Editor’s Note: This is the tenth in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
Whenever I am interviewing potential volunteers for youth ministry, I tell them a story from my early years as a way to illustrate how their decision-making processes affect their involvement in youth ministry. It goes like this:
In my second year of vocational youth ministry, I was interviewing a student at a local college who had expressed interest in volunteering. I’ll call her Kristin (not her real name.) She was a pre-med student, very earnest and energetic. One of my first questions in my interviews was some form of “What prompted you to contact us?” and she launched into an enthusiastic description of how God clearly revealed to her that serving with us was His will for her life! I didn’t need to hear any more. I believed that anyone with such conviction would be an outstanding addition to our team. She agreed to the year-long commitment with no qualms whatsoever.
After I accepted Kristin as a volunteer, I gave her our schedule of training and meetings for the year. She dove right in to relationships with students, and brought a lot of fun and energy to our weekly meetings with youth. This worked great for about six months; then Kristin started missing a meeting here and there. She was still involved, but I felt her initial urgency had waned. So I scheduled an appointment with her to see how she was doing, assuming her studies were proving to be more challenging than she anticipated.
After hearing about the “amazing” things she was learning in her classes, the conversation turned to her wavering interest with us.
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” she said, with no real hesitation. She looked me straight in the eye and went on to describe to me that God had revealed to her that His will for her had changed, and that she needed to quit volunteering with us! The look on my face said it all.
When I recovered slightly I said, “But I thought it was ‘God’s will’ for you to serve with us?” She nodded and said simply that things had changed. I asked her how she had discerned this. She said she had been praying about it, and when she asked her friends for their opinion, they all agreed with her that God had told her His will for her had changed. I replied bluntly, “Well, my God would not tell you do to that.”
I said this mostly to get her attention. What I meant was that God wants us to be covenant people who do not flippantly agree to anything without intending to follow through. I went on to ask her to not try to spiritualize her way out of this by saying she prayed about it.
Harsh, I know! But perhaps you can sympathize. My point was (and still is) not that people are not allowed to change their minds. But to throw God under the bus and blame it on Him was just too much to take! I use the story to emphasize to volunteers that this decision is a significant one and to not make it lightly.
I pray I do not sound too cynical. I would not be writing these monthly articles on the spiritual disciplines if I did not believe with my entire being that God created us for intimacy with Himself; I do not doubt that we can hear God’s leading in our lives and gain confirmation in His calling.
In Richard Foster’s study guide written to accompany The Celebration of Discipline, he writes these powerful words regarding this month’s spiritual discipline, that of Guidance:
Guidance is the most radical of the Disciplines because it goes to the heart of this matter of walking with God. Guidance means the glorious life of hearing God’s voice and obeying His word.
That brings me to huge questions that I encounter every day with students, leaders–heck, myself!
- How can I know God’s will for my life?
- How will I know if I am called to do this?
- What is the “right” decision?
- Can I ever say that God “told” me something?
Over the years I have found many of us Christians to be far too sloppy with proclamations about what God has “told” us, or how a particular crisis was “God’s will.” Nevertheless, the appropriate response to clumsy theology is not to avoid the issues of His calling and will entirely. Rather, we can practice the spiritual disciplines I’ve written about in these past several months in order to cultivate a sense of the Spirit’s leading. Foster coaches us further in telling us that it is through collective practice with fellow believers in these disciplines that guidance proves to be the most relevant and present in our daily lives.
What does it mean to see for God’s guidance collectively? Isn’t that what Kristin did in my illustration? After all, she prayed about her decision and then consulted her friends. Foster’s book has outstanding insights on this process of discernment, and is emphatic about the corporate dimensions of this spiritual practice.
Foster references several wonderful passages from both the Old and New Testaments of believers learning to be led by God’s Spirit. He especially gives some crucial elements from Acts 13, where the early believers had been together for an extended period of time and used the disciplines of prayer, worship, and fasting to determine that Paul and Barnabas were to be sent out as missionaries. Other examples that he uses from scripture and church history are equally powerful.
My goal in these columns is to specifically address how these classic spiritual disciplines can be applied in youth ministry. Looking back, I am rather shocked at the level and amount of decisions regarding ministry that I was given at a young age. I lacked the insight and experience to discern what to do in so many situations, and I am grateful that I survived most of them rather unscathed, though not without significant impacts at times.
What I wish I had known in these early years was where to go when I needed to make some of these big decisions. Sadly, often I just told myself that I should already “know what to do,” and after a quick prayer and perhaps a scan over a few verses I found through using my concordance, I would fumble through and make a decision.
Over the years I have discovered much better ways to pursue the guidance needed to live out a soul-filled life of faith, fulfilling my calling to leadership and spiritual formation. Here are two things to think about.
My default answer has become “I don’t know” rather than “yes.”
As we are told by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount regarding our vows, “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” (Matthew 5:37) As I attempted to describe in my opening illustration, I have come to recognize the importance of commitments in many new ways since embarking on the path of vocational youth ministry. In other words, I must see every decision as a “vow,” and weigh my options seriously. Rather than readily say yes to everything out of enthusiasm and a desire to not “miss out” on every opportunity that comes my way, I have learned to wait as long as it takes before saying yes or no.
This has been especially important as my roles have enlarged. I can tend to be overly responsible and feel I have to make a lot of decisions, often when I’m not ready. I also can measure the success of my day by how many things I have checked off my never-ending to-do lists. I have learned the hard way to not give in to my need to achieve, and be at peace about the decisions I make. I have learned how to seek the wise counsel of supervisors, pastors, spiritual directors, counselors, and experienced practitioners in youth ministry. In other words, learn how to ask for help quickly, and often.
Understand the power of accountable relationships.
In my church tradition (the Free Methodist Church) we spend a great deal of time and energy learning from John Wesley. He and his brother Charles, along with George Whitefield, gave leadership to the remarkable revivals through England in the 18th century. While they were renowned for their revolutionary open-air preaching style, many would say that true transformation came through their serious approach to accountability through small groups. There is not room to explore that fully here, but this is the context in which I believe the spiritual discipline of guidance is experienced most powerfully with others. Their small groups (known as “bands”) started with one simple question each week: “How is it with your soul?” From there, as trust grew among members, they explored other profound accountability questions. (Go here for ideas on how to build small groups like these.) It is imperative that you have this sort of support and accountability if you are to live a sustainable life of faith and service.
As we approach this presidential election, pundits are expecting the race to be close. Amazingly, the winner may emerge (as has been the case in previous years) with only a 51% majority. This should not be the case with believers when it comes to the decisions and commitments of our lives. To paraphrase Richard Foster,
Believers have dared to live on the basis of Spirit-rule; no 51% vote, no compromises, but Spirit-directed unity. It works.
May we learn to not go it alone in our service and leadership. Pray to God for direction on how to lead out of Spirit-filled guidance.
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.