Who are you?
Christians working in vocational ministry, unlike other Christians who do not, run the risk of professionalizing their spirituality, acting as though their Christian life is fully lived out through their work.
But consider this:
- Studying the Bible to write sermons or articles isn’t the same as soaking in Scripture and allowing the Spirit to speak deep into your soul.
- Evangelizing strangers in a ministry program isn’t the same as being Christ to your neighbour.
- Leading a prayer group isn’t the same as praying privately as the Lord leads you.
If the only time you pray, study or do any other Christian practice is to fulfill work responsibilities, you will inevitably dry up spiritually. You will lose the vital relationship with God that you once had. Some indicators that your personal spiritual life is drying up include:
- Feeling like you are just going through the motions. As Dave Blundell writes in Professionally Religious, “We professionally religious can go a long time talking about Him without talking with Him. We can spend weeks speaking for Him without speaking to Him.”
- Thinking of yourself as a fraud, hoping not to be discovered.
- Reading this post and feeling convicted that this applies to you.
If you have professionalized your spirituality, the correction is to come back to a personal spirituality of divine intimacy. Someone with a living, vibrant Christian spirituality will have a rich experience of God quite apart from the relationship they have due to their work or calling. Remember, God wants a relationship with you, the whole you, and not just the part of you who plays the role of ministry leader. The best answer to the question, “Who are you?” is not “I am the pastor of ABC Church” but “I am God’s creation, made in his image and redeemed by his Son, Jesus Christ.” You are a person before you are an employee.
So it is vital to your long term success in ministry that you take care of your faith life. Keeping your soul tender towards God and attentive to his leading is your top priority. Let’s look at some ways you can keep your spirituality healthy and vibrant.
Types of Christian spirituality
Christianity has many different types of spirituality which appeal to different people. If you want to start paying more attention to caring for your spiritual life, begin by finding which type of spirituality feels most meaningful to you. You’ll likely identify with more than one.
Richard Foster has six different streams of spirituality which he reviews in his book Streams of Living Water:
- The Contemplative Tradition: Discovering the Prayer-Filled Life
- The Holiness Tradition: Discovering the Virtuous Life
- The Charismatic Tradition: Discovering the Spirit-Empowered Life
- The Social Justice Tradition: Discovering the Compassionate Life
- The Evangelical Tradition: Discovering the Word-Centred Life
- The Incarnational Tradition: Discovering the Sacramental Life
While I can identify with all six, the contemplative and charismatic traditions resonate most deeply with me, and they are the ones I turn to most often. Which ones do you connect with most readily? God is a God of great diversity. He has a spirituality for everyone. Read Foster’s book to see how you can further deepen and enrich your life in those traditions.
In Protestant Spiritual Traditions, seven authors explore Christian spirituality based on the major theological and historical divisions of Protestantism. They examine spirituality from seven traditions:
You may find new ways to experience the spirituality of your own part of Protestantism, or you may find some spiritual practices to borrow from the others. (Notably absent from this book is Pentecostal spirituality. Pentecostals and charismatics may find the Pietist tradition the closest fit – or look for a book on Pentecostal spirituality.)
Finally, another resource to help you find spiritual practices and resources is Christian Spirituality: An Introduction by Alastair McGrath. It seems rather expensive on Amazon, so perhaps you could borrow it from a library, find it cheaper on other websites, or look for an alternative book. It is an excellent overview of Christian spirituality based on theology, biblical imagery and metaphors, and the writings of theologians from the Early Church Fathers to the present day.
Helps for healthy Christian spirituality
Spiritual direction isn’t really direction. No one is going to give you direction or even advice. However, a spiritual director is someone who will meet with you over time to help you deepen your relationship with God. They may give you some help with discernment, prayer, or just a fresh way of thinking. They’ll probably suggest some helpful resources. Every session is different because it all depends on where you are at. The Tyndale Association of Spiritual Directors has a good introduction to spiritual direction.
Spiritual direction can be very powerful if you are either not very experienced at Christian spiritual practices or if you need to discern God’s leadership. I made good use of spiritual direction when trying to discern whether God wanted me to be a pastor in a church or the leader of CCCC. The director never told me what he thought God was saying, but he did give me a lot of help:
- I was concerned that I might make a mistake and miss God’s perfect will for me. He gave me this life-changing (and liberating) thought: “Maybe God is offering you two options, both equally pleasing to Himself, and now He has the fun of watching you make the decision!“
- He suggested I go out into the forest for three or four hours of silence and solitude, and play through two scenarios: 1) I’m a church pastor and Jesus walks into my office, and 2) I’m the head of CCCC and Jesus walks into my office. What would be said in the two conversations? Well, I only got through the first one and I had my clear answer!! Here I am at CCCC for thirteen years now!
Tyndale Seminary has a list of qualified spiritual directors across Canada.
In another post, I discussed how to design your own personal retreat. But instead of doing a self-guided retreat, another option is to take a guided retreat. If you do a private guided retreat, you will be the only person doing what you’re doing (but others will be at the retreat centre doing their own retreats too). The retreat centre will provide you with a spiritual director. The other option is a guided group retreat. You are still at a retreat centre and have a spiritual director, but a group retreat normally has a program or a theme to it. There will be times of silence and solitude, but there will also be times of teaching and discussion.
Probably the most famous guided retreat is the Ignatian Way offered by the Jesuits, who are quite accommodating to non-Catholics who want the experience. There are also Anglican retreat centres such as two which I’ve checked out: the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Abbey House in Glastonbury, England. And then there are retreat centres with counselors (as opposed to spiritual directors) such as The Sabbath House in the Smoky Mountains or the Focus on the Family retreat centres for clergy here in Canada. I have done a couple of guided group retreats, and they have always been very fruitful for me.
Revisit meaningful places
A less formal way of caring for your spirituality is to revisit some places that have special meaning for you. This is what Israel was doing as it traveled through the desert to reach the Promised Land – creating physical memorials to the great things which God had done for them. If they returned, or if others came behind them, they would come across the memorial and be reminded of God’s goodness.
As we go through life, we experience God in many ways just as Israel did, and while we don’t build stone memorials, often a particular place may serve as a physical reminder of that significant spiritual time or experience. Of course God is everywhere, and we don’t make idols of anything, such as a place, but you might find it refreshing and nourishing to go back to some location that has spiritual significance for you, and draw from your past experience to have a fresh encounter with God.
I find it a very moving experience to return to the church that was my home church until my marriage. It was at that church that I experienced the majesty and glory of God. I felt his bigness. I felt deeply loved by him as his little child, even as a teenager. In my church of the last 36 years (I’ve only ever been a member of two churches), I experience God as a friend who walks beside me. As an adult, I have a much greater sense of his leadership each and every day. Going back to my first church is always a healthy reminder of the fullness of God. He’s both majestic and intimate.
Visit different churches
One summer, as a family, we took the summer off from our various responsibilities at church and we went and visited all kinds of churches: Coptic, Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, and so on, The whole family enjoyed seeing how other Christians do church. The friendliest had to be the Coptic church. During the service, a robed deacon left the altar area and came right down to sit with us and explain the service and what everyone was doing. It turned out that the men got together every Saturday night to bake the Communion bread. After the service, families could come and take an unused loaf home. We couldn’t take Communion, but they invited us to take some bread!
By visiting different church services, you can experience God in different ways. I especially find the Anglican liturgy (using Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) very meaningful. The language is extraordinarily beautiful and it just seems worthy of God. It’s the linguistic equivalent of dressing up to go to church! When I experience the liturgy, I feel lost in the wonder of God and bursting with a fresh appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice on my behalf. I don’t pray to God in Cranmer’s English on my own, or wouldn’t want to pray this way at every service, but as an added dimension of spirituality, it does my soul good. In fact, this summer I was in England, and attended all three morning services at Westminster Abbey, just to get my fill of this beautiful liturgy!
For the more intellectually minded believer, you may find taking an academic course good for the soul. My wife and I love to learn and will be applying to attend Oxford University’s Theology Summer School next year. In Canada, Regent College offers a summer school for lay people, and there may be others.
Many Bible colleges and seminaries will allow people to audit courses through the year. You pay a reduced fee, but you don’t have to do any assignments or take any tests. You simply get to sit in the classroom and participate like any other student. It’s a great way to deepen your knowledge of God.
There are plenty of online courses you can take as well.
Something I’ve done from time to time is check the syllabus for a course I’m interested in but haven’t got time to take. I want to see what the textbooks are. This way I have a list of books to read that I know will be good because a professor has vetted them.
Of course, the first thing you should do if you want to care for your spirituality is to take a day of Sabbath rest each week. God’s command to rest predates the Mosaic Law and so is a continuing command. I must admit I struggle not doing any CCCC work on Sunday, but I am trying! When you think about it, if you don’t take Sabbath rest, and especially if you tend to work evenings as well, you have a pretty unbalanced life. Sabbath rest, like a vacation, is good for your family and friends, and allows you to stay fresh to fulfill your ministry responsibilities.
I’d really like to hear from you what you do to “care for your soul”. What do you find is restorative? What practices invigorate your spiritual life? Please share in the comments below.
May God richly bless you with greater intimacy and spiritual vitality as you take care to feed your soul!