Editor’s Note: 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. Thankfully, I made it, and some twelve years later am now preparing to start a Doctorate in Ministry this fall.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. Augustine, The Practice of the Presence of God, Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s Table Talks, Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 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.
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:
Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.