NEW: Spiritual Practices for People in Ministry

Making Space for a Continuing Conversation with the Living God

by Lynne M. Baab (originally published as a chapter in Text Messages: Preaching God’s Word in a Smartphone World, edited by John Tucker, Wipf and Stock, 2017).

          We hear a lot these days about the significance of stories in preaching, speaking, and other forms of leadership, so I want to begin with a story. When I was 21 years old, studying at a university in Oregon, I went to a weekend conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The conference was called Bible and Life, and the goal was to help students learn to study the Bible in depth and apply it to their lives. We spent the entire weekend studying the six verses of Psalm 1. Until that time, I had no idea a person could spend that much time on six short verses.

     I came away from the weekend having memorized the psalm simply from studying it so long. The first three verses read:

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.(Ps 1:1-3)

The psalm goes on to describe the wicked, comparing them to “chaff that the wind drives away” (verse 4).

     At that point, I had been a committed Christian for only two years. The psalm gave me language for what I wanted to be—that green, fruitful tree. I wanted to learn how to put my roots deep into the living water that comes from God. The psalm became a guiding light for my life as I finished university and joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, working with students at the University of Washington in Seattle.

     During my first year of student work, I studied Jeremiah. To my surprise, I found a passage in Jeremiah 17 that echoes Psalm 1. The Jeremiah passage begins with those who don’t follow God, and describes them differently than in Psalm 1:

Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.(Jer 17:5-6)

     Jeremiah goes on to describe the faithful, again comparing them to a tree. The blessed people are described a bit differently, and this time the tree flourishes and continues to bear fruit even in a time of drought:

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.(Jer 17:7-8)

            During my four years of student ministry, I met and married my husband Dave, who was teaching dentistry at the university. He felt called to use his specialized skills in a country where traditional missionaries were not welcome, so from the time we were married we prayed about going overseas. Over and over, God brought Iran to our attention, and Dave was able to get a teaching job at the university in Shiraz.   

     We arrived in Iran in July of 1978, just as the Iranian revolution was gaining strength, and we lived there only six months. How we left Iran at the height of the Iranian revolution and made our way to Israel is a dramatic story. (You can read about it here.) For the purposes of this chapter, I want to focus on the ways Iran made Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 come alive.

     Shiraz is at 1500 metres (5000 feet) and the landscape can be described as mountainous desert. In the six months we lived there it rained only twice, the first time for about five minutes with huge drops of water plopping onto the dusty roads. The second time, the rain might have lasted 30 minutes. The metaphors from Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 of withering leaves and shrubs in the desert were very vivid from our first day in Shiraz. My earliest impression of the city was the dusty beige/brown colour of the buildings, roads and vegetation, surrounded by beige/brown mountains. Because we moved to Shiraz from Seattle, a very green part of the world, a significant mental adjustment was required.

     We attended the only church in the town of several hundred thousand people. At church, we met an Iranian couple who befriended us and took us on numerous trips outside Shiraz. On these drives, the views into the rocky and barren mountains were fascinating to me because the lack of vegetation revealed the contours of the mountains. Occasionally we would pass a river or a small lake, the vivid blue of the water reflecting the cloudless sky.

     On one particular trip, we drove north and east from the city. About an hour out of Shiraz, our friends stopped the car by the side of the road and said, “You have to see this.” We wondered what they had in mind, especially in the 40 degree heat (104 degrees Fahrenheit). On the side of the road, we could see a small stream. They led us along a path beside the stream.

     The stream was blue, reflecting the sky. Otherwise, everything was beige/brown as far as the eye could see, hillsides and rocks, dust and dirt. Along the stream occasional small bushes sported brown leaves. The path took a turn, and there in front of us was the source of the stream, a spring coming out of a rocky hillside. And right beside the spring was a big tree with green leaves. In that beige and brown landscape, the greenness of the tree was totally unexpected, astonishing and refreshing.

     “It’s the tree from Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17,” I exclaimed. We took a picture of that tree, and when we returned to Seattle, I printed and framed the picture. During our first decade back in Seattle, I was a stay-at-home mother and part-time seminary student. In the kitchen, my major work place, I wanted to be reminded of Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17 every day. I wanted to be that tree, covered with green leaves in the height of a desert summer, as I nurtured my kids, studied and lived all the other components of my life.

     Why have I told you this story? I have numerous purposes in mind. I want you to know me a little bit, so it will be clear that what I’m saying in this chapter comes from one person’s real life. In addition, the story shows the power of both stories and metaphors to communicate God’s truth, a significant factor in all forms of ministry and leadership. The story illustrates the passion lying behind this chapter. I long for all people in ministry to be the kind of people who “trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” (Jer 17:7). I long for our interactions and leadership to be illumined by a vibrant personal relationship with the living God, with our roots deep in the living water of Jesus Christ.

     The story also introduces the concept of spiritual practices, and this chapter focuses on spiritual practices for people in ministry. I memorized Psalm 1 and recalled it over and over. I pondered it, chewed on it and tried to figure out what it meant in my life. That’s what it means to meditate on scripture. I posted a photo in a prominent place to remind myself of the psalm and the parallel passage in Jeremiah. I created space in my life for a continuing conversation with the living God about what it looked like for me to put my roots down deep into living water and live as that green, fruitful tree. These actions indicate that I engaged in spiritual practices connected with Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17.

     These spiritual practices shaped me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and they were foundational for me as I moved into church leadership roles after we returned to the United States from overseas. Meditating on the Bible and praying based on passages from the Bible have shaped Christians throughout history and have enabled Christians to draw near to God in Jesus Christ, through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. In recent years, the words “spiritual practices” or “spiritual disciplines” have increasingly been used to describe the kinds of actions and relationships that Christians engage in for the purposes of intimacy with God and growth into Christ’s image.

A Definition of Spiritual Practices or Spiritual Disciplines

     Richard Foster’s landmark book, Celebration of Discipline, was released in 1978. In it, Foster gently and vividly explores twelve classical spiritual disciplines, such as meditation, submission, service, confession, and fasting. Foster’s writing and speaking sparked a resurgence in interest in the spiritual disciplines that shaped the church for most of two millennia, but which were largely forgotten in the twentieth century.

     Three additional authors have shaped my understanding of what constitutes a spiritual discipline or spiritual practice. Each of these authors also provides lists that can help expand awareness of options. Marjorie Thompson, in her 1995 book Soul Feast, describes seven spiritual disciplines: reading of Scripture, prayer, worship, fasting, confession/self examination, spiritual direction, and hospitality. She writes that her purpose is

to help people of faith understand and begin to practice some of the basic disciplines of the Christian spiritual life. Disciplines are simply practices that train us in faithfulness. . . . Such practices have consistently been experienced as vehicles of God’s presence, guidance, and call in the lives of faithful seekers. [1]

Thompson’s definition, that disciplines are “simply practices that train us in faithfulness,” illustrates the overlap of the two words “discipline” and “practices.” I use the terms “spiritual practices” and “spiritual disciplines” interchangeably.

     The practices recommended by Foster and Thompson are not the only ones to consider. Tony Jones, a leader of the North American emergent church movement, describes sixteen spiritual disciplines in his 2005 book, The Sacred Way. Jones includes most of the spiritual disciplines mentioned by Marjorie Thompson, and adds others such as pilgrimage, meditation, and the Jesus prayer. Jones uses the analogy of learning to play a musical instrument or growing competent in a sport. He notes that proficiency requires practice:

If there’s a common theme among the great Christian spiritual writers, it’s this: Seeking God will not be easy. The history of the church is the story of many faithful Christians admirably fighting back their own sins by these disciplines, only to be thwarted again and again. But, as with a sport, the more you practice, the better you get. You’ll get in better “spiritual shape” as you practice, and you’ll be able to run the race to completion. [2]

     Jones’s comparison of the Christian life to learning a sport or learning to play a musical instrument illuminates a profound truth. God, through the Holy Spirit, is in the business of transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 3:18), and that transformation doesn’t begin and end on the day we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Savior. That transformation continues over our entire lives, and we do indeed change as we “practice” living the Christian life. In effect, we participate in the Holy Spirit’s transformation of us. Thompson’s definition echoes this idea when she writes that spiritual practices “train us in faithfulness.” [3]

      Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes more than sixty specific spiritual disciplines in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, also published in 2005. She includes many forms of prayer and Bible study, along with retreats, pilgrimages, and other actions that could be considered to be spiritual practices. Her list expands the possibilities for what exactly constitutes a spiritual discipline, and her definition is also helpful: “From its beginning, the church linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships, and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus. These intentional practices, relationships and experiences we know as spiritual disciplines.” [4] The earlier definitions presented here emphasize transformation and growth; Calhoun’s definition emphasizes relationship, which she calls “keeping company” with Jesus.

      Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by including so many different and specific spiritual disciplines, makes clear that many habits or practices in daily life can be considered spiritual disciplines. The mother who stands by the front door as her children leave in the morning and says a brief prayer for each child when the door closes is engaging in a practice that “trains her in faithfulness” and helps her “keep company with Jesus.” In the same way, the man who has a habit of glancing at a Scripture verse on his phone when he waits for the elevator at work is being trained in faithfulness and is keeping company with Jesus. No one can possibly engage in sixty spiritual practices. In fact, most people cannot engage in more than a few, but a long list helps provide an overview of the options and helps us notice—and think creatively—about the things we already do that help us keep company with Jesus or that train us in faithfulness.

      Spiritual practices can be individual or communal, and most Christians engage in spiritual practices both alone and with others. Sunday worship in congregations—with singing, various kinds of prayer, the reading of Scripture, the preaching of the Word, the sacraments of baptism and Communion, and congregational fellowship afterward—enables worshipers to keep company with Jesus and provides training in faithfulness. Therefore, a practice of attending a worship service and engaging in the various components of worship can certainly be considered a spiritual discipline, or perhaps a cluster of spiritual practices. Many congregational activities, such as prayer meetings, small-group Bible studies, and home prayer groups, can also be considered spiritual practices.

Drawing Near to the God who Calls Us Beloved

      These practices help us draw near to the God who already loves us. Henri Nouwen writes,

Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert. Once you have touched wet ground, you want to dig deeper. [5]

Like Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17, Nouwen uses the metaphor of water in the desert. God’s words of love enliven us and refresh us like water in a dry and thirsty land.

      Nouwen continues,

The word ‘digging’ might not be the best word since it suggests hard and painful work that finally leads me to the place where I can quench my thirst. Perhaps all we need to do is remove the dry sand that covers the well. There may be quite a pile of dry sand in our lives, but the One who so desires to quench our thirst will help us to remove it. [6]

Spiritual practices help us return to the well over and over. They help us remove the dry sand. And, as Nouwen points out, “the One who so desires to quench our thirst” helps us return to the well and remove the dry sand. We don’t engage in spiritual practices apart from the God who loves us, calls us to draw near and empowers us to do so.

      Identifying various categories of spiritual practices can help us explore creative options. Calhoundescribes the way different authors categorize spiritual practices:

Richard Foster divides the disciplines into inward, outward, and corporate. Inward disciplines are practiced in the privacy of our intimate walk with Jesus. Outward disciplines affect how we interface with the world. And corporate disciplines are practiced with others. Dallas Willard distinguishes between disciplines of engagement and disciplines of abstinence. Disciplines of engagement connect us to the needs of others and the call to be God’s heart and hands in this world. They address sins of commission. Disciplines of abstinence detach us from hurry, clutter, and busyness, and open us to being with God alone. They remind us that we are human beings, not human doings, and that God is more concerned with who we become than what we accomplish. They address sins of omission. [7]

     No one system of categorizing spiritual practices works perfectly because so many spiritual practices have overlapping functions. I have found it helpful to think of three categories of spiritual practices: ways of engaging with the Bible, ways to pray, and other kinds of practices. When I teach groups about spiritual practices, I often use a white board and ask participants to call out all the ways they can think of to engage with the Bible. We usually end up with a list of 15 to 20 different approaches to Bible study, Bible memorization and Bible meditation. I’ll ask for kinds of prayer as well and we usually create quite a long list. The category of “other” includes practices such as Sabbath keeping, fasting, journaling, walking a labyrinth, pilgrimage, spiritual direction, simplicity, hospitality and service. I always point out that practices in the “other” category often include components of Bible study or prayer. And I always remind people that the purpose of lists of spiritual practices is to create excitement about options, not to put pressure on people to do all of them.

     I recommend to everyone that they consider having at least one spiritual practice in each of my categories: something to do consistently related to the Bible, at least one form of prayer that is a consistent part of life, and one practice in the “other” category. For preachers and others in ministry, I make an additional recommendation. People in ministry often study the Bible to prepare for preaching, leading devotionals and facilitating Bible study groups. People in ministry often pray with and for congregational leaders and people in need. I suggest that people in ministry consider having at least one spiritual practice in each of my three areas that has nothing to do with ministry.

     My own personal practice related to the Bible—which has little to do with ministry or preaching—is scripture memory and then meditation on the verses and passages I have memorized. Psalm 1 is only one of the many passages I know by heart. I have seldom preached on the passages I’ve memorized, and I have seldom led Bible studies on them. Quite simply, they are for me, a child of God, who wants to have roots deep into Jesus’ living water, who wants to have green leaves and bear fruit even in brutal hot summer weather. When I have felt guilt and shame, some of the passages I memorized have given me an assurance of God’s pardon. In the years that I battled depression, many passages I had memorized were like anchors for me, giving me hope in the midst of discouragement. In many instances, when I was facing challenging decisions, the scriptures I memorized were a means of guidance from God.

     After everything is taken away from him, Job reflects that he came into the world naked and that he will also leave it naked (Job 1:21). I will stand before Jesus in judgment naked of my roles. I won’t be a minister, preacher, lecturer, writer, wife, mother, sister or friend. I will simply be Lynne, a child of God, reliant on Jesus’ mercy and grace. I want to be sure that parts of my life are lived that way every day, even when I have leadership, preaching and teaching roles in the church. I want the roots of my life to stretch deep into Jesus’ living water so that my ministry will thrive, but also so that I will be nurtured by God as a precious and well loved child.

Making Space for God to Shape Us: Sabbath Keeping

     The Sabbath is one spiritual practice in the “other” category that enables me to live one day each week as a child of God. The roots of my Sabbath practice go back to that experience in the Middle East when my husband and I were young adults. Dave and I had to leave Iran in haste because of the Iranian revolution. We had been planning a vacation in Israel, so we made our way to Israel to try to figure out what to do next. Because of a series of unexpected and God-ordained relational connections, Dave was offered an 18-month position chairing a department in the dental school at Tel Aviv University. Because the future in Iran looked so precarious, he took the position.

     I had always wanted to visit Israel, believing that a first-hand experience of the biblical sites would strengthen my faith. Indeed, I loved seeing the settings for many stories from the Old and New Testaments. The Bible did come alive in new ways. However, the biggest impact on my faith was our experience of the Jewish Sabbath.

     We lived in an apartment two buildings away from the main road going north out of Tel Aviv. All week long, busses, trucks and cars thundered along that six-lane road. The first thing we noticed on the Sabbath was the relative silence because the traffic was reduced to a fraction of the weekday volume. On the Sabbath day, with our windows open in the warm Mediterranean air, we could hear people’s footsteps on the footpath, and we could hear children calling, “Abba! Ima!” (Daddy! Mommy!).

     The Sabbath began at sunset on Friday, so Friday afternoon was full of bustle. Streets and shops were crowded. At sunset, everything closed, and I mean everything: shops of all sizes, gas stations, museums, restaurants and movie theatres. For our first few months in Israel, I carefully made arrangements for things to do on the Sabbath. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so I looked for people our age at church who might pick us up in their cars to go on an outing somewhere.

     It took some months for us to fall into a comfortable rhythm for Sabbath days. Eventually we began to enjoy the quiet day, and I stopped the frantic arranging of outings to fill the scary emptiness. Dave would take his binoculars across the big road to a field and watch birds. I would write long letters to my parents and friends in the United States. We talked, walked, read, prayed and ate in a leisurely, unstructured way. Our first son was born in Israel, and after his birth, the Sabbath was a lovely day to be a family and enjoy relaxed walks and easy companionship.

     When we returned to the United States after 18 months in Israel, we tried to talk about our Sabbath experience, but our friends were not at all interested. The Sabbath for Christians simply wasn’t on the radar screen in 1980. We quietly decided to replicate the Jewish Sabbath as best as we could in a North American city. We moved our Sabbath to Sunday. We went to church and spent the rest of the day as a family. My husband didn’t bring his work home. I didn’t do what I call “the work of motherhood”: house cleaning, shopping or laundry. I was a part-time seminary student, and I didn’t open a textbook on Sundays. We pretended all the shops and paid entertainment options were closed, just like they had been in Israel. We went to a park or stayed home and played with our kids.

     After ten years, I finished my master’s degree and began to work part-time as a writer and editor for Presbyterian Church publications. Now my Sabbath included a new discipline: I didn’t walk into my home office on the Sabbath day. Later, when our children were close to being out of the nest, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister, and we moved our Sabbath day to Monday. Mercifully, my husband wasn’t working on Mondays at that time so we could continue to have a Sabbath together.     Our Sabbath day and our Sabbath patterns changed a bit over time. (I recounted our Sabbath experience in more detail in my book, Sabbath Keeping.) Despite the small changes, the constant rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest has shaped us. More than anything else I’ve done, the Sabbath has imprinted on my heart that God is God and I am not. This is an essential perspective for people engaged in any kind of ministry. The ministry belongs to God and not to us.

     The two versions of the Sabbath command in the Ten Commandments help illuminate these truths. You’ll remember that when Moses brought the tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai, he found the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, so he threw down the tablets in anger, and they broke (Exod 32). Later God gave him a second set of tablets. Nine of the commandments are almost identical in the first and second versions, but the Sabbath command has numerous interesting differences.

     The first version, in Exodus 20:8-11, reads like this:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

     The Sabbath command is a profound statement of social justice, because every human is included, whatever their social status. The Sabbath command is a profound statement of the value of creation, because even the animals get to rest. The reason for the Sabbath command in this first version of the Ten Commandments is that God rested at creation, and we are invited to follow God’s model. We are to remember creation on the Sabbath day, and many people in ministry find it soothing and refreshing to get out in nature on the Sabbath: walking, hiking, biking, swimming or simply sitting on a bench in a garden.

     Reconnecting with creation helps to remind us that the earth and all that is in it belongs to Someone Else. We are creatures, charged with stewarding creation and obeying God to be sure, charged with working hard to bring about God’s kingdom, but ultimately God is God and we are not.

     In the second version of the command, the reason for keeping the Sabbath is entirely different: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut 5:15). God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and post-resurrection we know that in Christ God has also freed us from slavery to sin, death and the devil. When we stop working one day each week, we remember that we are not slaves any longer because of God’s great gift to us in Jesus Christ.

     Christian ministry can be so compelling that we give our heart and soul to it. We often find it easy to feel indispensible, and we find it hard to stop serving. Our loving service can morph into a kind of slavery to other people’s needs, to our own expectations of excellence, and to our need to be needed. The Sabbath, week after week, helps breaks that slavery.

     God has given us so much, and we are called to live in response to God’s generosity. The Sabbath highlights God’s gifts of a bountiful creation to enjoy and freedom from many kinds of slavery. In recent years, the word “receptivity” has been a guiding light for me. In many ways, being a Christian is a lifelong process of learning how to receive the gifts God wants to give us. Spending a day each week experiencing God as Creator and Redeemer helps us grow as receivers. We need to learn receptivity as people in ministry: our ministry originates in God, is empowered and guided by God and belongs to God. We also need to learn receptivity as children of God, resting in the arms of God, taking comfort in the amazing truth that we are beloved. The Sabbath helps us dwell in the truth that we are beloved of God not because of our own deserving, but because of God’s bounty.

Making Space for God to Shape Us: Listening

     A listening stance is another spiritual practice that puts us in a place of receptivity. In order to know that we are beloved, we have to listen to God’s voice in scripture. In order to receive the gifts of human relationships, given to us to mirror the communal nature of the Triune God, we must listen to others. The ability to listen well depends on the acquisition of specific listening skills as well as an attitude of humility that believes that other people can contribute to our life. Also necessary is a heart of compassion that cares about the emotions that lie behind people’s words. What I’m calling a “listening stance” refers to all of these: the willingness to grow in listening skills, the belief that God is at work in others and I will learn as I listen, and the commitment to show compassion through listening because God has called us to do so.

     Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee uses the term “holy listening” to describe the kind of listening that I view as a spiritual practice:

Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us. [8]

The notion that intentional listening takes the incarnation seriously lays a theological foundation for a listening stance. We listen because we expect to see, hear and experience God’s presence in others, and as people in ministry we model that kind of expectation to others.

     This stance is deeply significant for preachers and those who speak and write about the Bible as a part of their ministry. For many preachers and speakers, preparing a sermon or talk is largely a cognitive exercise where we think analytically about the central point of a biblical passage and the kinds of everyday stories, metaphors and ideas that will help bring the passage to life in a way that is relevant for the community to whom we are speaking. Of course we know that some degree of listening is necessary in order to know our community well enough to speak in a relevant way to them. Of course we hope we are listening to God’s guidance as we prepare the sermon or talk. We may be aware that the best sermons and talks seem to come from somewhere beyond ourselves, shaped by listening to God and to others, but it is all too easy to engage in preparation largely as an intellectual exercise.

     For my book on listening, I conducted interviews with 63 ministers and lay leaders of congregations. Numerous interviewees reflected on the similarity between listening to people and listening to God. Both forms of listening, they said, require slowing down long enough to pay attention to something beyond the swirling thoughts and the to-do lists that crowd our minds. Both forms of listening require an attitude that I have something to learn. And both require an effort on my part to be vigilant, alert, attentive, and careful.

     I have argued that the Sabbath is a spiritual practice that primarily nurtures my life as a beloved child of God. Yes, the Sabbath gives me rest and renewal so I can accomplish my ministry, so the Sabbath is not irrelevant to my life of service and work, but primarily the Sabbath positions me one day each week as a child resting on the lap of a loving and nurturing parent. In a similar yet slightly different manner, a listening stance is a spiritual practice that nurtures both ministry and the personal life of a child of God. Good preaching and speaking is impossible without listening to God and to people. Those of us who preach and speak must listen to the congregation or other audience to understand what to say and how to illustrate it, and we must listen to congregational leaders to preach in a way that builds on their concerns as leaders. We must listen to the community beyond the congregation in order to speak in a way that helps our congregation members know how to engage beyond the church door and in a way that is welcoming to any members of the wider community who visit the congregation. Listening to God for guidance and direction in speaking is also essential. Listening is a foundational skill for ministry in a complex world.

     At the same time, a listening stance is essential for us as children of God. Listening to God plays a significant role in knowing we are beloved, welcomed into God’s presence for who we are and not just for what we do. Healthy relationships with family members and friends are also impossible without listening, and our relational God has called us to participate enthusiastically in human relationships that shape us, nurture us and support us in many ways.

     I mentioned earlier that Tony Jones compares spiritual practices to learning to play a musical instrument or learning the skills associated with a sport. [9] These comparisons shed light on the spiritual practice of listening, because growing in listening skills is a lifelong journey just like playing a musical instrument or engaging in athletics. Even the best listeners I know are eager to improve, because they know good listening is difficult and complex. Adele Ahlborg Calhoun emphasizes spiritual practices as a way to keep company with Jesus. [10] Listening to others helps us walk with Jesus because we get to hear their stories about the ways God has worked in their lives. We get to express compassion as we listen, companioning with Jesus in showing care to hurting people. We dare to take the incarnation seriously when we listen, expecting to find Jesus in interactions with others. As we grow in listening skills with human beings, as we learn to set aside our swirling and tumultuous thoughts in order to focus on someone else, we grow in the very skills that help us listen to God.

Making Space for God to Shape Us: Communal Discernment

     Congregational culture changes when people in leadership demonstrate and talk about the importance of listening to God and to others. Committees and board meetings shift in the direction of a desire to seek God’s will to meet diverse needs within the community, rather than functioning solely with a business model. Congregation members increasingly try to hear God’s voice in their lives, and they listen to each other with the expectation that God will be present in conversations. This kind of congregational culture is a significant blessing to the person who preaches. In this atmosphere, the preacher is simply one more person seeking God’s will and using his or her gifts to serve. The preacher serves the congregation by using gifts of study, imagination and speaking while others are using their gifts to serve the community in a variety of other ways. All are partners in seeking to hear and follow God’s voice.

     In recent years, many leaders of business organizations have begun to talk about decisions by consensus rather than voting. Congregational leaders have adopted the language of consensus as well, and often talk as if consensus and discernment are the same. In fact, they are quite different. Consensus decisions try to address the concerns of the greatest number of people involved and are often the right strategy for many kinds of decisions in congregations. However, in contrast, discernment is an attempt to hear God speak.

     Tim Challies, a Canadian pastor who has written widely on discernment, proposes numerous definitions of discernment, and I like this one:

Discernment is a process of prayerful reflection which leads a person or community to understanding of God’s call at a given time or in particular circumstances of life. It involves listening to God in all the ways God communicates with us: in prayer, in the scriptures, through the Church and the world, in personal experience, and in other people. [11]

As Challies points out, discernment can be exercised individually or communally. Both settings for discernment build on each other. People who are committed to individual discernment will be eager to exercise it in groups, and people who experience communal discernment will be more motivated to exercise discernment in their own lives. The significance of listening is visible in Challies’s definition, and the spiritual practices involving the Bible and prayer undergird discernment in significant ways.

     Several of the interviewees for my listening research talked about the characteristics of congregations that value communal discernment. One of the interviewees described a church where she had been involved for many years. “In that congregation,” she said, “listening to God is in the fabric of how it is. You have to make intentional choices, but it’s simply assumed that that everyone will try to listen for God’s voice.” She used the word “multi-factorial” to describe the ways that congregation nurtures this listening posture. Some of those factors—or practices—are:

  • an intentional commitment to listening to God, stated in numerous settings
  • sermons that model and discuss listening to God
  • prayer, including periods of listening, at meetings
  • collaborative leadership and openness to hearing God’s voice through different people
  • leadership groups stopping to talk about vision and mission, making sure specific strategies are rooted there
  • parish council retreat days
  • encouragement for lay leaders to listen to God and to each other
  • encouragement for all members to seek God’s guidance about where God is calling them to serve

A congregational climate that nurtures communal discernment changes the balance of power. It is so easy for people in ministry to come to believe on some level that they have a more significant role than others in the congregation or the group they lead. This ego-driven perspective must be addressed, and the spiritual practice of a listening stance, which flows into a commitment to congregational discernment, can help. Martin Copenhaver, in a review of books on discernment, writes,

Spiritual discernment, rightly understood, is truly countercultural. It uses silence, it requires that we take our time, it redefines our precious sense of individualism. One other implication of spiritual discernmentis a potential redistribution of power. If you must listen to each person with attentiveness because you never know who the Holy Spirit will choose to speak through at any given moment, then we must listen with as much care to a stranger as to a longstanding church member, we must listen as attentively to a young person as to a mature adult. Because you never know. [12]

Listening to others—even the quietest and least dominant people  in a group—with the expectation that God will speak through them and that God will be present in the conversation is a spiritual practice that undergirds ministry in many ways.

Making Space for a Continuing Conversation with the Living God

In this chapter, I could have talked about numerous other spiritual practices that make space for a continuing conversation with the God who calls us “beloved” and who longs for our company. Ministers have told me about a wide variety of prayer practices as well as diverse ways of engaging with the Bible that help them meet God personally in scripture, ranging from analytical engagement with critical biblical scholarship to contemplative practices like lectio divina. Many people in ministry have told me about the significance of journaling, where they write out prayer needs, listen for God’s response, makes lists of things they’re thankful for and slow down enough to experience keeping company with Jesus. People in ministry have told me about spiritual direction, fasting, pilgrimages to places where they experienced God in the past, and hospitality experiences where they have encountered God in a guest. All of these practices can shape us as beloved children of a generous God, and all of them can impact our preaching and leading in ways that make our words more vivid and authentic. Any of those practices would have been appropriate in this chapter, and any of those practices can help people in ministry nurture a posture of receptivity.

     I chose to focus on Sabbath because so many people have talked to me about the Sabbath as a way to experience being a child of God. I focused on listening and communal discernment because those two practices would not be the first to come to mind for many people when they consider spiritual practices that undergird ministry. I see them as formative because they help us receive from God and others. These three practices, plus many others, train us in faithfulness and also help us keep company with Jesus in a spirit of receptivity. They also help us preach and lead with authenticity.

     “To be authentic is to be clear about one’s own most basic feelings, desires and convictions, and to openly express one’s stance in the public arena.” [13] This description, from the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, motivates me to be sure that my most basic feelings, desires and convictions are being influenced daily by my life with God. I want my sermons, writing, and leadership style to reflect something of my own journey in putting my roots deep into the living water that comes only from Jesus Christ through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I want my words and my life to show forth the deep and lasting joy of being a tree planted by a stream of living water, which continues to bear green leaves and fruit even in a drought. I want to trust in God, and I want God to be my trust, in my ministry roles and in my life as a beloved child of God. I long for everyone in ministry to be fruitful trees with green leaves, speaking in an authentic and enthusiastic voice about God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. One way to achieve those goals is to pay attention to spiritual practices.

[1] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), xv.
[2] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 30-31.
[3] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast, xv.
[4] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 17. In 2016 a revised and expanded version of The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook was released by InterVarsity Press.
[5] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 31.
[6] Ibid., 31, 32.
[7] Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 19, 20.
[8] Craig Satterlee, “Holy and Active Listening.” Adapted from Craig Satterlee’s book,When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transformation (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2005).
[9] Jones, The Sacred Way, 31.
[10] Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 17.
[11] Tim Challies, “Defining Discernment.” 
[12] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Decide or Discern,” The Christian Century (December 28, 2010): 29-31.
[13] “Authenticity,” Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy.