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?

Helping Families Succeed at Devotions

Finding time to be in God’s Word can be difficult for anyone. I think if we are 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, home life, yard work, play-dates, being a chauffeur, and trying to get adequate rest can seem to overwhelm 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 growth as a Christ follower is intrinsically dependent upon how much time we spend in community with Jesus. But what we don’t always consider is that students watch how the adults in their lives engage with Jesus, which directly affects their relationship with Him. Students should witness adults modeling a relationship with Jesus in their actions and speech, how often they read their Bibles, and in how they allow the truth of the Gospel to permeate their lives. But the question is, how do we do that, and how do we do it well?

A great way to help students grow in their relationship with Jesus is through their family. Families are hugely influential in the lives of students, and parents are the primary disciple-makers of our students. Therefore, we must help to equip and empower families to engage with God’s Word together. A great way to begin this conversation is by encouraging parents to engage in family devotions.

Family devotions are an opportunity to help draw parents and children together with one another and with 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 to be loved and supported by those closest to you.

Many parents have not had this modeled for them, and therefore they feel ill-equipped or lost on how to begin. As shepherds for families and students we can help resource and equip parents to succeed in this model.

Here are some helpful tips and methods for doing devotions as a family:

  • Encourage your families to start small. A half hour is a perfect time-frame for beginning family devotions. We often think that if we aren’t doing something, we have failed, and therefore decide to come up with a large and elaborate plan. But doing this actually can set you up for failure. Starting small allows you to grow the opportunity and interactions and allow for meaningful time together.
  • Be intentional with your time. Don’t make the time together about completing a task off of a to-do-list. Instead, make it relational and spiritual. Care about your student’s life, and allow the Gospel to speak into it.
  • Ask for your student’s input. Before kicking off your family devotions, look for insight from your student. Ask them what they think about it, ask what they would like to cover, ask if they would like to lead, ask what worries them about doing this, and ask if they want to do this. The answers you get may not be what you want, but you will gain valuable insight from your students, and you will also be empowering their voice and buy-in simply by hearing what they have to say.
  • Make this a priority. This has to be something that families are consistent with and committed to. If they are not, their students will not buy into it. It has to be led from the top down, and if students sense a parent is for this then they will begin to be for it too.
  • Be willing to adapt and change as needed. That is not to say that you should skip or postpone devotional times, but instead be willing to be flexible. This could be because of a special event, or maybe you want to add time to go deeper. Whatever the circumstance, flexibility is a must-have for families to succeed.

I would also like to provide you with some resources for equipping families to help them succeed in this. These are very easy ways to begin stepping into family devotions together.

  • Here is a daily text based devotion to give to parents who can then send them to their students. This is designed to be a simple way to send a text to your student each day. It can also serve as a reminder for them to read God’s Word and apply it to their lives.
  • Another great resource would be to check out this video about helping your students engage in God’s Word and develop healthy spiritual rhythms. It is a quick clip but dripping with truth and helpful ideas and gives you opportunities to help grow your student’s personal devotions alongside family devotions.
  • 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 far as methodology is concerned, there are many ways to study the Bible. You can simply read a passage and respond to it, or use a more scripted time to help you grow. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
  • Other helpful digital resources include biblegateway.com, www.bible.com, www.openbible.info/topics/, net.bible.org, and www.blueletterbible.org. These are online Bibles that come with a variety of resources including commentaries, various versions, studies, topical searches, and much more.

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

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.

Setting Healthy Boundaries: Home and Church Life

When you work for a church or ministry you may have office hours, but you are also aware that you are never fully “off the clock.” Whether it’s answering an urgent text from a student who is in crisis, dealing with a “when was the camp signup” question from a parent, or attempting to finish something at home, we all know the feeling of having too much to do and not enough time to do it.

However, it isn’t healthy to go at top speed at all points in our lives. If this is how we continue to go we will experience burnout, bitterness, and hurt from all that we continue to do. I say this not to make you feel badly over all you have been doing, but as someone who has been there and experienced this in my own life. We must have healthy boundaries in place to protect ourselves, our families, and the ministries we serve. I’d like to offer a few thoughts on how I’ve managed to set and protect certain boundaries in order to preserve myself, my family, and my ministry.

Make sure time off is time off.

So often we see our work as necessary and kingdom focused (which it is) but so is our ministry to our spouse and family, and to ourselves. Let me encourage you to allow your time off to be time off. Try to not do work during those moments, fully engage with your family, and rely on God when the doubts and fears creep in that tell you that you are failing because you aren’t going 100 miles per hour. Having healthy time off will allow for you to be a better minister because you will be filled and whole rather than tired and fractured.

Be on the same page with superiors.

When I started at my new job I told my superiors that date night was on Fridays and I wanted to honor that with Elise. I also asked about hours and weekend commitments because I’ve been in positions before that required more hours than what I was paid for. My superiors explained that days off were for just that and my work hours over forty were extra hours that could be applied to time off. There are special circumstances of course, but the church and I were on the same page, so when I share with people I am off the clock I know I have a team who has my back.

I am also aware that I am blessed with church leadership who care and honor the right priorities in the right order, but others of you may not have that same experience. I would encourage you to first talk to those in leadership over you and see if perhaps the priorities align but simply haven’t been stated. Regardless of how that conversation goes, you can begin to set the tone within your own ministry setting and lead out to your people and students. Use the options you have and look to protect your time as best you can. You may not always have the support you would like, but you can still lead out and set healthy boundaries and parameters within your context while still honoring your superiors.

Don’t let work take the place of family.

When was the last time you took a work call or text, or answered an email at home or during family time? When was the last time you did the reverse? We are prone to allow work to become the number one priority in our lives, but the order of our priorities should be our relationship with God, our relationship with our family, and then our ministry. God called you first to Himself, then to your spouse and family, and finally as a shepherd to His flock.

That means we must not allow work to displace our family time, and our families must be given the attention and love they deserve. This is hard to do and yes there are always extenuating circumstances, but our families should never be second tier to the church. And honestly, if your church doesn’t affirm this, I would consider going to your superiors and asking hard questions about this topic in a Christ-honoring way. You have to make sure you are caring for your health and the health of your family.

Be transparent about time off.

I love to talk about date night in front of students and our church when I preach. Why you may ask? Because I want everyone to know I love my wife and time with her, but also to set the precedent that we want and deserve time together just like everyone else. It has been refreshing to hear church members who we bump into on Fridays want to honor our date night time, but also I’ve had countless people say they have learned they need to be better about dating and protecting their spouse. When you are open about who you are and where your priorities are, people are welcomed in and more apt to respect them.

Make sure your actions and words match.

This should be true in the church and the home. If you say date night is a priority to the church, make sure you honor that at home. If you ever wonder if your words and deeds match, consider asking your spouse and kids. They will be honest with you and allow for you to grow and become even better by working as a team. We can’t say family time is a priority but postpone it for “work stuff.” What our church and our families see should match. Our spouse and children should hear what we say and see it acted upon at home and in our relationships with them.

And the same should be true for our work. If we tell people we want to prioritize our families but continue to come to work while sacrificing family time, it shows that our word and deeds don’t match. If that is how we are governing our lives, it points toward a heart issue: “who/what are you working for.” Too often a workaholic mentality tends to point toward a pride issue or a desire to please man over God, and we need to look at our heart to make sure our actions and words match as we seek to honor God in all aspects.

Utilize your “do not disturb” option.

I’ll be honest: I struggle with not using my phone for work when I’m at home with Elise. I’ve been practicing something new this week and have been putting my phone on do not disturb. I began to realize how I was worrying about texts, calls, or emails and with “do not disturb” turned on, it has helped me so much in not worrying and making Elise more of a priority. Try it out and see how it works. We preach freedom from technology now it’s time to put it into play in our lives.

Empower your team.

For each of us the word “team” may look different. It could be a student ministry staff team, your volunteer core, or just you and a couple of regular leaders. Whatever the context is for you, empower your team to lead in your place. We cannot allow ourselves to be the only person for our students and leaders. If that is what we do we will always be the on-call person. But if you encourage others to lead, direct students to small group leaders, and allow your team to fulfill their roles, you are then empowering others while allowing space for yourself to breathe and experience balance in your life.

Criticism and What to Do with It

Criticism. For many of us it’s a “four letter word” that evokes worry, doubt, and at times fear. It makes us question everything we are doing and worse still, in some cases we question if where we are serving is the right place and if our calling is actually true.

Criticism has and will take many forms during your time in ministry. It could be when the facility director chastises you for marshmallows in the carpet and how ministry shouldn’t involve destroying the church. It may take the form of a parent talking about you and your philosophy, or claiming you haven’t connected with their student. Perhaps it is an elder who openly asks you if you even care about students growing in their faith. It may be a volunteer who stops by your office to offer “help” by telling you how great the old pastor was and how you should go back to the old way of doing things. Or maybe it is your senior pastor who tells you that fun shouldn’t be a part of your ministry and you need to change or look elsewhere.

If you’re like me, you’ve been on the receiving end of criticism more than you’d care to admit. It may be easy to brush some of it off by saying “oh, that’s just Karen” or “they don’t get student ministry…no one calls it youth ministry anymore.” But I would assert that just brushing it off or dismissing it isn’t the appropriate response in all circumstances. In my years of serving in ministry I’ve handled criticism both well and poorly, and I’d like to offer some thoughts on how to respond to it.

Respond humbly.

So often our knee-jerk reaction is to throw up defenses, to take a stand, to answer with a quick retort. Much of this is a defense mechanism because we take criticism personally. How dare they attack a ministry that God has called me to, that I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into?! But the reality is that we need respond humbly, and be willing to process what has been said.

We are called to be representatives of the Gospel in all moments, even the hard ones. How we respond will show people Jesus, and we must be aware of that. I am not advocating for you to simply take punches, but to not lash out or respond in kind. It is okay to explain yourself, but don’t become defensive or angry. Instead hear the person, love the person, and look to respond as Christ would.

Be willing to listen and have conversation.

When critique happens, let me encourage you to listen to the person and engage in conversation. I know there are times that won’t happen because it could be a passing comment from a parishioner, or an anonymous note left in your mailbox (What you don’t get those? Guess it’s just me.), but when you are able, engage with the person. So often it is because someone doesn’t understand, isn’t sure how to ask, they don’t know any other way to do ministry, or just want to be heard.

Instead of getting upset and talking about the person and their remarks, engage with them and take them out for lunch or coffee. Ask them to share what is on their heart, and then share what is on yours. I find within conversation you can care for the person, explain your mission and vision, and rally support as they see who you are and what you are about.

Acknowledge growth areas.

This is a hard one because it forces us to think through what is said, and admit that we don’t have it all figured out. But that is the truth; we are all in process which means there are areas where we can grow. Instead of becoming defensive about that, be willing to say “you’re right, and I am working on that.” I find that showing humility and acknowledging where you need to grow actually brings in people who want to champion you and your ministry. Sometimes people want to support you, and they just need to know how. By acknowledging your growth areas, you open up opportunities to be poured into and stretched.

Invite others in.

This one is huge, and something that took me a long time to understand. I think for many pastors it is easier to be a maverick, to stay on an island. But we aren’t called to do life alone. We champion this to our students and leaders, but so often we act in an opposite manner. Let me encourage you to find a mentor, to let people speak into your life and ministry, and be willing to listen even when it is hard. Those are the moments that will grow and stretch you. As you listen and hear from those who have done this and those who care about you, you will find yourself becoming a better pastor and shepherd.

Self-evaluate.

As ministers and as people we should actively be engaged in self-evaluation. This process will help you grow and mature, and prayerfully become a better leader and minister. Some questions to consider after receiving a critique are:

  • Why does that comment upset me?
  • Is there any truth in what was said?
  • What do I need to do if there is truth here?
  • How did I respond?
  • What should I change about how I respond in the future?
  • How did my heart feel during and after the conversation?
  • How can I approach, minister to, and love the person who said these things to me?
  • What is God trying to teach me in this moment?
  • Who is pouring into me and speaking truth about this moment?

Find a safe place to decompress.

Decompression and processing are necessary things to do after receiving criticism, but I believe there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to do them. Speaking to a mentor, a ministry partner, close friends, a supervisor, or other trusted confidantes is a great thing to do. They allow you to be open and honest, they don’t mind letting you process and work through emotions. And they will also give you direct and honest feedback to help you grow and mature.

However, I do not think social media is a healthy place to to decompress or seek out support in these matters. I’m a part of many Facebook groups where people come “seeking input and support” only to be met with “that’s so unfair,” “walk away,” “you’re better than they are,” or thousands of other thoughts and opinions. And arguably what it turns into is a critique-fest of a person or church no one knows about. Feelings of hurt and frustration grow within the original poster, and the community spirals downward in the chaos of bitterness and resentment. Social media can be used in great ways, but it isn’t a place to go to for healthy decompression as not all of the “support” or comments will be biblical, nor will they be able to respond impartially as they only hear one side of the conversation.

Growing in Prayer: Meaningful Ways to Expand Your Prayer Life

What a privilege believers in Jesus have! We can come boldly to the very throne of God to make our requests! In Jesus, and through faith in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence. (See Hebrews 4:16 and Ephesians 3:12.)

God tells us in the Bible that He sends His Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers to help us pray. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit helps us and intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He also moves us to address God the Father as “Abba” (Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is an Aramaic term for “Father” that is similar to our “Daddy” or “Papa.”  For the Holy Spirit to urge us to call God “Abba” means that through Jesus we have a personal, close, and affectionate relationship with the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe! Amazing!!

Have you spoken in this way to God yet? If not, give it a try! During your personal prayer time, address God as “Abba” or “Dad” or “Papa.” Of course, by using such a familiar term, we do not want to lose any respect for God; we do not want in any way to disrespect God. Rather, as one brother in Christ put it, we want to relate to God with familiar respect. Or, we might say, we want to relate to God with respectful familiarity. This is a high privilege our Lord Jesus Christ has provided for us through His life, death, and resurrection.

In fact, I encourage you to actually say “Abba” out loud. Now an important first step in that direction is saying your private, personal prayers to God out loud. If you have never done that, give it a try! When God led me to begin praying out loud during my private prayer time, my prayers were transformed. All of a sudden they became more concrete. I didn’t just direct vague thoughts to God; I was putting those thoughts into specific words.

Praying out loud also made the personal nature of my relationship with God seem more real to me. Please understand: ever since the night God saved me in 1976, my relationship with Him was real. However, my sense of that reality heightened through praying out loud. When I pray out loud, it is like talking to another person in the room … because I am talking to another person in the room! God is a real Person and He is present. He is not far away somewhere “out there.” Through Christ I am in God (see Colossians 3:3) and God is in me (see 1 Corinthians 3:166:19). God is closer to me than any other person could ever be! Can I say again, “Amazing!!”?

And once you have taken that step of praying out loud by yourself, then take the step I mentioned earlier and address God, out loud, as “Abba” or “Daddy” or “Papa” … with the respect He is due. I am doing this in my prayer times. As I pray to Abba, one thing I am asking Him is that He would help me to better grasp His love for me. I am asking Him to help me experience His love in a deeper way, in a way that powerfully impacts me. Would you like to join me in making that request of God?

We learn from the Bible that asking God to help us grasp His love is a good and right thing to pray for. How so? Because we have record of the Apostle Paul praying for this very thing for the Ephesian believers. He asked “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19).

Notice that not only does Paul pray for them to comprehend God’s love, he also prays for the strength and power to be able to grasp the love of Christ. We cannot know and experience God’s love on our own, through our own effort. We need divine enablement. We need God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to grasp God’s love for us. Why? Because, as verse 19 says, the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge.” His love is so wondrous, so amazing that without God’s help there is no way we in our weak humanity can know it.

And if God grants us our request to experience His love more, we will be changed. We will be transformed. We will “be filled to all the fullness of God.” May God do that for us.

So join me in calling God “Abba.” Join me in praying out loud to our Father God. And join me in praying to experience His love in a deeper way.

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.