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