Spiritual Disciplines for People in Ministry
By Lynne M. Baab
Published Spring 2008, Christianity Today blog, "Building Church Leaders"
Jon and Colin play vigorous racquetball every Wednesday and Friday at lunch. Every few weekends, they take time to talk and relax together. They have learned that their relationship doesn’t grow without spending time simply enjoying each other’s company. They have found a balance point between being friends for the purpose of playing racquetball together and being friends who simply have affection for each other.
This balance point that Jon and Colin have found reflects a tension in friendship that researchers call affection versus instrumentality. In what ways is a friendship an end in itself, characterized by affection and simple enjoyment of another person? And in what ways is that friendship instrumental—a means to another end, such as playing sports or engaging in a hobby with another person? Most friendships have elements of both.
This tension provides a thought-provoking framework for those of us in Christian ministry to consider our relationship with God. How much do we engage in spiritual disciplines or practices because we long to grow closer to God as an end in itself? How much do we engage in those disciplines as a means to another end?
Because we are partners with God in ministry, it is completely right and good for Christian leaders to engage in spiritual disciplines that have a purpose beyond ourselves. This includes praying for the people with whom we minister and studying the Bible to prepare for preaching or teaching. Yet these practices have a component of instrumentality. They are not focused on simply enjoying the presence of God and growing closer in intimate friendship with Jesus Christ. As humans, we need God in many ways in our lives; therefore, much of our relationship with God will always have aspects of instrumentality.
The people of Israel and the followers of Jesus throughout the ages also spent time in God’s presence simply to enjoy the wonder of God’s goodness. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty” says the Psalmist. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God” (Psalm 84:1, 2, NIV). Jesus encouraged his disciples to abide in him and also to enjoy friendship with him (John 15). Countless other Scriptures testify to how precious it is to draw near to God.
In order to maintain spiritual health, every person in ministry needs to engage in a few spiritual disciplines that nurture relationship with God as an end in itself. In conversations with other pastors and congregational leaders, I’ve identified several reasons why this is true.
To Appreciate All Aspects Life
First, we need to remember that the whole of our life matters to God, not just our ministry. We so easily get caught up in what we are doing, and our identity shifts away from being a child of God to being a pastor, staff member, or other kind of minister. When we engage in spiritual disciplines that have no obvious function related to our ministry, we nurture our identity as God’s beloved children.
Anna, a musician who has led the praise band at her church for many years, has practiced fasting both from food and from things other than food. One year she felt led by God to stop playing the guitar for Lent, a form of fasting she had never experienced before. She had to bow out of the worship leadership for several events as well as Sunday worship for that period of time.
The first Sunday she attended the worship service without a role in leading music, she found herself criticizing several aspects of the music. God spoke to her clearly that morning, saying, “If you can’t worship me for who I am, we have a problem.” As the weeks passed, she came to understand that her absorption in playing music had blinded her to other aspects of worship, particularly intercessory prayer. During and after the guitar fast, she has engaged in intercessory prayer in new and fruitful ways. This new pattern of prayer reminded her that God cares about her whole self, not just her musical side.
While God called Anna to fast from something related to her ministry, God can also call us to fast in a way that simply helps us clear away the clutter and draw near. Fasting helps us realize our dependence on God for everything in life. It nurtures thankfulness, and often confronts us with our addiction to comfort. While God may call us to fast and pray for ministry needs, fasting can also be an excellent spiritual discipline to help us rest in God and rejoice that God loves us and cares for us, quite apart from what we do.
To Maintain a Sense of Self
We need to nurture an inner life that is not related to our ministry so we can move on to other jobs or into retirement and still have a sense of self apart from our ministry. Anna could lose her voice and get crippling arthritis in her hands, and she would still be able to pray. That statement would have been true for her in a theoretical way before her guitar fast, but now she knows it is true in a deep and powerful way.
To Hear God’s Voice
We need to hear God’s voice about our lives beyond our ministry. The spiritual discipline of discernment is deeply significant for those in Christian leadership. We need to grow in our ability to hear God’s guidance for directions for ministry, particularly in these rapidly changing times. But the discipline of discernment is also significant for areas of our lives beyond our ministry. Are there new ways I could show love to the people in my life? Is God calling me to care for my body or the environment differently than I am now? How is God calling me to use my time when I’m not working? In what ways is God calling me to grow in prayer?
To Deepen Nonprofessional Relationships
We need to nurture a devotional life that is not related to our ministry so that we can be spiritual partners with our spouses, other family members, and friends. The people in our lives who are not involved in professional ministry roles are engaged in various forms of service and ministry in the world. They rely on God for love, strength, and guidance for all the areas of their lives. If our devotional lives are centered around our work, we run the risk of making it seem like our lives are in a different category from other people’s. This damages our relationships with those we love, and it also damages our perception of ourselves. All of us, first and foremost, are human beings created in God’s image, redeemed by Jesus Christ to be God’s beloved adopted children. Spiritual disciplines that help us draw near to God in pure affection enable us to remember our humanity and our solidarity with others in every walk of life.
The spiritual discipline of confession can be helpful here. When I am honest about how short I fall from God’s desires for me, and when I receive God’s forgiveness, I am restored to a position of beloved child. I am no different than any other person who needs and receives forgiveness. In that position, I can be a spiritual partner with those people in my life whose jobs don’t revolve around Christian ministry, like mine does.
To Maintain a Positive Example
We need to retain our enthusiasm for the things of God in order to be effective ministers. And we need to model a lively Christian faith. These are good reasons to develop spiritual disciplines that are separate from our ministry responsibilities. Yet these reasons are in themselves instrumental because they help us meet a ministry goal rather than nurturing a relationship with God as an end in itself.
And that is one of the perils of Christian ministry. This wonderful thing we are called to—an intimate relationship with God from which ministry grows and flows—is itself a part of what we are called to model for others. This can be a recipe for hubris and self-importance. And the pull of pride is yet one more reason to develop and practice spiritual disciplines that have no connection with our ministry. These disciplines and practices can help us learn to live as beloved children of God—in the midst of our calling to lead and serve others in their journey of growing into Christ’s likeness.
I can picture saints from ages past reading this article, and I imagine they would say that all the reasons I’ve given here are instrumental, and that God invites us to draw near simply because God is so good. Full stop. No other reason. And they would be absolutely right.
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations” (Psalm 90:1).
“How great is the love that God has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).
- What spiritual disciplines do I practice on a regular basis?
- Of those disciplines, which are directly related to my main area of ministry?
- What are some disciplines I could practice that are separated from my main area of ministry? What do I need to do to begin practicing them?
Resources on spiritual practices:
My book on communal spiritual practices, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation
Seven-day experiment with wholeness
Seven days toward simplicity
Character and practices that nurture creation care
Small habits, big benefits
Learning not to walk
I’m excited about spiritual disciplines
Nurturing communal spiritual practices online
Unusual sabbaticals: reflection, relationships and listening to God