Solitude: Spiritual Disciplines for Youthworkers

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.

by Kelly Soifer

Fall 2011 marked the beginning of my thirtieth year in youth ministry. There is a very long list running through my head of the many joys experienced in those years. There is a slightly shorter list of things I would now do differently. But perhaps most importantly for this column, there is a concise “must-do” list that I try to convey to anyone I meet who is just getting started in this grand adventure.

Certainly, these “must-do’s” would include some crucial elements like “take regular vacations,” “get really good at effective time management,” and “learn to live within a budget” But at the very top of this list would be this: “Develop robust habits of spiritual discipline.” Huh? Why does that sound so intimidating?

Unfortunately, in my first years of youth ministry, I took myself far too seriously. I was exhausted and stretched thin from overwork and stress. It took too long for me to recognize that my greatest need, beyond vacations, a good calendar and investment in a 401K (though I needed all those as well), was a hearty commitment to spiritual depth and growth. It is in my times with God that I hear His voice, gain strength, and receive insight as to what I am learning and where I need help. Regarding my ministry, it also gives me guidance as to where to go next. And as the saying goes, you can’t take people farther than you’ve gone yourself. In order to provide true leadership, spiritual disciplines are essential!

Richard Foster, in his classic book Celebration of Discipline, defines spiritual disciplines in this way:

“A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort.”

Spiritual disciplines are actions of body, mind and spirit so that we might grow in grace and also draw nearer to Jesus.  Foster defines 12 disciplines that he considers most important to pursue. For a thorough study of each of these, I highly recommend this book.

Beginning this month, I will highlight one of these disciplines here at YMToday and talk a bit about how I see the value of that particular discipline in light of our calling as youth workers. We are starting this month because it coincides with the Church Year, which can and should shape our identity and priorities as followers of Jesus Christ.

In this first month we will explore the spiritual discipline of Solitude. Certainly, as those whose lives are intentionally filled with people 24/7, we may find the concept of solitude far too beautiful for words. I will be the first to admit that in the middle of a week at camp I would often take little mental vacations where I envisioned myself sitting next to a pool by myself, reading a magazine without a care in the world…That was “solitude” to me.

But let’s dig a little deeper. We need to go past the daydreaming stage. What does God want for us in seeking after solitude? I believe we need to acknowledge an interesting tension that exists for us here in the U.S. On the one hand, our American culture fosters and elevates independence as a key value. We are the land of superheroes, Captain America and the Marlboro Man. Personal rights predominate. We do not like anyone telling us what to do. So perhaps the concept of solitude appeals to that sturdy self-reliance? Perhaps. But we cannot forget that as Christians we are eternally connected with other believers. C. S. Lewis reminds us that “the New Testament does not envisage solitary religion: regular assembly for worship is everywhere in the epistles.” So to pursue solitude does not mean that the goal is to reach a state of “just me ‘n God,” or as a chance to just zone out and take a break.

At the other end of the spectrum, we live in a tremendously noisy, over-stimulating world. Cable allows us to have news and entertainment 24 hours a day. Our iPods, Kindles and the Internet ensure that we never lack for something to listen to, read about or watch. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter keep us wired to everyone we know. Text messaging offers endless communication and keeps us yoked to our students. If we wanted, we could make sure we are never alone, helping us to avoid perhaps the deepest fear of the human heart—loneliness.

Furthermore, Christians can sometimes be so actively involved with various Christian activities that they never sit still. As Christian author Rebecca Manley Pippert called it in her book Out of the Saltshaker & Into the World, Christians can occupy themselves constantly within the “Holy Huddle.”

So what really is “solitude” then, from a Christian perspective? Richard Foster describes it with these words:

We can cultivate an inner solitude and silence that sets us free from loneliness and fear. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment…

There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times…If we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart. (Celebration of Discipline, Chapter 7)

Solitude thus becomes the main way for you to grow in your love for Christ and to be encouraged and nourished to persevere in your ministry with students. Rather than waiting until you’re on the edge of collapse before scheduling a three-day retreat (where you just sleep the whole time anyway!), consider solitude as daily manna from God.

Foster expands solitude’s spiritual dimensions for us:

We must seek out the recreating stillness of solitude if we want to be with others meaningfully. We must seek the fellowship and accountability of others if we want to be alone safely. We must cultivate both if we are to live in obedience.

At the most fundamental level, solitude is where we seek God’s face. But how does one begin? I have learned that the best place to start is by cultivating the habit of listening, which Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith describes this way:

The whole spiritual life of the Christian is a process of listening to God, inclining the ear of the heart… We have to be very quiet and still within ourselves, very alert and attentive, if that word [“listen”] is to resonate properly in our innermost depths.

Two books that educated me most in my spiritual listening are titled Enjoy the Silence: A 30-Day Experiment in Listening to God by Duffy and Maggie Robbins, and Benedict’s Way: An Ancient Monk’s Insights for a Balanced Life by Lonni Collins Pratt and Father Daniel Homan. These books are excellent resources to build the discipline of solitude in your life.
Once I committed to seeking after solitude as my best way to connect with God, I needed to explore four elements recommended for meeting with him:

Study: Some authors also call this Lectio Divina or “sacred reading.” This is reading with “the ears of the heart.” You are not reading merely to obtain facts or check something off of your to-do list. You are reading to slow down and get focused. Even more, you come to the text expectantly—you are assuming that you will get something from it, because it is a word from God. Sometimes those messages are loud and clear; sometimes they take some patience to hear.

Meditation: My friend Colleen says, “When we meditate on God, His Word and His world, we put ourselves in a place where He can speak directly to us.” As the Robbinses say in their book mentioned earlier, “Contemplative writers have compared meditation to the process of a cow chewing its cud… Meditation is taking time to chew and re-chew a passage of Scripture.” In the 21st century this may be a tall order for us. We are trained to be consumers, powering through words and information as fast as the microchips in our electronic gadgets will allow. It has become counterintuitive to simply sit on some words and let their meaning unfold for us. But that is exactly what meditation requires.

Prayer: After reading expectantly and listening patiently, we can now respond conversationally in prayer. The words of scripture we consider each day will prompt a variety of responses—some days we may erupt in praise, other days we may be humbled and stumble into raw confession. Still other days may cause us to commit to a calling God is making on our lives, and on another day we may simply call out to Him for guidance and help.

Contemplation: This can be the most delightful part of all, but perhaps the most challenging to practice. Analogous to the end of a great meal that was full of many courses and engaging conversation, there comes a point that goes “beyond words,” where the mere presence of others after a shared experience is enough. As Benedictine monk Luke Dysinger says, “we must learn to enjoy the refreshment of simply being in God’s presence.”

As with all of the spiritual disciplines of this year, they only begin to come naturally to you through committed practice. I recommend that you set aside (at least) 20 minutes each day. Furthermore, it is most helpful if you can designate a particular spot where you can be relatively quiet and private.  Should that not work out every day in the coming month, do not give up. This is about cultivating a habit for the long haul far more than it is about perfection in the first month!

The best book to start with is the Book of Psalms, but certainly, these four elements can be applied to any systematic reading of scripture. If you are daunted as to where to begin in your reading, you can use the classic McCheyne Bible Reading Plan—but don’t allow it to intimidate you. Don’t think of your time with God as simply another task to knock down on your never-ending to-do list. This is the heart of your day. Take the time you need to listen, pour your heart out, and be refreshed. You will never be the same.
*****

Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:

  1. Solitude
  2. Simplicity
  3. Meditation
  4. Prayer
  5. Worship
  6. Study
  7. Fasting
  8. Service
  9. Submission
  10. Guidance
  11. Confession
  12. Celebration

*****

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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