Ways to Stand Firm in Seasons of Struggle

Culturally and religiously we find ourselves in a complicated and challenging moment, whether brought about by the movement of time, our political climate, or pressure from influences outside the church. Things might feel different, unsettled and uncomfortable. You may have found political or theological disagreements to have fostered deep rifts between your family or friends. Perhaps someone who once walked closely with you on your spiritual journey has now walked away from the faith completely.

However you are feeling in this current moment, and whatever you are dealing with spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, will impact your ministry. It may not be sudden and obvious, but over time, our experiences and thoughts begin to shape how we speak and act. Left ignored, they can lead to places we might think we’d never end up.

I want to encourage you, if you do feel like you’re struggling in this moment, questioning where to go and what to do, there are some active steps you can take. It isn’t a fix-all, easy answer, because the difficult times take perseverance and work. But it is worth it to care for your soul, to dig into the difficult places, and to do the hard work when it comes to your relationship with Jesus and the ministry to which you have been called.

If you missed our encouragement post from September 2020, you may want to start there. Then read on for some practical ways you can deal with doubt and discouragement in this season of life.

Pursue Scripture first.

There are a lot of places to seek help in challenging times. There are also a lot of voices to which we can listen. Some will be truthful and helpful, while others will not. Some will pull us toward Christ, while others may guide us in a different direction. In seasons of struggle, it is imperative to look to Scripture first, and to ensure that the voices you are internalizing are voices of godly truth. If you know God’s word in your heart, you will quickly be able to determine his voice from the others.

In as great as self-help books and videos can be, do not give up reading Scripture on your own and seeking it for help and direction. That is not to say that books and other resources shouldn’t be utilized, but remaining in Scripture will help you to determine if other sources are truthful, helpful, and correct. Part of our daily battle is keeping our mind and heart focused on God and his ways. This can be a struggle, especially in the hard times, which is why fighting to make time in Scripture a priority is so important.

Seek godly counsel.

In difficult seasons it can be easy to draw inward, whether we don’t want to admit how we’re feeling, we don’t trust others to understand, or we feel like we need to deal with it on our own. Add the element of less human interaction due to pandemic-induced lock-downs and restrictions, and it can be doubly easy to keep things to yourself. Now more than ever it is vital to let people in.

Whether you talk with friends or a mentor whom you respect, or you see a counselor or therapist, it is imperative to bring others into your life. Talking through your thoughts and feelings is important, as is getting an outside, godly perspective from someone you trust. Discussion can help bring clarity as well as help you feel understood and heard. Sometimes we can get something in our heads and hearts that may not be accurate or helpful. Talking with someone you trust, and who will bring a Christ-honoring, biblical perspective can help you sort through truth from lies.

Satan likes to make us feel isolated and alone, both from each other and from God. Isolation in these relationships can lead to isolation holistically, which can pull us in a dark direction. Resist the urge to battle alone and instead bring in others who can walk with you, support you, and speak the truth.

Work through it.

I think sometimes in Christianity we can lean on quick, “easy” answers. Things like, “because the Bible say so” or “that’s what God wants” can roll off our tongues and through our minds with little effort. But the truth is that difficult seasons call for more than just easy answers. They call for wrestling with reality, asking tough questions, and seeking answers that can stand up under the hardest of life’s circumstances. We don’t do ourselves, or others, any favors by speaking and internalizing pat, cliche answers that feel good in the easy moments.

Internalizing simplistic ideas about God and faith can leave us feeling empty when times get tough. Things can easily unravel when those simple ideas or pat answers don’t make sense or feel impertinent. The good news is that God and his word can stand up to the worst this world can throw at us, but it may require more work on our part to uncover them. This is why I want to encourage you to work through the difficult seasons and hard questions. You may not arrive at an easy answer, but I know that God has met me in every painful, heart-wrenching moment and the rich truth of Scripture has spoken to my troubled soul time and time again.

This approach doesn’t make things easier. In fact, nothing will make this life and its struggles easier. But it has made me stronger and more resilient to face the darkness. Rooting my life and faith in something eternally substantive gives me hope even when my surroundings and circumstances feel bleak. When I feel like giving up I know I can’t because I believe what he says is real and true.

In this season of life, wherever it finds you, lean into Jesus and your community. Do the hard work to fight the good fight, for yourself and those to whom you minister. May God encourage your heart, mind, and soul, and may he empower you to do the work to which you have been called.

Bible Studies for Students

You’ve probably had a parent, student, or volunteer stop and ask if you had any Bible studies for students. This is a question we will field often and you may not always have a hard copy handy in your office. What I would like to offer today are some digital options of Bible studies for students (some of which you can purchase hard copies if you’d like) and to share some trusted companies and resources with you. This will provide multiple options for you to choose from and give you helpful resources to equip yourself, your team, and your families.

She Reads Truth

This is a fantastic website that has many options for women. It has free reading plans, a free daily devotional, devotional guides you can purchase, study Bibles, and much more. Their studies are solid and work well for individual studies, small groups, or a mentoring relationship. I would highly recommend using their content and keeping this site book marked.

He Reads Truth

This is the brother website for She Reads Truth. Seeing the need for quality devotionals and resources for men, the creators of She Reads Truth launched this resource. It contains reading plans, Bibles, an app, and many other resources specifically geared toward men. Their resources are highly beneficial and come in a variety of study styles that will allow you to choose a study that is best for the context and student.

LeaderTreks

Our friends at LeaderTreks are constantly putting out quality resources for students, pastors, volunteers, and anyone who is involved with students in any capacity. LeaderTreks has a blog you can pull helpful insight from, D-Now studies, Deep Discipleship materials, and free resources. All of these can be leveraged to your circumstance and student, and will allow you to address specific issues or questions that they may have.

Bible Studies for Life

Bible Studies for Life has a ton of resources for a variety of settings, and their student resources are incredibly helpful. These studies are designed to help students understand and relate to God’s Word and look to practically apply it to their lives. These studies come in a variety of Bible translations, they provide leader guides, and they have middle school options available as well.

99 Thoughts

There are a variety of these books on the market right now. A quick Google search will pull up multiple options, but Group Publishing, CPYU, LeaderTreks have quite a few options to pull from. The purpose of these are to provide short thoughts for daily consumption on a wide range of topics. They have options for middle school, high school, and college-aged students (and other ages as well). These are great options to give as gifts or quick resources to students or to have families or small groups walk through together.

RYM

RYM (Reformed Youth Ministries) has many Bible studies for students that deal with a variety of topics. Most of these are deeper theological studies but they come in an easy to use and understand format. One of the nice things about these studies is you can download them for free after submitting your contact information, or you can purchase books through their website if you’d like a more tangible version.

The Gospel Project

Many of us know The Gospel Project because of their stellar videos, but they have other helpful resources as well. One of these resources includes Christ-centered, chronological Bible studies for students. These are phenomenally put together, offer a deeper look at the story of the Bible, and give practical and thoughtful application for students.

CRU

CRU is a wonderful ministry that has churned out an amazing quantity of resources for people at any level in their walk with Jesus. They have downloadable materials, Bible studies by topic or book of the Bible, Bible studies for groups or individuals, and much more. This is a great resource to have and utilize for your students.

Helping Families Win: Family Devotions

A new series we will be talking about periodically is called Helping Families Win. Part of our role in leading students includes shepherding families and helping them succeed as they seek to follow Jesus. This series will look at proactive ways we can challenge, encourage, and guide families in helpful ways as they pursue godly living. Today we are going to look at helping families engage in devotions together.

Finding time to be in God’s Word can be difficult for anyone. I think if we were honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that there are seasons when it is difficult for us as adults to spend time investing in our relationship with Jesus. Work, family, stuff at home, yard work, play-dates, being a chauffeur, and trying to get adequate rest seem to overwhelm all hours of our days. Even in this new season of life where many of us are at home and being forced to slow down, we may not have been able to engage as much as we would have liked in our spiritual walk.

It is no secret that our growth as a Christ follower is intrinsically dependent upon how much time we spend in community with Jesus. But what we don’t always realize is that our students see how we engage in our relationship with Jesus and it directly effects how they engage in their relationship with Him. Our students should witness us modeling a relationship with Jesus in how we act and speak, how often we read our Bibles, and by how we allow the truth of the Gospel to permeate our lives.

We also need to model studying God’s Word with our students to help them engage in God’s Word and apply it to their lives. But there is a big question surrounding that: How do we do that, and how do we do it well?

One way to do this would be to actively encourage families to engage in regular family devotions together and leverage it as an opportunity to draw closer together with each other and Jesus. Family devotions do not need to be every day, they don’t have to be boring or childish, and they certainly do not need to be hours long. But they should allow for thoughtful conversation, opportunities for everyone to share and lead, and time of just being loved and supported by those closest to you.

What I would like to do today is offer some helpful tools, resources, and methods for doing devotions as a family that you can apply to your own family and share with families within your ministry.

>> An easy way to encourage families to step into doing devotions is to simply text a devotion out to their family each day. For families who haven’t done devotions together before, this is an easy first step for them to try it out. In fact here are two pre-made texting devotional s you can use: Text Through the Bible and Textable Devotions. As you think through how to apply and use these, I want to offer a couple of suggestions:

  • If you are not currently doing family devotions, start small. Text these out each day and then choose one day a week to talk through them as a family. Try to keep it to a half hour to start, and then see if it develops into something bigger.
  • If you are doing family devotions or have done them, try to incorporate more times that you meet as a family. Try for 2-3 times a week but still keep it roughly half an hour to start and build on it from there.

>> Another great resource is this video by Parent Ministry that gives insight into how to help your students engage in God’s Word and develop healthy spiritual rhythms. It is a quick clip but dripping with truth and helpful ideas.

>> David R. Smith wrote an article on enhancing in-home devotions and he offers some very helpful tools and tips, as well as some resources for you and your family.

>> As families begin to pursue more intentional and engaging opportunities together, it is helpful to give them ways and methods for studying the Bible. We shouldn’t assume everyone knows how to do this, so giving resources and ideas on how to study the Bible will be helpful. A few Bible study methods that I find helpful are the O.I.A. Method, the Discovery Bible Study Method, and the SOAP Method. These three methods offer helpful ways to engage with Scripture and help families know how to ask questions as well.

>> Other helpful digital resources include biblegateway.com, www.bible.com, www.openbible.info/topics/, net.bible.org, and www.blueletterbible.org. These websites not only host the Bible in digital formats, but they also have additional resources like commentaries, Bible studies, cross references, maps, and much more. These are helpful in giving parents and families a more in-depth look at God’s Word and helpful insight for answering any questions that develop. It is also important to remember while we may think everyone knows about these websites, that isn’t the case. Families don’t always know about resources or which ones to trust, and by simply recommending them, we are helping share beneficial resources for their family.

Being intentional and pouring into the spiritual growth and development of your family is a priority that we must be running after. My prayer for you is that these resources help you and your family deepen your walk with Jesus, and that we develop families of disciplemakers who are radically changing the world for Jesus.

Seven Ways to Help Yourself Grow in 2021

As we enter into a new year it’s an appropriate time to intentionally think through ways we can grow and develop. The only way we can continue to pour out and into others is by making sure we are being poured into and growing. I will be honest with you, this wasn’t always something I was focused on, especially early on in ministry, which led to burnout and bitterness toward the church and others. As I continued to serve in ministry, I realized how essential it is to make sure that I was growing and developing personally so I could lead and care for others. Today I want to share some proactive ways to help yourself grow and become a better leader.

1. Spend intentional time with Jesus.

This one seems pretty obvious, but I think ministry leaders can tend to forsake their time with Jesus because it seems we are constantly spending time with Him as we serve. But those times of study and preparation do not always aid our own individual growth. As followers of Jesus we must be intentional with carving out time to personally spend with Him. As we do this, we will be refreshed, challenged, and stretched in our faith which will give us fresh opportunities to lead out and pour into others. Self-care must start with our relationship with Jesus because that will directly impact every part of our lives.

2. Focus on healthy decompression.

Let’s be real: ministry can suck sometimes. It can be weighty, heart-wrenching, hurtful, challenging, and so much more. For many of us, we can carry this weight even after we leave the office because we empathize and sympathize so deeply with our people. But the problem with that is we often do not know how to release and decompress. I want to encourage you to find healthy ways to decompress and allow yourself to breathe and move forward. You are not dismissing the difficult moments or the pain of those you care for, but instead allowing your heart and soul to heal and refresh.

Decompression can look different from person to person, but we each know what we need and what brings us relief. It may be taking a day away from technology, or a weekend retreat, it could be reading a non-ministry related book, it could be fishing, or it could be binge-watching your favorite shows or movies. Whatever decompression looks like for you, make sure you are utilizing it. Decompression allows you to rest and catch your breath, and it gives you opportunities to relax and heal.

3. Take and honor time off.

Time for full transparency: I suck at this one. I am someone who was a workaholic and I can easily fall back into that model. Over time I have gotten better at actually utilizing my days off during the week but I am not great about using my vacation time. But this is something we all need to do. Jesus even carved out time during His earthly ministry to get away from everything, and in the creation account God set aside an entire day for rest. I wrote recently about Sabbath and honoring it, but we need to take this even further and utilize the time we are blessed with to rest, refresh, and refocus. No one is meant to work every hour of every day. So make sure you set healthy parameters for when you are and are not working, honor your days off, and use your vacation time.

4. Be willing to try something new.

Sometimes we get stuck doing the same things because we have always done them. This can be true in our personal lives and in our ministries. So be willing to try something new this year. Step out and push yourself to engage with life in new and creative ways. Perhaps you could pick up a new hobby or skill, maybe it is being willing to explore or to travel, or it could be as simple as building or growing a relationship with someone in your life.

With everything changing due to COVID-19, now is an amazing time to start something new in your ministry. You could implement a leadership time, you could challenge your students to engage with a daily Bible study, you could find new ways to minister to and engage with parents, or you could completely switch up how you do programming. Doing something new will bring about fresh change and a renewed perspective on how and why you are doing things.

5. Find a mentor.

One of the best things for your personal growth and development is to find someone who can speak into your life and ministry as a mentor. A mentor is more than a friend, they are someone who knows you and is willing to speak truth into your life in an effort to challenge, encourage, and stretch you. I highly recommend finding someone who is older and has a heart for or history in ministry to walk with you. This will give you opportunities to share, decompress, grow, and be encouraged throughout your life. A good mentor will not simply encourage you or tell you what you want to hear, but will directly challenge and push you by speaking truth and helping you to be stretched in all aspects of your life.

6. Be wholly present wherever you are.

One of the greatest ways you could grow this year is by being wholly present in every circumstance in which you find yourself. It is easy for many of us, myself included, to allow our minds to wander during conversations or meetings. But if we were to commit to being wholly present we would see some amazing changes. We would see relationships strengthened, a greater ability to contribute, we would remember more, and we would be able to relate better to and walk with those in our lives. Being wholly present allows you to fully appreciate where God has called and placed you, and it also brings value and authenticity to all your relationships.

7. Find something that is not ministry-related to enjoy.

This is similar to decompression in that it could be a way you decompress, but it doesn’t have to be something you use all the time for decompression. Often we surround ourselves with our ministry and its components, which isn’t a bad thing, but that doesn’t afford us the opportunity to rest and enjoy other aspects of our lives, or look at things from another perspective. Ministry is our calling but it isn’t our identity. Christ is. So everything we do, whether ministry or otherwise, should be Christ-centered.

One of the greatest things you could do for your growth is to find something outside of ministry which affords you the opportunity to live for Jesus in situations you may not have before. This could be as simple as being a coach for your child’s sports team, joining a softball league, grabbing wings with your neighbors, hosting a book club, or playing golf with some friends. Prayerfully these will afford you opportunities to be around those who may not know Jesus and also give you insight into how people are doing outside of the scope of traditional ministry.

Ways to Decompress & Rest

Feeling tired from the past nine months? Are the pressures of doing ministry becoming overwhelming? Has your home become more work place than refuge? For many of us in ministry, the reality of doing kingdom work in the middle of a pandemic has been taxing and overwhelming. The constant push-back, disappointment, discouragement, and cancellation of events and trips has been difficult to say the least.

These things compounded by our own emotions, personal struggles, and realities we are facing can be felt deep within our souls. The more I have reflected on this time in our lives the more I am convinced that we as ministers of the Gospel must be decompressing and modeling healthy rhythms for those we serve. But the great question before us is, how? How do we do this well? How do we do this when time is at a minimum? How do we do this when our sacred spaces have all but been removed?

Today, I want to share with you some ways to decompress and some tips for building healthy boundaries to protect your own spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

Healthy ways to Decompress

  • Take a Sabbath. I wrote on this about a month ago, but the more I think about it and study Sabbath rest, the more I realize ministry leaders are not good at this. Let me encourage you to build this into your rhythms and find time to incorporate the Sabbath into your life.
  • Find a counselor. I could not be a bigger advocate for counseling. This is something that I firmly believe everyone in ministry should be doing. Having someone you can talk to who can help you think through difficult circumstances, help you see through the fog, and allow for you to have a place to freely express how you are feeling and where you are at is not only healthy, it is life giving as well.
  • Turn off your phone. This is a big one for me that I have talked about before. But so often our phones are tools that actually bring about more anxiety, worry, and doubt. Our phone buzzes with an email or text, and our hearts jump a bit. We see a message from a parent and we instantly wonder if everything is okay or if we messed up. While phones are great resources, they are also a direct avenue to our hearts and cause problematic emotions and thoughts to creep in. So consider turning your phone off or putting it on “do not disturb” on your days off. If this is something you believe you cannot do, then consider sharing that you will be doing this with your superiors, volunteers, and students so they know your rhythm. Or consider turning it off for a portion of your day off so you can focus on what’s important.
  • Find a new hobby that can be completed. This is something I have found helpful among ministry leaders. Our jobs are never done. Unlike many other careers where there is a metric to tell you when you have completed your goal or target, we don’t necessarily have that. What that means is we are constantly working to accomplish a task that is never fully accomplished. And that can be exceptionally frustrating. So consider taking up a hobby like lawn care, reading non-ministry related books, creating something, cooking, visiting all the new restaurants in your area, or trying to find all the ice cream places in your state and try them. Yes, some of these are crazy but who doesn’t like ice cream? But the point behind them is they all have a completion point. Doing something new that has an end goal will help you feel at piece completing something.
  • Write things down. This is huge, and I will be honest, I am not great at this. I don’t do well with journaling or putting my feelings to paper. But Elise is. She has journaled for as long as I have known her, and has done it for most of her life. Being able to write down how you feel, the tensions that are in your life, the victories, the low points, and just to put your thoughts to paper will help you to process and think through what is happening. It also gives you a resource to look back on and reflect on how God has answered your prayers throughout your life.
  • Pray. I am not throwing this in because we are Christians but because this is true. And I think often times we can be just as guilty as others when it comes to forgetting to go to God. We tend to do this in difficult times, but we must remember that we need to be praying constantly to build spiritual protection, awareness, and depth in our lives to help us weather the difficult moments. So let me encourage you to build healthy prayer rhythms into your life to help you decompress and process what is happening. Carve out time each day or throughout the day to take your requests, praises, and deepest longings of the heart to God.

Tips for Setting Boundaries

  • Be honest. Often times as leaders in ministry we aren’t honest with ourselves or our superiors about how we are doing. In order to actually be able to rest and decompress we need to be honest with ourselves that we need it. And we must bring in others to avoid getting to the place of exhaustion and burnout.
  • Take a spiritual checkup. This is so important for us as leaders. How is your spiritual walk with Jesus doing? And I am not asking if you are reading your Bible and going to church. I am asking if you are feeling nourished and refreshed by God’s Word and by His Spirit. Do you still find joy in your walk with Jesus? Is it something that is feeding your soul? These types of questions will help us to see where we are at in our relationship with Jesus and how we answer will be reflected into our physical lives as well (i.e., no time with Jesus leads to frustration and exhaustion, time with Jesus helps to remove the stress and weariness).
  • Bring in your spouse or close friends. Our spouses are wonderful people. Without them we wouldn’t know what to do. And our spouses know when we aren’t doing okay. But for some reason, we try to shield them from how we are doing and in doing so, alienate them and cause them to worry. Our spouses love us and we are a team. So be honest with them. Let them walk with you. Allow for them to be a sounding board of wisdom, discernment, and encouragement. If you are unmarried, find a close friend or group of friends you trust who will walk with you and you can bring in. Don’t try to go through this journey alone.
  • Ask for help. It is okay to admit when you need help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or like there is too much to accomplish, bring others in. Ask your volunteers to help with things. Consider bringing in some of your students to help run different aspects of your program or to organize that one closet that is always a mess. Go to your supervisor and be honest with them that you need help. Allow for others to step in and help you when it is needed.

The Importance of Sabbath

This past week I was asked a question that I’ve been asked often during this season: how are you really doing? As I was preparing to answer with my usual, “I am just taking it one day at a time” response, I was hit with just how spent I had been feeling. I was busier than ever and with more and more being placed on my plate, I was just feeling overwhelmed.

Later on, I began to process the reasons why I was feeling this way. Sure, I have been putting in more hours. Yes, ministry looks different and I am doing things I never expected to make sure it’s a success. Of course I am pouring out more than I ever have to care for the people I shepherd. And there will always be difficult moments and conversations that leave you feeling inadequate and deflated. But was that it? Were these the reasons I was feeling so tired, overwhelmed, and weary?

This past Wednesday I found myself listening to a podcast by my friend Walt Mueller from CPYU. It was podcast about Sabbath with his guest A.J. Swoboda. The conversation hit my heart in a way it hadn’t before. Of course, as a ministry worker I am familiar with the concept of a Sabbath and have worked to make one of my days off a Sabbath each week. But hearing them share about how during this pandemic ministry personnel are not adhering to this commandment from God just broke me.

Walt shared a comment from A.J.’s book on how the Sabbath is the only commandment ministry leaders are encouraged to break, when breaking any of the others are grounds for being fully dismissed from ministry. I realized that during this season I haven’t been resting well. I haven’t honored this commandment.

Instead, I have poured out everything to make ministry work during this season. I’ve put in more hours than I care to admit. My phone is always on. Email is going constantly. I have been available all the time without fail. While these all sound good to an extent, without the constant filling from a Sabbath, we will inevitably find ourselves drained and weary.

I want to encourage you to rest and to incorporate a Sabbath into your regular rhythm. Turn off your phone or put it on “do not disturb.” Do not do ministry work on your Sabbath. Bring your spouse and family into this with you. Let your co-workers and ministry leaders know what you are doing and lead out as you encourage them to do likewise. We are called to honor God not just through our work ethics and hours, but also through how we honor the Sabbath and apply it to our lives.

My prayer is that this post doesn’t add guilt, but challenges us all to apply the Sabbath to our lives and to allow the deepness and richness of it to overwhelm us in positive ways. I want to encourage you to listen to CPYU’s podcast and to allow God’s truth to speak to your heart.

How do you apply the Sabbath to your life? What does your Sabbath look like?

Our Picks: Study Bibles for Message Prep and Personal Use

When it comes to preparing messages and personally studying God’s Word, there vast amounts of resources at hand. There are commentaries, various theological resources, countless articles, websites, and more. One of our favorite resources to utilize is the study Bible. The ability to read God’s Word and have helpful and insightful information all together is a huge win.

Today we want to share with you some of our favorite study Bibles that have helped us in our own relationships with Jesus and have allowed for us to become better communicators as we seek to know God’s Word at a deeper level.

The CSB Apologetics Study Bible

This is a great resource for personal study and message prep. The CSB has quickly become one of our favorite translations of the Bible because it relies upon the best manuscripts we have on hand, and is translated in a way that is easy to understand without sacrificing truth for ease.

The Apologetics Study Bible offers more than 100 commentaries and articles on various questions, thoughts, and difficult topics. The reason this is helpful for teaching is that these articles contain many of the questions that students (and arguably all Christians) have but may not voice. It also helps us to keep our minds sharp and ready to answer questions that are voiced, and it provides resources we can share with others.

CSB Worldview Study Bible

I really like this Bible when it comes to preparing messages for our students and for our church. The purpose of this study Bible is to showcase how the truths of Scripture impact our worldview. This approach provides many practical and tangible applications for when we are teaching.

As we think about our students who are part of Gen-Z, they are always looking for ways to engage and be involved, and this resource provides just that. There are extensive notes and articles that will provide you with insight into how to apply the Bible to our lives and make our faith real and active.

ESV Study Bible

This is a must-have resource for anyone in the church, regardless of whether you are paid staff, a volunteer, or an attendee. The ESV Study Bible has an amazing set of notes and information that allow you to glean additional information that you may not have seen by simply reading the text. This is a Bible that has been put together by 95 Bible scholars from around the world with a variety of denominations contributing to it.

It also has more than 20,000 study notes, over 80,000 cross-references, more than 200 maps, helpful articles, and a concordance. This Bible will help you in so many ways as you seek to grow in your personal relationship with Jesus and as you lead others in your ministries.

NIV Zondervan Study Bible

This study Bible is a great resource that was overseen by the guidance and insight of Dr. D. A. Carson and more than 60 other contributors. Its purpose is to help readers see God’s special revelation in the Scriptures and to help readers grow in their faith.

Some of the resources in this Bible include full-color maps, charts, photos, and diagrams, study notes in the margins, introductory material for each book of the Bible, cross-references, and a concordance.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

This is not a Bible that I have in my personal library but one I have borrowed often from friends and colleagues. This provides so much context and insight into what was happening during the time period of the text and why it was happening in that way. When we are thinking about critically reading and analyzing Scripture it is vital that we know the context to what is taking place so we can make informed and accurate assessments and applications.

This Bible provides you with much-needed context along with verse-by-verse study notes, introductions to each book, defined terms from both Testaments, more than 300 articles discussing contextual topics, over 300 full-color photos, illustrations, and images, and various maps, charts, and diagrams. This is a great Bible to help us grow in our knowledge and understanding of what was happening in context, which will then help us shape how we apply this text to our lives and the lives of those we lead.

What Study Bibles or other resources have you found that have been helpful in your individual studies and to make you a better teacher?

The Spiritual Upward Spiral

I want to talk to you about a way I think about growth in Jesus; at least, about how spiritual growth has taken place in my life. In describing this, I will use the picture of a spiral.

Picture in your mind a spiral staircase. Imagine that you are above it, looking straight down on it, like you are looking at a blueprint of a building’s floorplan. The staircase will like a wheel with spokes. The “spokes” are the steps, and the “rim” of the “wheel” is the handrail. It also looks like a clock face. The steps are like the hands of the clock and the they point to “12 o’clock,” “1 o’clock,” “2 o’clock,” “3 o’clock,” etc.

As you go up the stairs, you pass “12 o’clock” several times. The first time you pass it you are low on the stairs, the next time you are a little higher, and then you are higher yet as you pass it a final time.

This has been a helpful picture for me in understanding how God has grown me in Jesus. The different “o’clocks” I have encountered on the way up are key truths about God and His plan for my life. Things like: God loves me, God is faithful, I must trust Him, Jesus took all my sin, heaven is real, the Bible is God’s sure Word, etc. As God leads me along in spiritual growth, I find myself coming back to truths I have known for a long, long time. Truths in most cases which are quite simple. But now I am at a different place in my life, “higher up the spiral staircase;” that is, God has grown me since I first heard that He loved me and now I am learning about His love in even deeper and broader ways.

Let’s keep going with the truth that God loves me to illustrate further what I mean: God loves me. Well, who, having been raised in Sunday School from childhood, has not known this from earliest memory? One of the first verses we memorize as children is John 3:16, the beautiful revelation of God’s love for the world. And yet the depth of God’s love is something I need to learn about more and more as I walk with Jesus.

A globally known and respected theologian of the last century was asked later in life, “After all your study, what is the greatest truth you have learned?” His answer? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Those, of course, are lyrics to a simple, well-known children’s Sunday School song.

The Apostle Paul talked about God’s love in this way: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV).

If that is the way it is with God’s love—so deep I need His power to grasp it, then I need to return to it often in my forward and upward progress in Jesus.

Here is my second example: God’s kind and repeated command, “Do not fear.” The fact that God repeats this so many times in the Bible (I have never counted, but someone has said that this word from the Lord is in the Bible 365 times, one for every day of the year) tells me I need to revisit it over and over and over again.

When I first encounter it, my life may be going very smoothly and so I easily, and perhaps glibly, agree, “I don’t need to fear anything!” But then, later at another point in life, I find myself in circumstances that are generating fear in a whole new way, in a deeper, disturbing way. Now I need to learn more from God about how He helps me with my fears.

This brings me to some past sermons. In one, we studied the well-known account of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet in John 13. Christ’s call upon His followers to serve is something we need to revisit over and over as we progress in Christ.

The sermon before that was from 2 Peter 1 where Peter says, essentially, I know you already know all this but you need, desperately need, reminding. Remember to add to your faith the seven key qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Remember.

One way this picture of a “spiritual spiral” helps me is by reminding me that there are not an infinite number of truths I need to know and master in order to mature in Jesus. It seems that there are a somewhat limited number of really basic truths which I need to learn. As I come around to those truths again, like on the ascending staircase, I learn them again in a deeper and fuller way, and then even more as I come around to them again.

God leads us to revisit fundamental truths about Him and His will for us. And, as we are at different places in our lives with each visit, we learn of Him in new ways. It is like an ascending spiral, the ascending spiral of spiritual growth. He is leading us upward and onward to our final destination—becoming mature Christians who are given a rich welcome into glory to live with Him forever!

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.

Tips for Maintaining Your Spiritual Health

When life feels up-ended, it can be easy to let our spiritual health decline. Other things crowd in–whether it’s work, the needs of others, or our rapidly changing context–and we shift into a “survival mode” that can cause us to neglect our spiritual well-being. But if we are honest, if we don’t maintain our spiritual in-flow, we won’t survive for long.

We want to encourage and challenge you to make your own spiritual health and relationship with Jesus the top priority during this challenging time, and going forward. Sometimes that can be easier said than done, so today we’re sharing suggestions for prioritizing and enriching your spiritual growth.

Spend time in the Word for your own spiritual enrichment

If you are a ministry leader, you are no doubt already spending time in the Scriptures as you lesson plan. You might be preaching multiple weekly messages, preparing devotional materials, and mentoring individuals. This can result in a lot of time spent in the Bible, but not necessarily concentrated on your own growth.

Before you dive into Scriptural “work-study,” spend time in personal Bible reading, even if it’s only for a short period of time. If you can, find a quiet place where you can rest as you read, looking to hear from God and refresh your spirit. Spend time in prayer, specifically asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you and strengthen you for the work to come.

Establish healthy boundaries between work and personal time

It can be easy to let work bleed into your personal and family time, especially if you’re working from home. Taking calls, responding to texts, jumping on your computer to do something “real quick,” can begin to add up. You may struggle with what to prioritize, especially when it comes to ministry.

There will always be exceptions, but as much as you are able, set boundaries between “work time” and “home/family time.” This may mean keeping up regular office hours, and then setting your phone on “do not disturb” after they have ended. Or it may mean working in blocks of time and setting aside other blocks for personal and family time. Whatever you decide, don’t forget to explain it to your team or those who may be contacting you during “off” hours.

This may feel selfish at first, but it is essential to maintaining your mental health, your spiritual health, and your relational health with family and friends. If you don’t set aside time for these things, ministry work can easily take over your entire life, leaving you feeling burnt out and depleted.

Engage with church services for your own benefit

For ministry workers, church services are often times that are focused on work, and what’s coming next. It may be hard to dial in as your mind is already on what needs to be done as soon as the service is over, or what’s coming up in the week ahead. Whether you participate in your own church’s service, or another one online, give yourself the space to listen, engage, and grow.

Let us encourage you to actually pause and worship with your church community. Eliminate the noise and worship with your family without the worries of what is coming up. Seek to simply be present and worship. Read the Word of God with the church, take notes throughout the sermon, sing loudly without worry of who may hear. Engage with your family before, during, and after the service is done. Respond to what God’s Word is doing in and through your life.

If you find that you have more to do on a Sunday because you have become the “official tech guru,” you can still find meaningful ways to worship. To the best of your ability, seek to engage with and respond to the service as you contribute to it. Or, you may find it helpful to rewatch the service later, or listen to another one online.

Pursue mentorship

Due to our present circumstances, mentoring is something that can easily fall by the way-side. If we can’t meet in person, we may stop meeting altogether. However, mentoring is just as important now as we seek to do ministry in new ways. So we want to encourage you: keep seeking to be mentored and to mentor. In light of social distancing, this will most likely mean meeting via video chat or phone call, but the ability to have real, honest conversations is essential to maintaining spiritual health.

Engage in other spiritual exercises

Our current context calls for creativity, especially when it comes to spiritual growth. We may have to work a little harder to focus on Jesus and building our relationship with Him, but it is so incredibly worth it. Here are a few of our ideas for creatively engaging with God and His Word.

  • Practice journaling. As you read the Bible and pray, journal your thoughts and prayers. This is an excellent way to keep track of what God is teaching you, to respond to His Word, and to see how and when He answers specific prayers. If you’re creatively inclined, you can use different colors, lettering styles, and sketches to add to your writings.
  • Meditate on Scripture. Select a passage that speaks to your current context, whether it is something you are struggling with, something you want to work on, or an area of life where you need encouragement. Write the passage on a card and keep it beside your bed. When you wake up in the morning, before fully getting out of bed, take time to read the Scripture and ask God to bring it to your mind throughout the day. You can also come back and read over it during the day.
  • Listen to podcasts. This is something you can do while you’re cleaning, working out, or doing mundane daily activities. We especially love podcasts that help us think more deeply about what we believe and why. In the fall we shared a few of the podcasts we enjoy listening to. These can also help generate good discussions at home!
  • Engage in spiritual conversations with friends. Ask your friends what they are learning from God’s Word; share what He is teaching you. It is incredibly encouraging to talk through what God has been saying to us, and to hear how He is speaking to others.

How have you been maintaining your spiritual health during this season of life?

Slowing Down: An Approach to Personal Bible Study

Reading the Bible has been indispensable in my spiritual growth. This has been true from the day of my spiritual birth (January 24, 1976) up to the present. God has used this time in His Word to grow and shape me and, especially, draw me into a closer relationship with Him.

One of the biggest changes in my practice of Bible reading took place around 1983. At that time, a conversation with a brother in Christ helped move me beyond reading the Bible as a study exercise to reading the Bible as an act of worship. In other words, it became more personal, more relational.

For many years The One Year Bible has been my “go to” for my personal Bible time. What is that? Here is what the cover of my very weathered copy of The One Year Bible says: “The entire New International Version arranged in 365 daily readings.” (The One Year Bible has been published in other translation versions as well, at least two of which I have tried, but I have found I like the NIV best for my personal Bible time.) Each day’s reading is dated for the day of the year and contains readings from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Psalms, and the Proverbs. In fact, the entirety of the book of the Psalms is in there twice: from January 1 – July 2 and again from July 3 – December 31.

The copyright date of the edition I read is September 1988. Why is that significant? I believe I have had this copy almost from that date, perhaps from sometime in 1989. A dear mentor of mine, Jim Paul, gave me the copy I have. My wife Sue Ann and I began serving a church in Dallas in February of 1988. Jim Paul led the Spanish-speaking congregation which was part of that church’s ministry. Jim frequently came to my office, most often solely to pray with me. What a gift that was! On one of those occasions he had this red The One Year Bible in hand and gave it to me. To use a well-used phrase, it was a gift that has kept on giving!

My latest development in Bible reading has been to slow down the pace of my reading. For many years my goal was to finish reading through my one year Bible within the calendar year. And, for a number of years I met that goal, but not in the last couple of years. I found that frustrating. What often got me off my pace was vacation, or any other stretch of time where I was out of my regular routine (e.g. attending conferences, etc.). I tried to catch up; sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I didn’t. The result, along with the frustration, was a sense of self-imposed pressure. Needless to say, this distracted me from enjoying and benefiting from my reading.

My new approach? Read as much as I want, or, as much as I have time for. Then I mark the spot and pick up my reading there the next time. I got the idea from my wise and dear wife, Sue Ann.

Now, instead of being focused on getting to the end of the day’s reading, I focus more on the content of what I am reading. I can linger over a verse or a paragraph or even a phrase. I can jot a note in the margin. And I underline. I use highlighter pens and colored pencils to underline specific themes (e.g. red for salvation, green for God speaking, orange for the Holy Spirit, etc.)—a color-coded way of bringing those themes out visually.

In the past, when I completed reading The One Year Bible, I would pick a new theme to look for while reading in the new year, and use a new color to underline it. I am still doing that. I have found it to be very beneficial in helping me focus while I read. And now that I am reading more slowly, I can see where I have missed those themes in some passages in past readings and I can underline them in their respective colors.

I am encouraged with my new approach. I feel less pressured in my reading and sometimes thoughts from my morning reading linger throughout the day. I think this has been a good step for me—slowing down.

Tom Loyola is a senior pastor at an Evangelical Free Church in Iowa. He and his wife Sue Ann have partnered together in pastoral ministry since 1984 and are the parents of two children. Tom received his Master of Theology and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys reading, running, oil painting, and a good movie.