exclusively a Christian discipline. As Foster reminds us, “all the major religions of the world recognize its merit.”
OK, this sounds persuasive, you may be saying. But in the next breath you might be mumbling, “But what exactly is fasting?” We can start by defining what it is not. It is not a hunger strike, which is done to gain political power or attract attention. It is also not dieting, which is done for health purposes. Biblical fasting centers on spiritual purposes.
Let’s get more specific; Foster again is very helpful: “In Scripture the normal means of fasting involves abstaining from all food, solid or liquid, but not from water.” However, there is also seen in scripture what could be called a “partial fast,” which is a restriction of diet (a good example described in Daniel 10).
Unlike the hunger strike and a typical health-related diet, spiritual fasting is usually a private matter between the individual and God; then again, there are great examples in Scripture of group fasting (Joel 2:152 Chronicles 20:1-15Ezra 8:21-23) usually done in case of emergency or to gain spiritual focus for a serious problem. Fasting has also been practiced consistently by monastics, and even by John Wesley, who urged Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, per the instructions of the Didache, an ancient Christian text from the first century.
While all of these examples might be convicting to your soul, it is worth noting that “there are simply no biblical laws that command regular fasting.” (Foster) Nevertheless, I want to commend fasting to you as a youthworker. To do so, I must share what I have so far found to be the most significant (and humbling) lesson gained from fasting, again from Richard Foster: “More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.” While I have fasted from food here and there over the years, usually in a group situation to focus in prayer over an important decision or crisis, I have mostly practiced fasting in other ways. I have found fasting from certain things to be crucial to my own spiritual growth at many junctures in my journey, and it has helped me to persevere in a career in which so many burn out.
To illustrate, here are three examples:

Fasting from words

Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, author and scholar who died in 1996, has taught me the most about this (find his slim classic The Way of the Heart if you would like to learn more). To fast from words is also to practice the profound spiritual discipline of silence. Arsenius, an early desert father, says it best:
I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having remained silent. 
In other words, we have become a noisy culture, and in many ways words have lost their creative, uplifting power. Instead, words have become so cheap and overused, and more often used as forces of destruction and sin. As it says in Psalm 39:1, “I said, ‘I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.’” To fast for a day, or perhaps even longer, from speaking, can have profound effect. After a fast of silence, I am always reminded not only of how casual and sloppy I can be in my speech, but worse, of how little I truly seek to listen, both to God and to others.
Working with teenagers can be a noisy business. They are often so talkative, they love their music loud, and have grown up in a world of 24/7 news, music, internet, and cable. As youthworkers we are sucked into that cacophony of overstimulation. To pursue a fast from words (and this usually means being alone, too!) is to cultivate the soil of your heart and mind in some powerful ways. In silence I have learned so much about the “still, small voice of God” and about my own fear of being quiet. Yet in those times of spirit-filled calm, I have learned how to face those things I have been running from, and find that He is right there with me.

Fasting from technology

In some ways this could be considered part two of what I just described. If fasting from words brings us into silence, we must then consider fasting from the source of much of our noise, which is technology. During one season of Lent in years past, I fasted from all technology after dinner. As mentioned earlier, fasting itself reveals the things that control us, and while I had a sense that I flirted with addiction to email, I had no idea how deep the compulsion ran until I gave it up each day. While the first days were challenging, within the first week I discovered the beauty of reading again, of a full night’s sleep, and get this… the power of boredom! While I do not want to get bored every day, an occasional evening or even a day of aimlessness, in a life that is absolutely chock full of people, activities, and to-do lists, can be amazingly liberating to my spirit. Try it for yourself.

Fasting from spending

How did I come to practice this discipline? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment—movies, books, music, eating out, and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry, friends). This took a third out of my budget!
Let’s be clear—I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I was now recognizing how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already.
Needless to say, I had more free time since I wasn’t busying myself as I had previously. I enjoyed quality time in conversation (rather than consumption) with friends and students. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity—they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! The only way we can really address the materialism we see in most of our students is to wean ourselves from it first.
I have not done a very good job of exploring the actual practice of fasting from food for spiritual purposes. If you would like to learn more about that, I commend Foster’s book to you. Regardless, I will end with his thoughts on the benefits of the spiritual discipline of fasting:
Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/fasting-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.GKLJsExi.dpuf

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Study

The original article was posted here. While the series was originally addressed to youth workers, the concepts apply to all believers.


This is the sixth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Full disclosure: It took me 17 years to get my Master’s degree in Theology. 
There, I said it. Not only did I take an outrageous amount of time to complete my studies, I even had to have my faculty advisor plead my case before the Academic Senate to receive my degree! I used to joke that after dealing with me that this particular institution had to create what I referred to as “Kelly’s Law.” Now they require that graduates have to complete their degrees within 10 years of when they start!
What took me so long, you may be asking? Life. I started my graduate studies during my first year working full-time for Young Life. They had a fantastic program that allowed their staff to take seminary courses as “intensives” (usually two weeks of lectures for four hours per day, with lots of pre-reading before and research papers after) that worked toward a degree. Naturally, the hope was that at some point the Young Life staffer would take some time off and go to seminary full-time to finish before Jesus returned!
However, two roadblocks impeded this plan: I got busy and distracted with my job, and I discovered that seminary is expensive. Many of my colleagues were understandably daunted by these two factors, and did not finish. I was able to keep plugging along with one to two classes per year, and somewhere in my late thirties realized I needed to focus and finish up. 
I tell you all of that to say: I know your pain. I know how incredibly full your lives already are with planning youth group, writing Sunday school lessons, organizing camps, recruiting leaders, sending out newsletters, returning phone calls, maybe even meeting with an actual student, talking to parents, attending sporting events, going to the bathroom…the list goes on and on. It seems unfathomable to pile on one other (large) commitment. But I can tell you with great confidence, it’s so worth it!
Richard Foster says this of the discipline of study:
“The apostle Paul tells us that we are transformed through the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). The mind is renewed by applying it to those things that will transform it. ‘Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8). The discipline of study is the primary vehicle to bring us to think about these things. Therefore, we should rejoice that we are not left to our own devices but have been given this means of God’s grace for the changing of our inner spirit.” (p. 62, The Celebration of Discipline)
Foster then goes on to say unless we integrate study into lives of church attendance, service, and devotion, we will remain unchanged. Why? “Because [we] have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study. Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free.
I can verify these wise words. I have always loved serving in youth ministry, and have had many a life-changing experience with students. However, wise counsel from one of my mentors continually rings in my head: “You can’t take people any further than you have gone yourself.” Certainly one could think that by working with teenagers that you only need a college education at most to stay ahead of them. Think again. I am so grateful for my seminary education, and more importantly, for the tools that education gave to me in terms of exegesis, hermeneutics, homiletics, and just plain old good study habits. For example, in preparing a Bible study for students, it could be tempting to rely on past lessons that have worked. But because of the discipline of study, I have grown to enjoy the opportunity to reflect on and explore a given text or topic more deeply. For as Richard Foster says, Reflection brings us to see things from God’s perspective. In reflection we come to understand not only our subject matter, but ourselves.I sometimes think I’m the one who has benefited far more from being in youth ministry than any of my students have. The discipline of study has brought me to richer places of experience and understanding of the love, grace, truth, and beauty of God.
There is not room here in this short article to break down all the aspects of the spiritual discipline of study. I heartily recommend Foster’s chapter on this particular discipline for a more expansive explanation. However, it is important to define the difference between the discipline of meditation (which I examined earlier here) and the discipline of study. Foster keeps it simple:
Meditation is devotional; study is analytical. Meditation will relish a word; study will explicate it. Although meditation and study often overlap, they constitute two distinct experiences. Study provides a certain objective framework within which meditation can successfully function.” (p. 64)
With that distinction in mind, and in light of my own experience in youth ministry, I will profile the three most important study practices that I have grown from:
  1. Education. As I mentioned earlier, though it took me most of my twenties and all of my thirties to complete, I am grateful for my seminary education. I understand that this is a remarkable privilege to have the access, opportunity, and fiscal means to pursue this education, and not something easily accessed by some. However, with the advent of online education, if you are not located near a reliable institution (an entire article could be written about what I mean about “reliable”!), work with other pastors and mentors whom you trust to locate a good online or extension program in order to get started.
  2. Discussion. Too much input without output leads to stagnation. You can only read so much without processing it with others. This is my only caveat regarding online education: classroom interaction was pivotal to my seminary experience. As Foster describes it, “Often my students and I will read from Plato or St. Augustine and have only a fragmentary grasp of the meaning or significance of what we have read. But when we gather for discussion, debate, and Socratic dialogue, insights emerge that would never have come without this exchange.” Even if you feel that graduate level studies are not an option, I know fellow youthworkers who gather together to read and discuss a book of theology in order to engage in lifelong learning and “iron sharpening iron” sorts of conversations.
  3. Reading. I will get somewhat opinionated here. There are a whole lot of “Christian books” out there, and many of them fall into the realms of romantic fiction, lifestyle advice, and general Bible study. I had a colleague challenge our congregation to read “not a Christian book, but a book about God once a year,” encouraging us to not pick up a superficial or devotional book (those have their place), but instead a book that is more rigorous, requiring concentration, time for comprehension, and maybe frequent dips into the dictionary to understand what is written! For example, early in my seminary years I started the habit of picking up every commentary written by John Stott. His books challenged me to work through scripture in a far deeper way than I had during my young Christian days. His writings helped me to define my personal ethics and strategically think through the day-to-day practice of my faith. Other mentors launched me into the works of classic Christian literature. Books like The Confessions of St. AugustineThe Practice of the Presence of God, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Table Talks, Wesley's sermons, Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and certainly all the powerful works of C.S. Lewis, are a great place to start. From there, you will develop a discerning palate for other authors who make your brain hurt!
This morning at church I read these verses:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19: 7-11)
Rather than take the psalmist’s word for it, we are called and beckoned by God to dig deeper and know the truths of these words for ourselves through sustained and deliberate study. Youth ministry is a challenging and intense calling, and we need all of God’s wisdom and resources in order to live out lives of integrity and enlightenment in front of our young people, their friends and families. Trust me—pursuit of study really helps you get there.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/study-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.5AGaI6Yu.dpuf

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Worship

Here's the fifth article in a twelve-article series based on the disciplines described by Richard Foster in his classic book from the seventies, The Celebration of Discipline. I adapted the ideas and content for the 21st century, especially targeting those who work with youth. But I believe everyone can benefit from practicing these disciplines. Give it a spin and see for yourself.

Spiritual Disciplines: Worship

We have all landed our jobs in different ways as youth pastors. Personally, I attended a church for eight years while I was on staff with Young Life, and as I decided to move on from YL, I was asked to plant the youth ministry at the church. Thus I had experienced life in this church as a member and lay leader for quite awhile before being hired onto the staff.
Frankly, in many ways the transition was a rude awakening. Previously I had absolutely loved attending every Sunday – the teaching was solid, the singing and sharing fed my soul, and the friendships were deep. I actually entered a season of mourning (unexpectedly) after the move. No longer were Sundays purely Sabbath for me. Instead, I entered what I would call the “twilight zone” for pastors, where we are invited to worship with our church family, yet also work at our place of employment. Huh??
Put another way, when friends asked me what it was like to move from active member to staff pastor, I said that I sort of felt like Jesus in Mark 5 when he was on the way to visit Jairus’ daughter. Despite being in the middle of a huge crowd, he felt the power go out of him and asked, “Who touched me?” when the hemorrhaging woman reached at his cloak. Not to put myself on the same level of Jesus (of course!), but Sundays at church included many individual encounters like that; nearly every person needed something from me—a hug, a question answered, a prayer, a comment. This caught me completely by surprise! I am not complaining; I’m simply describing my experience. But I was completely exhausted at the end of the day.
I had no idea what to do. I very much wanted and needed to worship with my church, but I cannot deny that I struggled greatly in learning how to shut everything out that was related to my job at church and enter in to worship. To quote Doug Lawrence from his article “4 Reasons Why Pastors Can’t Worship“:
Pastors have a lot on their minds and some of those things prevent them from fully engaging with the act of worship.
Lawrence goes on to describe some of those things: part of their job as worship leader is to sense the “spiritual temperature” during the service; pastors are often high strung (!) so they are aware of every detail and distraction; pastors want to be liked so they are attentive to the responses (or lack thereof) of those in the room; and (my favorite), we often develop a “been there, done that” mentality.
I am sure as you read this that you could add in several other variables that speak to your own situations. In smaller churches, the pastor has to lead worship, mow the lawn and restock the toilet paper! Sometimes youth workers are so busy running the youth programs that they will miss services because they are leading Sunday school with their students. Often those involved with youth wear other hats in church, playing music or singing on the worship team, offering an extra hand in the nursery, coordinating parking in between services… The list could go on. What this adds up to is that your “cloak” gets touched in multiple ways, your energy is drained and your focus gets distracted as you come to enter worship.
I am sure I do not need to tell you that that is a dangerous place to be in. Intimacy with God is not only our deepest longing; it is also the wellspring from which we are to draw our capacity for ministry and service. If we allow that well to run low, or even worse, go dry, we risk burnout and depression, among other things.
Thus I am motivated to write these monthly articles on spiritual disciplines. I have learned most of my lessons the hard way, and I would love to redeem my mistakes, at least in part, by sharing some of those lessons and giving others the opportunity to avoid them. If I was meeting with you in person, I would grab your shoulders at this point in the conversation and say, “You must learn how to fight for your own space to worship God!
So where do we begin, as people who are employed by the church, in learning how to worship without distraction? Let’s start with Henri Nouwen, the wise Catholic priest and writer:
Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practicing. Discipline without discipleship is like always practicing for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God’s guidance.
Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God’s gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.” (emphasis mine)
Those two brief paragraphs can be life-changing if you take them to heart. When I first read them, years ago, it was like a giant bell gonged in my head. I have given my whole ministry life over to discipleship—I love meeting with students for Bible study, organizing camps for them to spend time building their faith, and creating service projects that stretch them to apply their young faith in new ways.
But if I do not practice personal discipline of the kind that Nouwen describes here, the discipleship I so desperately want to cultivate in others cannot be maintained. Certainly, many of these spiritual disciplines are lived out privately in personal devotion. But as Christians we are called to weekly corporate experience with his Bride, the church, and this should not be sacrificed as we lead others in it week after week.
In fact, we need to reorient our priorities and perspective. Pastors are not only supposed to plan the services and lead the worship, they are also called to be the lead worshippers! What a grand privilege.
Now that does not require you to have the best voice or most demonstrative actions. Understood simply, it simply means we must flesh out the things we teach.
Before I go further, I want to be practical. Do not feel pressure to have a mountaintop experience every Sunday. Understand that especially if you are newer to your vocation and calling, what I am describing often takes years of experience to figure out. And let’s be honest, there are some Sundays where you are wiped out from an especially rambunctious group of students or a conversation that went sour. Come to God as you are, in complete honesty and confession. Enter the sanctuary expectantly, knowing that God will be there in the midst of His people.
In order to grow as a “lead worshipper,” allow me to share three practical things that I have discovered:
  1. Practice Sabbath diligently. I found that the best day for me to take Sabbath was on Saturday. By taking a day of rest the day before a full day of services and youth activities, I was rested and able to engage most fully in the wide spectrum of things that can happen on any given Sunday. Regardless of what day you take Sabbath, do your absolute best to come to Sunday rested and ready to serve and worship.
  2. Work with the other staff to protect each other. Talk this over with the rest of the staff as openly as you are able. While it may seem a little forbidding to admit that Sundays can be difficult for you, it can also create freedom in your communication. I know of one colleague who comes in just a few minutes late to the final service and goes up into the balcony for the majority of the service to be able to let down and enter into worship. She does this with the support of her senior pastor.
  3. Visit other churches on occasion, or perhaps regularly. Over the years I have had many pastor friends slide into Saturday night services at a nearby church to freely sing and be encouraged by the teaching of another pastor. Not only is it valuable to intentionally experience other forms of worship, it helps you avoid the “been there, done that” syndrome as you worship somewhere that you don’t know the order of worship and feel responsible for what is going on. It took some practice, but I learned to look forward to visiting other churches as a relatively anonymous participant.
I will finish with this brief passage from one of the psalms of ascent (120-134) as our ancestors entered worship at the temple in Jerusalem:

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good. (Psalm 122:1-9)
May we each enter worship as his servants and ministers, and never reach the bottom of the bountiful gifts of His presence and blessing as we share in worship with His people week after week.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/worship-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.gLJZNU1L.dpuf

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Prayer

At the end of September I decided to slowly re-release twelve articles I wrote in 2012 on spiritual disciplines for youth workers. Never fear, the ideas work for everyone! Just apply the examples to your own context. 

The original link is found here, and if you scroll to the bottom you can find all twelve articles. May this be useful in some way. 

This is the fourth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Say the word “prayer” to a youth worker, and I’m sure a slide show of images and emotions flood your mind. The spectrum probably runs from unspeakably sublime to the utterly mundane. I am reminded of praying under a full moon on a granite peak in British Columbia with a dozen juniors and seniors on a backpacking trip; the moonlight radiated off the bare rock in such a way that we were all bathed in a silvery glow. Our prayer time was so profound I can still remember its intensity over 20 years later. Yet prayer with youth also conjures up memories (nightmares?) of being a camp speaker for 300 junior highers, and telling them about Christ’s passion on the cross. With deep emotion and a grave demeanor, I called them to pray and consider the sacrifices of our Lord. In silence so wide we could hear a pin drop…a boy let out a massive fart, and let’s just say, the moment was lost!
Because of youth ministry, I have been laid out on my face before the Lord in desperation and fear. I have stomped through the snow in fury, shaking my fist at His silence. I have wept at His beauty and grandeur in hearing my students worship. I have shown up to a prayer meeting and fallen asleep because I have pushed myself too hard for too long. In any and all situations, prayer is an integral part of youth ministry. Whether we feel like it or not.
This is the fourth in a series of twelve articles on spiritual disciplines for youth workers. The twelve disciplines were chosen according to those examined in Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. While each discipline contains particular challenges in being lived out, I would venture to say that I have found none of them more demanding than that of prayer. As Oswald Chambers, a speaker, teacher and missionary of unique insight once said, “Prayer does not fit us for the greater work; prayer is the greater work.” If you really want to learn to be a good youth worker, spend less time trying to keep up with pop culture and more time with Jesus. Then, and only then, will you have what it takes to go long-term.
Countless volumes on prayer have been written, and one need only turn to the Book of Psalms to get started on the spiritual discipline of prayer for intimate communion with Christ. What could I possibly add to that? I will only share a few of my own lessons learned from prayer specifically as a youth worker, and hope that you will be encouraged.
I find that my own prayer needs as a youth worker have tended to fall, by and large, into three categories:
  1. Prayers for my students and their families.
  2. Prayers for more: more leaders, more money, more time, more energy, more kids to sign up for camp…more more more!
  3. Prayers for wisdom beyond my years.

Prayers for my students and their families.

Early in my career, all the needs of all my kids seemed like an almost insuperable burden. So many needs expressed by kids combined with so many glaring problems evident to me added up to a huge pile of worry. Sadly, I tried to carry those worries on my back. I misunderstood the implications of the famous words by Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Rather than think it is your job to carry the burdens of those many kids around you, entrust them to the broad shoulders of our Lord. I learned how to surrender it all, every day, at God’s feet. In fact, in the past few years, my prayers have become simpler: God knows what each person needs, far better than I ever will. So rather than recount all the ways a young person (or parent, or leader, or teacher, or whoever!) needs the Lord’s help, I simply say their name and commit them to Christ’s care. In the last year or so, I’ve picked up this practice described in the devotional Common Prayer:
Consider creating a space where you can get on your knees in the “secret chamber” and be with God. A friend from Brazil started a tradition of tacking prayers on her wall, so she could pray simply by looking at the walls and remembering the needs of her neighborhood and all the prayers God has answered.
I’ve listed particular students’ names on my “wall” both from long ago and right now whom God has put on my heart to pray for.

Prayers for more.

This is not just the dilemma of youth workers, but of just about every godly servant. But I have especially found youth ministry to be chronically under-funded and under-supported. As I raised money for Young Life, recruited (begged?) youth leaders for the fall, or tracked down gang members for camp, I often felt squeezed for (and tapped out of) resources. But whenever I felt at a loss, I call upon these words from Psalm 50:10-12:
For all the animals of the forest are mine, and I own the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird on the mountains, and all the animals of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for all the world is mine and everything in it. 
I firmly believe that God just shakes his head at us as we stumble around, trying to do everything on our own, waiting to pray and ask Him for help as our last resort. Learn to pray first, and always. As I pray, my eyes are opened wider to his imagination and provision. God is always speaking to us, and we only miss hearing Him when we do not listen. The truth of this simple line has astounded me as I have taken it seriously:
Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires. (Psalm 37:4)
In plenty and in want, pray first and foremost for MORE of Christ and he will happily answer that prayer!I have grown most in this practice by praying the Psalms. My favorite resources for growing in my understanding and enjoyment of the Psalms have come through reading How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman and God’s Prayer Book by Ben Patterson.

Prayer for wisdom beyond my years.

Though I am now at the age where I envisioned as a young youth worker that I would finally be “wise,” I know better than I ever have that I am utterly dependent on the wisdom of God for every decision and every responsibility placed before me. Fortunately, there is not enough room here to recount all of my foolish decisions, both great and small, that could have been avoided had I spent more time praying and less time panicking.
But one example stands out. I spent my first two years on Young Life staff (1984-1985) helping to get three junior high “Wyld Life” clubs started in town. It was a time of surprising, Spirit-filled success, and unfortunately, I took myself far too seriously. In approaching the fourth school, I threw up a quick prayer beforehand, gave my “spiel” to the principal, shared about our success at three other schools and our current work in the local high schools, then smiled and waited for the same results we had seen elsewhere.
The principal thanked me for the clear and enthusiastic presentation and told me she would contact us within the week. I did not know that as she closed the door she picked up the phone and called every other secondary-school principal in the district—eight in all—and scolded each one for allowing campus access to Young Life in violation of district policy.
While her interpretation of campus access policy was debatable, all the principals retreated immediately, deciding that our presence on campus was not worth arguing about. In one hour, I single-handedly lost our campus access for three new junior-high clubs and our five longstanding high-school Young Life clubs! My arrogance and lack of humble prayer before God still shames me. Fortunately, this event literally drove me to my face before God, seeking after His wisdom and insight. I am grateful for a hard lesson back in those early years of ministry.
As youth workers we will be thrown into many incredible and difficult situations. Just admit it NOW that you have no idea what to do! Instead, constantly consult with our Lord.
Don’t forget what I mentioned at the beginning as our highest priority, especially when it comes to prayer: intimate communion with God. As Richard Foster says, “All who have walked with God have viewed prayer as the main business of their lives.” May you discover this as well!
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/prayer-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.ERiOkp3V.dpuf

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Spiritual Disciplines Series: Meditation

Starting at the end of September, I decided to start reposting a series of articles I wrote for the Center for Youth Ministry Training on the spiritual disciplines. Here's the original link, and at the bottom are the links for all twelve articles.
Since I wrote this in 2012, I would say that I am still learning this discipline. My life continues to be full of good and demanding things, but in the midst of it all, I really try to consistently carve out space in my life to listen for God. 
I purposely posted the image of a candle because of a great chapter on candle-lighting from Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. She says, "Candles seem to create peace. You don't find candles lit in frenetic house; you find them lit in house where people are trying to pay attention." May you make the time to meditate on and with God!
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
I started working with teenagers when I was a senior in college, volunteering with Young Life. When I went to visit my kids at school during their lunch break, sometimes the campus security would bark at me, “Get to class!” at the end of the period, thinking I was a student there. I scurried off on my bike and went back to my college classes, giggling.
Perhaps I was a few years older than the students I worked with, but I was still very young in terms of my development. I had endless energy and could work for days on end without real rest, staying up late to finish papers, waking up early to grab breakfast with a friend before class, and of course going non-stop on the weekends. I was constantly scrambling to cover all my bases, and somehow, everything seemed to get done.
Unfortunately, I kept up this pattern well after college graduation, even as I started working with Young Life vocationally. At the outset I breathlessly told a friend, “I can’t believe I’m getting PAID to do this!” My excitement for the tasks before me seemed to have no bounds. I maintained a constant pace of contact work with students, meetings with leaders, fundraising and administration, with some brief moments with friends squeezed in. My weekends were crammed full with various excursions, high school football games, church, and more meetings.
Regardless of my enthusiasm, this all came down crashing on me three years in. It started one day in the office, when I was alone, and I burst into tears. I could not figure out why I was crying, but I couldn’t stop. I pulled myself together, afraid someone would walk in on me, but that night the same feelings bubbled up in my apartment. A cloud hung over me as I tried to keep galloping through my tireless schedule. In a meeting with my pastor, when I told him what was happening, he ordered me to take a week off, right then and there. His family was heading out of town and he handed me the keys to his house. “Go on vacation for a week. Everyone will be fine without you. Don’t give out the phone number (this was in the days of landlines) and just get some rest.”
I numbly nodded my head and agreed to his prescription. I crawled into bed and slept for two days straight. I was completely overworked and exhausted, and it was purely my fault. As I emerged out of the fog, I realized that I had come to neglect healthy boundaries and self-discipline, all in the name of serving God. I was falling into depression. Something had to change.
Brennan Manning had just come on the scene and someone had given me his book The Lion and the Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. I peeled open the cover in between tears (I was still crying at the drop of a hat at this point) and read these words on the first page: “Religion is not a matter of learning how to think about God, but of actually encountering Him.”
In an instant I immediately knew what was wrong: I had left God in the dust of my unrelenting schedule and lost sight of my purpose. As the psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, “Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.”
I needed a life of Sabbath, rest, reading and prayer, where I wasn’t driven by adrenaline and compulsion, but by a sense of calling and transformation. In a nutshell, I needed to grow up and anchor my life in intimacy with my Lord rather than my own enthusiasm.
Where does one begin? I suggest that it starts with learning the spiritual discipline of meditation. As Richard Foster says in his classic The Celebration of Discipline, this means,
listening to God’s word, reflecting on God’s works, rehearsing God’s deeds, ruminating on God’s law, and more. In each case there is stress upon changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God. 
While we could spend the rest of our lives mastering this discipline, he saves the kicker for last: “Repentance and obedience are essential features in any biblical understanding of meditation.” Ooof! I am still convicted as I read those words. Meditation is not simply sprinkling a few minutes of reading and prayer onto my already packed schedule. Meditation requires that I come to a grinding halt on a regular basis, listen, pray, listen some more, contemplate, then if needed, repent and change course.
What is most challenging in all of that is cultivating the capacity to truly listen. After all, as we learn from the lyrical story of Elijah’s encounter with God’s “still, small voice” in 1 Kings 19, God usually does not demand our attention like gale-force winds, earthquakes and fires do; rather, he is often the gentle whisper that requires focus, consistent pursuit and ongoing intimacy.
My first practical change as I emerged from that depressing crash all those years back was to commit to taking a Sabbath. I set aside Saturdays for rest and reflection. If I knew I had to be out of town for a camp or event, I adjusted my schedule accordingly, and scheduled another day that week. Previously, I waited until I hit the complete exhaustion stage before taking a day off. Now I realized I needed to consistently stop for rest and reflection, regardless of how many “shoulds” were competing for my attention.
Then I committed to consistent devotional reading, which then took me into reflection and prayer. As Foster says, “In meditation we are growing into what Thomas a Kempis calls ‘a familiar friendship with Jesus.’” Even better, he adds, “The perpetual presence of the Lord (omnipresence, as we say) moves from a theological dogma into a radiant reality.” Who can turn that invitation down?!
Make no mistake, I’m not saying we should try to develop some buddy-buddy, toss-a-softball-around relationship with Jesus. This is more like what Peter, James and John encountered in Mark 9 in the Transfiguration. When we contemplate the awe and power of who Jesus is in its fullness, coupled with our access to such intimacy, we will be forever changed.
Here is the goal, again according to Richard Foster:
What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.
Unlike eastern meditation, which seeks detachment from the world and its worries, we seek detachment and attachment–to Christ.
Since you only learn to meditate by meditating, start by committing to its practice. I recommend setting up a routine, which is needed to develop any other personal discipline like exercise, playing an instrument, or creating art. I was an English major in college and still occasionally aspire to being a writer. In order to do so, I have followed the advice of the writer Anne Lamott in her brilliant book on writing called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“But how?” my students ask. “How do you actually do it?” 
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day…you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voice of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt… 
Somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story…But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started. 
It is really no different in meditation. Start by being quiet before God, emptying your mind and heart of all the busyness. Do not be in a rush. You are seeking to enter the living presence of God. Like any other relationship, you cannot do that all at once; instead, it takes the cumulative effort of multiple memories and time logged. From there, I usually spend time on a psalm. I recommend regularly reading through psalms and using them as a template for your time of prayer.
Again, I cannot recommend Foster’s book enough, especially when it comes to the chapter on meditation. Seek out wise mentors in your life to find out how they spend time in Christian meditation, and learn from them. I finish with this wise counsel from Richard Foster:
You must not be discouraged if in the beginning your meditations have little meaning to you. There is a progression in the spiritual life, and it is wise to have some experience with lesser peaks before trying to tackle the Mt. Everest of the soul. So be patient with yourself. Besides, you are learning a discipline for which you have received no training. Nor does our culture encourage you to develop these skills. You will be going against the tide, but take heart; your task is of immense worth. 
I should have crashed and burned that sad summer day in 1987. But I am happy to say that in 2012 I am still steadily, joyfully pursuing youth ministry, and I attribute that longevity in large part to having learned the spiritual disciplines of rest, reflection, Sabbath and prayer. May your meditations be rich.
- See more at: http://www.cymt.org/meditation-spiritual-disciplines-for-youthworkers/#sthash.9tOz9hmk.dpuf