Off the back of Jo Dolby’s Balancing Act feature in last month’s magazine, we have a series of blogs on tension and paradox within youth ministry. This week, John Wheatley, of StreetSpace and Frontier Youth Trust, discusses Sacrifice and Sabbath.
How can we follow a biblical pattern of a weekly Sabbath, rhythms of rest and replenishment, whilst giving up our lives, dying to ourselves and living solely for those we are called to serve?
Have you heard the legend of the Moravian slaves? Of two young Christian missionaries in the 16th century, selling themselves into slavery to reach the lost communities of the Caribbean? It’s a compelling story of self-sacrifice for the sake of the gospel, challenges us on how much are we willing to give up to serve God or others. Personal sacrifice can easily become a quick measure for how good a follower of Jesus we are - we use it quietly, on our own, to reassure ourselves that we are committed, good enough, and even compensating for the mistakes we make. And we use it publicly to compare ourselves with others, or to point it out to others as an encouragement. Sacrifice becomes the measure of the ‘good christian’ and indeed the good youth worker. We think, ‘I give up my Friday nights’, ‘I let people into my home’, ‘I don’t claim back my expenses,’ ‘I am giving freely for the sake of these young people’. And we encourage volunteers by pointing out how generous it is for them to drive us on a trip on their weekend, or to camp over in a cold church hall. These are all good, kind, generous things - but they are not the sole measure of success, because they only show part of the picture.
This journey is a marathon not a sprint
I know from my experience, that the sacrifices we make are most often the ones we are willing to make, and they are usually of our own choosing. For example, I live in a community where young people come round to our house on a regular basis, just to drop in to say hi. We are happy, most evenings, for these young people to come and invade. We’re happy to feed them, to let them watch TV with us, and sometimes I’ll even drive them home. These sacrifices are things we’re willing to do, and in many ways, don’t feel like sacrifices at all. But there are some things we’re not willing to give - things like the bottle of Coke I’ve been saving all week, or a lift home during my favourite programme. The more I spend in this kind of ministry, the more I realise that, as generous as I am willing to be, there is still much of me that I am not willing, nor able, to give. The legend of the Moravian slaves encourages us to always go further and give more. I feel the pressure of this, pushing us to work more hours, do another residential, help out with the last minute activity, or hand out the leftover pizza takeaway you were hoping to have for breakfast. But I don’t think this is a healthy or wise option (doing more that is, not pizza for breakfast!).
We might think of this tension as a paradox - between giving our all and staying healthy. That somehow we need to develop fulfilling rhythms of sabbath, rest and replenishment that will keep us on our feet long enough to keep giving up our lives to serve others. We think of these two things as an ‘in’ and an ‘out’ - where we are desperately trying to take enough in without it having a negative impact on our giving. This is one of those contradictions. We’ve split giving and receiving into two binary options, assuming they’re different. Worse still, we’ve set having an empty tank as the marker of ministerial success. Stop the bus, it’s time to get off.
Firstly, this journey is a marathon not a sprint. If ‘giving our all’ in the conventional sense really is the goal, then let’s think about it logically. Is it better to go all out in youth ministry now, burn out in three years, and retire to a quieter, ordinary life? Or is it better to go a little slower, and sustain a ministry that lasts for decades? If we’re talking about it in terms of investment in young people, the latter certainly has a better return. So, if we really are talking ‘giving your all’, lets start genuinely talking about mission to young people that lasts a life-time. We must rise to the challenge that the calling on our lives is going to take everything – that means day-in day-out forever. And it means building a way of life that can sustain it.
The lazy option is to do nothing different, keep pushing the limits of what we give, and burn-out quickly. The difficult one is to change how we live today so that we’re still ministering to young people in 20, 30, 40, 50 years time. But for the people I know who have already made this commitment, I think we too quickly fall into the trap of thinking the solution is about better rhythms of sabbath and rest, in order to keep output at the same, super-human level.
Carefully and thoughtfully shape a pattern, routine or rhythm for your ordinary week
This is wrong for two reasons - number one, no-one is super-human. Stop expecting so much of yourself, and do less! It is not possible to add new rhythms, extra time off, and space to retreat into your already busy schedule. Something has to give. Number two, and this is the important one, giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin. You’ve heard people say it’s better to give than to receive - but what they mean is that they get more out of giving than they do receiving. We must collapse the giving-receiving paradox and understand that they are completely connected. If we can get the balance right, then I think we genuinely receive more in joining with God in mission and ministry than we do in chasing opportunities to be ‘filled-up’.
The challenge to all of us is to find a rhythm that can sustain you. The advice that I wish I could go back and tell myself starting out in youth ministry is to carefully and thoughtfully shape a pattern, routine or rhythm for your ordinary week - a rhythm that will give you enough space to give and receive, and to see your giving as receiving, and your receiving as giving. Remember that every time you encounter a young person you are encountering God, and this is his gift to you. And don’t lose sight of the fact that while we hope for so much for the young people we are nurturing, what we hope for most is that they will give away what they find in the service of God and others. When you seek out time to replenish yourself, you give each of the young people that look to you an opportunity to see how to sustain a life in sacrificial ministry. We owe it to ourselves, and to our young people, to build a better rhythm.
So, in case it helps you build yours, here are some things that go into my regular rhythm that go hand-in-hand with all my other responsibilities – and go out the window when life gets crazy:
- At least one regular session of work with young people every week.
- A full 36-hours off undisturbed every week (i.e. 1 full day without any work)
- A complete week off every term (holidaying away from home if I can).
- An extra morning-in-bed and evening-at-home every week.
- Pocket-money or date-night-money set aside to do something fun
- Turn my phone and email off every night 8pm - 8am, and on days off
- Planning my meals in advance so I eat healthily (and without a last minute rush before youth club)
- Setting aside time to exercise and get fresh air (doing some detached work helps here!)
- Plan time to broaden horizons every month (such as training, retreats, time with other pioneers, reading, or study)
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