This week marks the slow trickle of kids returning to school in my community.
The return to school also means that the start of my fall youth ministry program is imminent. Needless to say, it's a stressful time of year, especially for a Type-A person like myself.
To manage the stress, I have daily lists of what must be done: Recruit adult leaders, send weekly e-mail to parents, and plan programs. At the end of a long work day, nothing brings me more satisfaction than crossing something off my to-do list.
After more than a decade in youth ministry, what I've finally admitted about myself is that completing these tasks can, for me, become all-consuming. What's more, because I love what I get to do on a daily basis, because I consider it a privilege to be a youth worker, my excitement for my students, programs, and events can at times, get a little out of control.
Because I know this about myself, as I was reading Scripture as part of Margaret Feinberg's 40 Day Bible Reading Challenge, a story about Saul and the priest pretty much leapt off the page at me.
In this story, told in 1 Samuel 14:36-52, Saul decides he and his army should attack the Philistines. His troops readily agree.
But then, according to The Message, “The priest slowed them down: 'Let's find out what God thinks about this.'”
So often, this is the part of ministry I forget.
I mean, sure. I like to think of my ministry as being bathed in prayer (and it is). I also know from experience that God can use anything – even me during those times when I get out way ahead of him. But having said that, how might my ministry change and grow if I valued intentionally stopping to “find out what God thinks about this” just as much as I value crossing something off my to-do list?
I decided to experiment a bit with this at my student leadership team retreat last weekend. Though fun, for my team of student leaders, this annual event is very much a working retreat, filled with leadership development, team-building, and planning for the upcoming school year. My to-do list for this 24-hour retreat included about 30 major things.
Even so, having been convicted by a number of things – my own exploration of Scripture, Jen Hatmaker's chapter on stress in her book, Seven: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess , and Doug Fields' assertion in his book, Help! I'm a Student Leader that “If you're not growing spiritually, you will not be a credible or respected mentor or leader” - this summer, I've been emphasizing the importance of growing spiritually with my student leaders.
As a result, in addition to focusing on the 30 tasks on our collective to-do list at this weekend's retreat, I also intentionally planned times to slow us down, to stop and say, “Let's find out what God thinks about this.”
Five different times during our leadership team retreat we stopped what we were doing and we entered the sanctuary for a time of reflection. We entered into a sacred pause. We read a Psalm. We slowed our minds. We prayed and we listened, attentively, to the Spirit.
Rather than pray using our own words (though at various times during the weekend we also did that), during these sacred pauses we prayed prayers that have long been part of church tradition. We prayed the hours. We sought God – before, during, and after we did anything else.
Near the end of our time together, I asked my student leaders about their experience with these sacred pauses. Not surprisingly, this practice was challenging for many of them. But for others, it was life-giving, a tangible reminder that God is with them throughout their entire day.
Though I don't expect any of my students – or even myself for that matter – to continue this practice as rigorously as we did for the 24-hours we were together, my hope is that even amidst the hustle and bustle of the fall, we will intentionally take time to pause and pray, to find out what God thinks about something before we run full-speed ahead with it.
Of course, if that doesn't work, maybe I can just add pray to my to-do list.