Editor’s Note: 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 naïve years of youth ministry that I described earlier:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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