Your Rhythms

Finding the Rest of God in the Midst of the City

May 04, 2009 Jude Tiersma Watson

Photo by Tim Best.

They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither-whatever they do prospers.   Psalm 1:3

A few years ago, this passage caught my attention. I was on a sabbatical, a time of Sabbath rest after years of intense urban life and ministry. But unlike the tree above, my leaves were withered. I was worn out, my joy was gone. This passage caught my attention because it promises that this tree gives its fruit in season, while its leaves do not wither. My expectation of myself, and the expectations I see around me, is that we are productive and fruitful all the time.

No wonder we feel worn out.

We were created for rhythms. All of God’s created world was created with rhythms. God created night and day. God created in six days, and then God rested. The ocean tides rise and fall, the leaves fall in autumn and then are reborn in spring.

Modern life gives few reminders, but we humans used to go to sleep and get up with the sun. Life followed the rhythms of the agricultural seasons. There were seasons of planting and harvesting, but also seasons when the ground would lay fallow (empty), as in the passage above.  Fruit grows in seasons, not constantly or instantaneously.

Now we live in a 24/7 city. We can be plugged in all the time, and we are expected to be fruitful year-round.  In this article we will look at ways that we can create life-sustaining rhythms even in a city that never stops.

Rhythms of Action and Contemplation: The Mary/Martha Pendulum (Luke 10:38-42)

I love Martha. I think she gets a bad rap. She was just doing what was expected of her, caring for the needs of Jesus in the way she knew how. She was extending hospitality, providing welcome to visitors. Yes, Jesus said that Mary’s way was the better way. But most of us know we are way more like Martha. And yet we long for “the better way.”

Read the scripture again. Martha wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was welcoming Jesus, preparing food. But she was distracted. Jesus declares, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted.”

That’s most of us: we get worried and distracted.

I don’t think Jesus was telling Martha not to offer hospitality or live an active life. Rather, Jesus was after the state of her heart. We can be preparing food while our hearts are centered on Jesus. Likewise, it is possible to sit at the feet of Jesus and still be distracted.

Many of us live on the Mary/Martha pendulum. We work hard, in our distracted ways, and then long to sit at the feet of Jesus. Maybe we even get away for a day. But then we get exhausted again, because the rest we experienced that day away seems far away. We do not bring that rest back into our work.

In the story, Mary sits in contemplation at the feet of Jesus, looking into his face and listening to his voice. Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better way. Yet the passage just before this one is the story of the Good Samaritan, a passage that challenges us to get off our donkey and help others. Perhaps we are meant to live out an integration of Martha and Mary, with a rhythm of both action and contemplation. This is what Jesus modeled in his own life. He was busy in ministry, yet had regular times of being with his Father. 1 . Perhaps if we get off the Mary/Martha pendulum, we could find a more integrated way to be both of them.

Rhythms of Pain and Joy (Psalm 126)

Psalm 126 gives us an insight into what this integration might look like: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying sheaves with them.” (Psalm 126:5&6 NRSV). Life has its rhythms of both pain and joy. As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes in a book reflecting on his own journey through pain to joy (caring for his wife who suffers from MS):

So many things we achieve are achieved only through struggle and conflict, not in easy ways. They always seem to involve crosses. I have so longed to find somewhere in life, some corner where joy is unmingled with pain.

But I have never found it. Wherever I find joy, my own or other people’s, it always seems to be mingled with pain. And I find that the people I most respect are people who know the link between joy and pain. And I have found that if we will own pain and weep over it together, we also find Christ’s overflowing comfort.

The bad news is that there may be no corner of reality where joy is not related to pain. The good news is that there is no corner of reality where pain cannot be transformed into overflowing joy. 2

Goldingay also describes joy as “an inner liftedness of spirit that means we do more than just cope inside when things are tough: we are happy inside if things are difficult outside” 3

Society around us doesn’t understand joy, so we are encouraged to look for joy in all the wrong places. When we face pain and struggle, we are encouraged to escape it for a while. Getting away for an evening of fun is a fine thing to do, but it cannot be a substitute for the need to press in through the pain and be surprised by joy in the midst of the sorrow. Transformation and growth in our lives happen when we learn to walk through the pain to joy.

As a biblical scholar, Goldingay tells us that joy in the scriptures is a “noisy affair.” 4   We tend to think of joy as something quiet in our hearts, like peace. But joy in the scriptures is more like noisy celebration. This is certainly true in many urban contexts. Urban youth workers often find that their communities have some things to teach us about the capacity to celebrate even when life is difficult. Why cancel that celebration because of pain? Pain is not the end of the story.

Whether we seek the quiet joy in our hearts or the noisy joy of celebration, this is the joy God intends for his people. This joy is also what our youth are seeking. They understand the pain. They know about the escapes. But many are looking for examples of life worth living, to know that the pain is not the end of the story.

Rhythms of Silence and Noise

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence…the more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”

—Mother Teresa  5

Noise is a given in the city. It is part of what makes up urban life. Silence, on the other hand, is a rare commodity. Yet silence is listed as a spiritual discipline in various writings. Those of us who live in the city might think that this does not relate to us, or is not very practical. We can write off this need for silence as something that doesn’t apply to us, but rather to suburban spirituality.  But then there is Mother Teresa.

The streets of Calcutta where Mother Teresa walked, and where her sisters still walk, are definitely not places of silence. Urban India redefines “crowded.” From that intense urban context, Mother Teresa tells us we need silence. Her own answer was to get up early each morning and spend a quiet hour in the adoration of Jesus, before the noises of the day began. She took seriously the call to “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).  That hour of deep silence then prepared her for the many noises that would be part of the rest of her day. Her life was a rhythm of silence and urban noise.

Just this week, two people have shared with me that without taking time for silence, they would not be able to handle the noises of the city. The city can drown out all other voices.

I keep a list of urban sanctuaries, places to find silence in the mist of the city. It includes churches that are open in the middle of the day for prayer, a beautiful chapel at the local hospital, downtown fountains that are largely deserted on the weekend, and early morning walks. Korean Christians have something to teach us here. Many get up early to pray, finding their way to the peaks in Griffith Park, an urban park in L.A.

Rhythms of Work and Rest

Americans are overworked. Some years ago, Juliet Schor wrote a book called The Overworked American. Schor describes how our culture consistently chooses work over leisure. Despite the many labor-saving devices we now have that were meant to free up our time, we work longer and longer hours, far more hours than our counterparts in Europe and Australia. 6

Eugene Peterson addresses this overwork in an article with the intriguing title “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 7 Peterson describes his days of overwork as a Sabbath breaker—  how he sinned with gusto, yet no one called him on it, and he was even commended for his sin. Peterson writes, “In fact, at one critical point in my life, when I was out-of-control obsessive in my indulgence of this sin, I was rewarded with the largest single annual increase in salary I have ever received”  8 Peterson believes that this rampant sin leads to an entire culture living on the edge of panic, with a refusal to sit still and be silent, to look and listen.

The Jews understand Sabbath, shabbat, in ways that are difficult for us to grasp.

For the Jews, Sabbath is fundamental to life and to both their spiritual and emotional health. “It is the culmination of the week, the day that gives purpose to all other days.” 9

When I first began to see my need for better rhythms, I began to take a day off. But this was not the day that gave purpose to my other days. In fact, sometimes I thought of it as the day in which to recoup so that I could have more energy for my work. But this is not a Sabbath. “The Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of Life.”  10

Within the work-to-Sabbath-rest rhythm, Eugene Peterson finds another rhythm. Peterson sees the ingredients of both prayer and play within Sabbath  11

Both are essential for Sabbath. In prayer, we pay attention to God, we respond to God as our creator, and appreciate again his creation. We spend time in prayer and praise, we move toward the longing to fill our thirst, as the deer pants for water.  In play, we explore our humanity, including our bodies. Whether it is shooting hoops, wandering on the beach, walking in an urban park, or playing with our children, playing uses the bodies God has given us.

Creativity through the arts is another way to play. Whether we prefer to express ourselves through playing the drums or creating a collage, this kind of play also reminds us that we are created in the image of the Creator.  We need rhythms of Sabbath that move back and forth between playing and praying (and sometimes we will play and pray together).

Weaving Rhythms into Our Lives

God built rhythms into creation. Modern urban life is out of sync with those rhythms and so are we, yet rhythms help us sustain our lives, and live more fully.

In my neighborhood, indigenous peoples from Guatemala are coming in larger numbers. On the weekends, the women wear their traditional clothes, beautiful weavings representing their unique tribe. Amazing skill goes into the making of these weavings. But the weaving is only possible because of the warp, the lengthwise bands that hold it in place. The warp provides a structure that makes the weaving possible. If that structure is in place, and firm, the weaver can create beautiful weavings. But without that structure, the weaving will not hold its shape or may even collapse. The rhythms we build into our lives that God intends are like the warp of that weaving. When we attend to the warp-the rhythms-God can create the beautiful weavings that represent our lives.

Our youth too are so in need of healthy rhythms in their lives. When our lives are out of sync and the rhythms have collapsed, my husband and I look at each other and say, “Who would want this life?”  We want to live healthy rhythms in line with God’s intent for us, and we want to live lives that model a life worth living for the many youth in our lives.


By Kimberly Williams

Understanding the need for rhythms is one thing, but how do you do this? In particular, how do you do this when you’re married, single, or chasing after some kids of your own? We’ve checked in with urban youth workers from around the country to get some of their best practices.

Here is a little introduction of our panel, including their life stage and challenges they have identified that can keep them from embracing healthy rhythms.

JIM DYSON, Vice President of Field Ministries for Young Life. He and his wife are empty nesters. Dyson says that, for him, the challenge of this stage of life has been to stop working. “When we had children at home the priority of being with them forced me to take a break from work.”

JOHN LEWIS, Southern California Regional Director for the Urban Youth Workers Institute. He is single with two young children. For John, the challenge of this season is to balance taking care of kids and working a full-time job as a single parent.

CHRIS BROOKS, Dean of Students for an inner-city high school in Minneapolis. He has been married for 13 years, and has two children who are 8 and 6 years old. Brooks identifies the greatest challenges to finding healthy rhythms as the “hustle” (taking on “extra” work to make ends meet), and the lack of resources (such as organizational leaders who don’t value rest and renewal, or mustering up the money to live in the city).

SHAWN CASSELBERRY,Chicago City Director for Mission Year. He has been married for 9 years. He identifies his rhythm fight as taking “on more responsibility than is humanly possible.” Casselberry says, “Sometimes I can forget that my job is not to fix or solve the problems around us, but to live in solidarity with my neighbors.”

The following represents collective suggestions this group has discovered about their rhythms.


  • Make your kids’ activities a priority
  • If you need to be out at night, see if you can     be at home in the afternoon when the kids get home from school.
  • Participate in sports or other activities     together with your kids.
  • Get an animal that you can have fun with and     take care of together.
  • Eat dinner together.
  • As much as possible, don’t commit to travel that     will take you away from your family for long periods of time.
  • Ask your kids to suggest ways for you to be a     better mom/dad and implement their ideas.
  • Tuck your kids in at night.
  • Take advantage of “kids eat free” nights at     local restaurants.
  • Do a simplified examen exercise with kids as a     bedtime or evening dinner ritual. Usually with young kids asking about     daily highs and lows works best.
  • Take a Sabbath together as a family.
  • Parents work together to give one another time     for retreats.


  • Debrief with your spouse daily.
  • Pray together with your spouse.
  • Don’t answer the phone when you’re spending time     with your spouse, but always answer when he/she calls you.


  • Take a Sabbath, and do things that are     life-giving.
  • Find times you can disconnect electronically     (cell, phone, email).
  • Find ways to appropriately let your own anger     out, like going to the bowling alley.
  • Create a colleague group.  One respondent shared:

Several leaders of yearlong urban ministry programs got together to start a colleague group around the theme of a balanced life. We meet every other month to discuss books we are reading as a group, share ideas for balancing personal and professional life, and give each other support. We were able to get a grant for our group that covers the cost of books, retreats, and guest speakers.

  • Schedule time to get together with friends.
  • Try centering prayer (
  • Take seminary classes for intellectual stimulation     and growth in new areas.
  • Take public transportation and relax in the     extra time it takes you to get where you’re going.
  • Once each quarter find a way to take a personal     retreat for a day or more.

While it can be hard to balance, each of our contributors also recognized the value of city life. Dyson found the tensions of ministry caused him to trust more in Christ. Lewis saw how experiences of pain can be a path to spiritual growth. “You will encounter pain in many ways that can take you to a deeper place spiritually,” Lewis says. Brooks noticed how the diversity of people and experiences have caused him to “think more deeply about God’s Word and the appropriate application of it.” Particularly the “passages about the poor have become more real as I engage them on a regular basis, and live among them.” Casselberry, too, has “seen the gospel come to life.  Living in the city allows me to trust God more fully than when our lives were more comfortable and easy.”

Rhythms take time to develop. Sometimes they develop and sometimes they are decided upon. Yet we were meant to live in rhythms, no matter what our life stage.

  1. See “Your Life” in month 2 of this series for more on this
  2. John Goldingay, Walk on: Life, Loss, Trust, and Other Realities(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 100.
  3. John Goldingay, Walk On, 97.
  4. John Goldingay, Walk On, 96.
  5. Mother Teresa, quoted in Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (Ballantine Books, 1979), 48.
  6. Juliet Schor, The Overworked America: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure, (Basic Books, 1991). Note that some of this is due to forces beyond our control, such as the expectation of our employers, while some is due to our own choices.
  7. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” Christianity Today, Sep 2, 1988, 25-28. Although this article appeared over 20 years ago, it is still among the best and most concise writings on this topic.
  8. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 25.
  9. Christine Sine, Godspace, (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 2006), 141.  Listen to an interview with Christine and Kara Powell on rhythms in urban youth ministry.
  10. Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, quoted by Don Postema, Catch Your Breath: God’s Invitation to Sabbath Rest (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive Christian Resources, 1997), 32.
  11. Eugene Peterson, “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker,” 28.

From Jay-Z to Jesus

Reaching & Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church

Apr 14, 2009 Ralph Watkins

This article is co-authored by Benjamin Stephens III, excerpted from the book titled From Jay-Z to Jesus: Reaching & Teaching Young Adults in the Black Church. Used by permission of Judson Press, 800-4 Judson,

The Young Adult Struggle: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

“But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter answered and said to him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”  Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”  Peter said to him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” And so said all the disciples.      Matthew 26:32-35

In many ways this story about Peter typifies the experience of young adults in their faith walk. Peter is trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ, and he goes from one extreme to the other. We can condemn Peter, or we can understand that for Peter and his peers this was a confusing time. They were trying to make sense of their lives, Jesus’ ministry, and this whole suffering servant, crucifixion, resurrection thing. It was a lot to put together.

Peter and the other disciples, homeboys along with the women who were around Jesus, like young adults today, find themselves caught in a web of big questions linked with their faith journey. And they don’t have easy answers. Young adults are in a period of reexamining their lives, motives, call, convictions, and theology.

What Are the Real Issues?

At the root of ministry with and to young adults is what I like to call the “great quest,” the question of purpose. The great quest is tied up with the great question: What have I been put on earth to be and do? This is both an identity question and a spiritual question. This question has theological and sociological implications. Young adults are in the process of defining themselves apart from their parents and in relationship to their peers. They are stretching out on their quest for a new life interdependent with their parents. There is a tension between what their parents defined for them and what they now have to define for themselves. The biblical foundation for quest, purpose, success, and significance is that famous Pauline passage of Ephesians 2:8-10 as Paul invites the readers to struggle with their divine design and purpose as outlined by God: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (NIV).

The Ephesians 2:8-10 Quest Question

What has God designed young adults to be and do? What are those works that God has prepared for them? Sharon Parks makes the quest question clear in her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams as she characterizes the questions young adults are asking. Parks says, “These are questions of meaning, purpose, and faith; they are asked not just on the immediate horizon of where we spend the night. In young adulthood, as we step beyond the home that has sheltered us and look into the night sky, we can begin in a more conscious way to ask the ancient questions: Who am I under these stars? Does my life have a place and a purpose? Are we—am I—alone?” 1   Young adults come to the church with these questions of meaning on their hearts. Young adult ministry must bring them into a community of faith that recognizes and honors the developmental work they are doing and walks with them.

The young adult developmental period feels like life and death for those experiencing it. It is a valley experience as they seek what’s next (the immediate) and what tomorrow has in store for them (the future). Many young adults leave the church during this period, and as a result they are trying to do this developmental work in the context of popular culture, which bombards them with mixed messages. In the church they need to hear a message that engages the messages they are getting from the culture while teaching them ways to seek counsel from God, godly friends, and leaders as they walk through this important phase of life.

Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, the authors of the book, Quarterlife Crisis, describe this period of life.  Robins and Wilner compare the quarterlife crisis (between the late teens and early twenties) to what is commonly referred to and accepted in the culture as the midlife crisis. They say:

While the midlife crisis revolves around a doomed sense of stagnancy, of a life set on pause while the rest of the world rattles on, the quarterlife crisis is a response to overwhelming instability, constant change, too many choices, and panicked sense of helplessness….The resulting overwhelming senses of helplessness and cluelessness, of indecision and apprehension, make up the real common experience we call the quarterlife crisis…. Twentysomethings believe they are alone and that they are having a much more difficult transition period than their peers-because the twenties are supposed to be “easy,” because no one talks about these problems, and because the difficulties are therefore so unexpected.  2

Because no one talks about or recognizes the quarterlife crisis, the young adults’ experiences that feel like life and death go unnoticed by the larger culture, especially in church culture. As a result, they are left shivering, alone, afraid, and confused, waiting for someone to stop by their house and talk with them as they walk along this lonely way.

Jesus’ Ministry: A Model of Response

Ministry to young adults was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry during his time on earth. We know that many of the disciples were young men searching for meaning, identity, and life purpose. We can of course assume that many of the women who where part of Jesus’ crowd were also young adults searching for the answer to the big questions of life. We know, for example, that Mary and Martha were close to Jesus and supportive of his ministry. Their search for an answer to what is most important in life is recorded in Luke 10:38-42. Mary and Martha are doing the work of young adults as they ask big questions and listen to Jesus’ answers. In essence Martha asks, “Do I do what is expected of me, or do I do what excites me? Do I sit and listen, or do I stay busy? How do I find God and find out what God wants of me?” The Mary and Martha story exposes some of the tension experienced in the lives of young adults.

Jesus was clear that Mary had made the better choice by choosing to sit and commune with him. Many young adults are busy running around trying to find out what God wants, what they want, and what the world wants on a trial-and-error basis while there isn’t a place for them to sit. A key theological theme in young adult ministry must be making a place for young adults to sit and listen to God. They need a break from the busy, a place where their resting and sitting at the feet of Jesus is appreciated and they are not criticized for what appears to be doing nothing.

Many young adults are caught between making a living, finishing a major, and doing what they really want to do—which in many cases they don’t even know yet. It is unfair to ask twenty-year-olds what they want to do for the rest of their lives. They don’t know. They walk into something that they may eventually struggle with and fight to walk away from.


Is This Church for Real?

Young adults are looking for confirmation that what they are doing is actually making a difference. They are not willing simply to come to church on Sunday and go through the motions. They question the relevance and power of the church. They critique form and fashion that don’t lead to deliverance. Jesus understood this. As soon as Jesus demonstrated the power of God in the deliverance of the demon-possessed man, he walked with his disciples to the home of Simon and Andrew. He was now about to show them how this ministry addressed their personal lives. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and Jesus healed her.

The key here is ministry that makes a difference. Jesus wasn’t offering religious platitudes or promising to do something later for those who were hurting. He responded on the spot in a way that made a lasting difference. Young adults want to be involved in ministry that is real, tangible, and making a difference in the here and now. George Barna calls these types of young adults religious revolutionaries. He says, “[There is] a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s kingdom. They are people who want more of God—much more—in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.” 3

The disciples of Jesus got more of God; they were able to touch God, sit with God, and see God act. Young adults in the twenty-first century want this type of closeness with God. Jesus didn’t have a wall between him and the people. He gave them access and the ability to get involved and start working with the ministry today.

A ministry that doesn’t empower young adults to live an edited life in an unedited world with and among sin and sinners will not meet their needs. They need to be empowered to sit the way Jesus sat with tax collectors and sinners. This empowerment requires an encounter with God’s Word that reveals God’s ways and methods for living in the world they can’t leave.

Action Points

1. What has your church done to make sure it is welcoming to young adults?  Make two lists of ways your church both welcomes and discourages young adults to participate. Then send out your lists to a few young adults you know and invite them to comment on your lists.

2. What is unique about your city that would fight against young adults’ faith journey?  Host a focus group of young adults to discuss the issues and concerns they have about your particular context as it relates to young adult faith and identity.

3. Take stock of the ways your church involves young adults in meaningful service, both inside and outside the church, for the sake of the Kingdom.  Then brainstorm new inroads to plug young adults into existing ministries, involving appropriate leaders and of course young adults themselves.

  1. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 35.
  2. Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner, Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties (New   York: Penguin Putnam, 2001), 4-5.
  3. George Barna, Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 7.

Your Struggles

From Coping to Freedom

Apr 01, 2009 Kimberly Williams

For the first ten years of my involvement in urban ministry, I mainly worked with children in the city. As I developed these relationships, I sometimes found out disturbing details about a kid’s family situation or life circumstance. Over time, I would often think, How could that mother say that? or Why did that dad do that? Then, when I moved to Oakland, CA, I started working as a counselor at a drug recovery program for women. It was there that I heard the “other side” of the story.

Many of the women in the program were mothers who had had disturbing childhoods themselves. The women shared about traumatic situations they had been through and ways that they were wounded. I came to realize that the struggles people experience in the city were a lot more complicated than I had first anticipated.


In this series of seeking Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City it is important not only to look at our city, our life, and our pain as we have over the last three months, but also to take a look at our own struggles. Out of our personal struggles we develop coping mechanisms that can keep us from being able to rest. One way we can learn more about facing our struggles is to look through the lens of addiction.

For a long time I was uncomfortable with the label of addiction. That was what “other people” dealt with, not me. I’m in control, I can handle myself, I am an example and a role model are statements I would make to myself.  But then I found the language and models of addiction helpful as I tried to understand more about why I struggle. Why “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” 1 as Paul would say.

Often our first assumption when we are talking about addiction is to think of drugs and alcohol. But the term for addiction can be broadened beyond addictive substances to other forms of addictive behavior as well. This could include our sexuality, eating disorders, workaholism, video games, and even being addicted to others (or co-dependency).

In their book, Healing Addiction: An Integrated Pharmacopsychosocial Approach to Treatment, authors Peter Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer define addiction as:

“a persistent, repetitive, and often irresistible self-destructive activity that, at least in the beginning, is perceived as rewarding by individuals, but that robs them of time, resources, or the motivation to do the things that are part of a balanced life and may well have been part of their lives before becoming addicted.” 2

For the purpose of this article I am defining addiction as the coping mechanisms we use to keep us from facing ourselves and God.

The more I have learned about addiction, the more I have been able to recognize that a person’s struggles are not only related to their individual decisions, but are also deeply rooted in systemic and generational issues. The philosophy of the recovery program where I worked as a counselor was that drug use can be a type of band-aid to cover over deep wounds. As counselors, we were encouraged to look beyond the addictive behavior itself to see what was going on underneath the addiction. Similarly, as urban youth workers, it’s important for us to be aware of the dynamics underlying some of our own struggles.


Every one of us is unique. We have different personalities, sensitivities, quirks, passions, triggers, and things that make us tick. Some of these distinctions are ingrained in us from birth, while others are formed as we develop. When some of our foundational development experiences are filled with hurt, we experience wounds that require us to develop ways to cope. While these coping mechanisms can get us through a moment or period of time, they can also keep us from addressing the deeper hurts. Coping mechanisms can also keep us from healthily connecting with others, including God. Two factors involved in creating coping mechanisms are our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others.


A significant period in our early individual development is from 0 to 3 years old. During this time there is a shift from being completely dependent on our parents to being able to self-regulate. Self-regulation means we can do basic things like walk, eat, and go to the bathroom on our own. It also means that we can ask for help, can feel our emotions, and safely take risks and explore. In essence, to develop the ability to self-regulate is to develop self-control.

When we don’t develop the ability to self-regulate, we tend to need something outside of ourselves in order to calm down. We can’t do it on our own. Some of our coping mechanisms have the appearance of being helpful (i.e. pouring ourselves into work, always taking care of others, or staying busy) while others we can recognize as unhelpful (drugs, eating disorders, compulsive sexuality).

Attachment Theory

Another factor connected to developing coping mechanisms is the degree to which we as children are able to trust the adults who influence us in our early years.  3 In the 1950’s, John Bowlby, studying two-year-olds left in the hospital by their parents, developed the theory of attachment. The hospitals at this time in London had highly restrictive visiting hours for parents, meaning parents were only allowed to visit with their children an average of a few hours per week. 4   Bowlby watched as the children would first protest, then experience despair, and finally would develop a coping mechanism of relational detachment. 5   When the parents returned, the children wouldn’t get excited. In the mind of the children, the parents, who had represented protection and safety, had abandoned them.  The children therefore determined they had to take care of themselves and could no longer depend on others. 6

The same type of dynamic exists today. If we experienced abandonment when we were children, we often try to stay in control and not let others close. We have a hard time developing trust.

When these two tasks of early childhood-our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others-are short-circuited, they can become sources of our coping mechanisms in adulthood. Many of our addictive struggles are rooted in the way we search for soothing in external comforts or our need to stay in control and not be hurt by others. 7


Addiction in the urban community is often underestimated and trivialized or accepted as “normal”. While it may be comforting to look around and see others with similar struggles, it does not minimize the negative effects that our struggles have on us.

Our deep need to protect ourselves and to be in control can take up much of our energy and affect our ability to minister to others. Especially when we are in ministry, sometimes it feels like everything will fall apart if we stop using our coping mechanisms. When we try to appear in control and confident but internally we feel in disarray, we cannot fully be present to others. Sometimes we get caught up in caring for others simply because we believe it is how we address our own needs. 8   These are ways that our coping mechanisms cover up our need to face ourselves, and keep us from fully experiencing rest.

One morning in Oakland, I was walking to work at the recovery program when one of the dealers on the corner asked me where I was going. I strategically told him I was “going to work,” not sure how he would respond if I told him I was a counselor at a drug recovery program. But he pressed, and I told him. He smiled and teased me by saying, “Awww, whatya tell’m, ‘just say no’?” We bantered back and forth, and then he said, “No, really, what do you tell them?” I said that I don’t tell people anything. If they want recovery, I can walk with them, and if they don’t, I won’t. He seemed pleased with my response and said, “I think I have some people I can send your way.”

Focusing on addressing our own issues requires a commitment on our part. While some of us may need professional support, and all of us need a community to journey with, 9   no one can make us deal with our struggles. It is a process of acknowledging and developing awareness, establishing a support system, and learning about our unique triggers.

I personally have a very well-established set of unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve been using my whole life. It’s always been with an implicit understanding that this is what I need to do “or else.” I never really cared to discover what the “or else” was referring to. A few years ago when I began a healing journey, I felt like I had two options. One option was to go on with my life as I had been, using my coping mechanisms. The only catch with this option is that I would now be aware that I was using coping mechanisms, and it would also mean I could never fully relax and be myself or be intimate with others. The other “or else” option was dark, unfamiliar, and completely unpredictable. To go that road felt as if I was choosing certain death. I had never related to Jesus’ painful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane more. 10

I took the counterintuitive, dark, and scary road. I have felt incredible pain from accepting the things that have been too unbearable to think about and the situations that I have felt deeply ashamed by. But I have also felt incredible freedom that comes from honesty and loving acceptance. For example, I discovered support when I began speaking to my family members about things that we never talked about before. In addition, I have been less defensive because I have started identifying the ways I can push away the people trying to care for me.

I never thought it was possible, but I have discovered that I don’t have to rely on the coping mechanisms I have always known.  They do not define me. While this is certainly a lifelong journey, as I have turned around to face myself and face God, I have experienced the “new creation” described in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “...the old has gone, the new has come!” The work of addressing my coping mechanisms has been hard and at times exhausting, but it is also what has enabled me to truly relax and enter into a Sabbath rest.

GOING DEEPER: Family System Dynamics

Another factor that affects us in our struggles with addiction is our family dynamics. Each family is different. As a kid, whenever I would use the strategy of comparing my mom to my friends’ parents to convince her to let me do something, she would say, “Other people, in other families, do other things.” As much as I came to hate that phrase, it was true-no two families are the same.


Within a family, boundaries may range from being very rigid to very loose. 11   A family member feels safe when the boundaries are dynamic enough to be rigid when they need to be rigid, and loose when they need to be loose. Unfortunately it is easier for a family to fall into one end or another of the spectrum. When family members feel too protected, this can lead to frail boundaries.  When family members feel too unprotected, this can lead to impenetrable boundaries. An inability to set appropriate boundaries leaves a person at a severe relational disadvantage when they enter into the world. It is often characteristic of those who struggle with addiction to have a difficult time setting boundaries. The kids we work with often press in on us and challenge our ability to set appropriate boundaries, which is one of the many reasons it is important to set and maintain boundaries.


Every family also has a set of rules. These include both stated agreements and silent rules that everyone internally knows, though they are never discussed. Three silent rules that can stifle family members and keep them from trusting the family system are:

  • Don’t talk.
  • Don’t feel.
  • Don’t take     responsibility (In other words, blaming, justifying, and lying are all     allowed.)

These three silent rules often appear in families with addiction.


Finally, all families develop roles for their members. There are explicit roles like mother, son, and sister, but there are many implicit roles as well. These are roles like hero, scapegoat, and mascot. In healthy families, these roles are intended to be interchangeable and shared by all the family members. In families with addiction, these roles get permanently assigned to particular members. When this happens, it limits the growth of the family member and the family as a whole.

Our families are the places where we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to be intimate with others. To do this, we need to feel safe and cared for. Boundaries, rules, and roles, when modeled to us in healthy ways, can help us feel care and safety. When children don’t learn these things in a family system, they then must go into the world without the tools they need to express themselves and connect with others. Naturally, this can lead them to struggle as adults.

Our churches or youth ministries often function just like a family system. How are we to know how to help our teenagers through their individual development, or help our young people develop attachments, or model appropriate boundaries, rules, and roles if we never learned these things ourselves? While it may be appropriate to lament these disadvantages, if we are able to focus on addressing those areas now, we can model this developmental process for any of our youth who also did not learn them.

  1. Romans 7:15, NIV.
  2. Peter R. Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg, and Bonnie K. Bealer, Healing Addiction: An Integrated Pharmacopsychosocial Approach to Treatment (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007), 3.
  3. For further study on Attachment Theory see: Bretherton, Inge. “The Origin of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.” Developmental Psychology 28:759-775, 1992.
  4. A 1949 survey of London hospitals visiting hours ranged from a few hours once or twice a week, to not at all. In two of the hospitals parents could not interact with their children at all, only view them through a partition or while they were sleeping (Munro-Davies, H.G. ‘Visits to Children in Hospital’, Spectator, March 18, 1949. Found at:
  5. Overview of the findings of the study Robertson, J., & Bowlby, J. “Responses of young children to separation from their mothers,” Courrier of the International Children’s Centre, Paris, II, 1952, 131-140. Found in Inge Bretherton, “The Origin of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28:759-775, 1992.
  6. “Bowlby maintained that infants and children experience separation anxiety when a situation activates both escape and attachment behavior but an attachment figure is not available” (Inge Bretherton, 763).
  7. Another factor that can have a big influence on us is our family dynamics, see “Family Dynamics” sidebar.
  8. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, recognized that a person’s “disposition toward compulsive caregiving may derive from the redirection of attachment behavior. The individual may be taking the role of attachment figure instead of seeking care” (Bretherton, 764).
  9. “If people are ready for the changes that come with treatment, they must make a commitment to persevere until their addiction is under control and they can lead a productive life. This perseverance must include a commitment to relationships with others with whom they engage in the journey of recovery. Addiction is a lonely state focused on an illness; recovery involves broadening patients’ horizons, including developing relationships with others that allow them to grow beyond the myopic concerns of repetitive harmful behaviors.” Peter Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer, Healing Addiction, 5.
  10. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Luke 22:42, NIV.
  11. See the article entitled “Your Life: Finding space to love God, your neighbor and yourself in the city” for more on the topic of boundaries.

Your Pain

Six Lenses to Help

Mar 02, 2009 Jude Tiersma Watson

Photo by Shandi-lee.

“Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional. It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble. Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.” Bishop Desmond Tutu 1

In this series, Sabbath rest in a 24/7 city, we have been looking at factors that keep us from Sabbath rest, and ways that we can find healthy rhythms even in a city that never stops. This month we will look at how the pain and suffering in the city keep us from Sabbath rest.

Pain in the City: Layers of Pain and Loss

“Suffering is not optional.”

These words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu may not surprise us when we consider his pain-filled role in the struggle to end apartheid in South   Africa. Those of us who have given our lives to work with urban youth also know about the suffering Tutu writes about. We see the brokenness around us, the traumas some our kids have to live with, the lack of resources that is part of everyday life, and the many losses experienced in urban families.

When I first moved to central Los Angeles, I expected some sacrifices and struggle. I imagined that my suffering would stem from my adjustment to an environment that looked very different than the one in which I grew up.

But trading cow manure for cockroaches was not that big of a deal after all.  The streets that felt so “other” and foreign soon became home as I rooted myself in both a missional community and the neighborhood. This neighborhood that appeared so filled with fear looked different on the inside. Within a few months, I became used to many aspects of the environment and it began to feel like home. The warm welcome from my neighbors helped.

Yet there was an unexpected source of suffering far greater than the new environment: the real-life stories of my new friends’ suffering and pain.  Listening as kids and families poured out their stories of pain, trauma and loss became more difficult the longer I lived and made my home in the city.

As youth workers faced with daily pain in the city, we need tools to navigate the landscape of suffering, as well as tools to deal with our own faith struggles as we encounter this pain.

Six Lenses to Help Navigate the Landscape of Pain and Suffering

The questions about suffering are not unique to life in the city, but they are often magnified in urban life. Historically, many have tried to make sense of the problem of evil and suffering in the world. These attempts have been called theodicies. The word theodicy is specifically related to the problem of evil. We see evil and suffering around us in the world, yet we know that God is a good God, who is also all-powerful. How do we reconcile this? This is the work of theodicy.

The following are six different approaches, or lenses, that we can use to view the relationship between suffering and God. A lens is a way of seeing and interpreting reality, and this is what we need when we encounter pain.

The Free Will Lens: Free Will Theodicy

This approach is the oldest lens as it dates back to the early history of the church. God is indeed a good God, all-powerful and all-knowing. God created a good creation, which included giving humankind free will. Evil exists in the world not because of God. Evil exists because of human sinful choices. This free will lens is primarily a rational theodicy whose purpose is to defend God as a good God in a world where there is so much obvious evil. Those who are suffering may not find it satisfying because it offers little comfort to the sufferer.  2

The Lens of Encounter: Encounter Theodicy

In the “encounter” approach, the one who is in pain is encouraged to continually cry out to God for God’s justice, in the tradition of the Old Testament. “The hope of this justice is lived in the moment through incessantly questioning God and refusing to accept life’s circumstances.”  3 The reason for suffering is actually to encounter God. The point of the questioning is not necessarily to find consolation, but rather to find God. We see this lens lived out in the story of Job. Job felt free to protest and question God when he encountered suffering. His experience of suffering did not fit with the God he knew. And he lets God know. He does not back off, but continues to encounter God in his suffering.

The Lens of the Compassionate God: A Suffering God Theodicy

In this approach, God is not left unmoved by our pain and suffering. Rather, God is the compassionate God who enters into suffering with us. This is the lens that reminds us that “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35, Lk 19:41) and God the Father grieves the loss of the Son. In the gospels, the phrase “moved with compassion” is found twelve times, always in reference to Jesus or his Father. According to Nouwen et al in their book Compassion: A Reflection of the Christian Life, the actual Greek word refers to something that is not a passing sympathy, but rather is located deep in the gut, felt in the deepest place of our being.

[The Greek concept of compassion] 4 is related to the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamin, which refers to the womb of Yahweh. Indeed, compassion is such a deep, central and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God….When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself.  5

This lens leads us into the embrace of the compassionate, loving God who understands our suffering because he too has suffered.

The Lens of Character Development: A Soul-Building Theodicy

In this approach, we accept that suffering produces character that cannot come to us any other way.  In other words, through suffering the soul is built in ways that would not happen without suffering. In Romans 5:3, we are told to rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which then leads to hope. Likewise, scripture informs us that “All things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

So through this lens, God allows evil because of the growth that will come from it. This is reflected in the life of Joseph when his brothers sold him into slavery. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20).  6

The Spiritual Warfare Lens: A Warfare Theodicy

While the previous four lenses can all be helpful in their own way, they all seem to neglect an important reality. God does exist, but so does Satan. In God at War, Gregory Boyd describes a worldview that acknowledges that there is evil in the world, but does not try to justify God in relationship to this evil.  7  Rather, in this view, although Satan has been ultimately defeated on the cross, he still has power and wants to destroy God’s children. In some cultures, evil events and suffering are therefore blamed on the work of Satan, who “roams around like a prowling lion” (1 Peter 5:8) to destroy the work of God.

The Relationship Lens: A Posture of Trust

Some of the lenses above try to give answers to how there can be evil and suffering in the world when God is good and powerful. In the relationship lens, the focus is not on a theodicy of figuring out answers, but instead on a posture of trust. Because God is God, and we are human, there is much that we cannot understand. This lens protects us from the disillusionment that can come when simple answers fall short.

One of my urban friends talks about this disillusionment. 8 In a conversation we were having about his pain and his view of God I asked him if he questioned God and God’s goodness. He said:

Yes, for a few years I had a hard time because I suffered so much. You’re given this faith, like an egg, and it crumbles in the hardship of life. You’re brought up to think one way, and then it cracks. And what do you have left? So you are in a crisis. I had to come to realize that Jesus is with me in the struggle, that I need to hold on to Jesus.

The Need for Multiple Theodicy Lenses

Our lenses shape how we act and respond to pain and suffering, even if we don’t acknowledge that we’re looking through them. Sometimes to make life simpler we’re tempted to hold tightly to one perspective. But this can be dangerous when our lens doesn’t seem to explain what we’re experiencing, or when the way we hold onto only one lens causes us to misunderstand or critique others because they view things differently.

We need different lenses to help us see a broader perspective. And we may need to adjust them throughout life, depending on our evolving circumstances and our growing faith. Having more sets of lenses gives us more ways to interpret a difficult reality.

Some of us may find several lenses helpful at the same. The lenses do not necessarily exclude each other.  We can embrace the suffering God, cry out to God in protest, while also rationally understanding how human choices have led to so much suffering in the world.

It is helpful to understand different lenses of theodicy, but we also need help navigating our response to suffering. How do we respond to these layers of pain?

Choosing a Path in the Landscape of Pain and Suffering

Pain and suffering are givens in this life, but our response is not. Tutu tells us that pain can either embitter or ennoble. So what will be our response to pain? Responding is not a one-time decision but a way of life, a way of choosing life over death (Deut. 30:19).

Numbing Out or Facing It

Numbing our pain is a huge temptation and our culture gives us many ways to do this. We take a pain reliever at first sign of a headache, and rub Ben Gay at the first sign that our muscles ache. We try to do that with our hearts also. We can fill our lives with food, video games, shopping or drugs that keep us from feeling our pain. Sometimes this can even lead to addictions (we will focus more on this topic next month). Facing pain takes courage, and it is not something we were meant to do alone.

Isolation or Relationship

Pain can isolate us. We can feel that we are alone, and no one understands our struggles. Pain can cause us to feel distant from God and other people. But it is precisely at this point that we need each other. One young friend of mine who suffered much trauma growing up, when asked how his life was different now, responded, “I don’t have to suffer alone anymore.” The scriptures confirm this. We are told to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). When we do, we find the burden is much lighter.

Pretending or Lamenting

Some of us grew up in churches in which it seemed we had to be OK all the time. We learned to pretend to be OK even when we weren’t. But God can handle our anger, doubt and struggle when things fall apart. Rather than pretend, the scriptures call us to lament. Few of us have grown up with prayers of lament. The Psalms model this kind of prayer. These are raw Psalms that cry out to God in the midst of suffering and doubt, both in mourning and in protest. They show us that we can take these difficult emotions straight to the throne of God and be heard. They demand to be heard. We are allowed to question God in the midst of pain 9

All of the above responses are just that: chosen response rather than our first reaction. In order to respond rather than react, we need to take a step back. This brings us back to the theme in our series, Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City. Cities leave little room for space and reflection, and so we need to carve out the space even when we think life is already full. As we work on establishing rhythms that include rest and withdrawal from ministry, we will also have the space to face our pain, and try on a few lenses to see if they are helpful to us.

As we take space for prayer in the midst of our suffering, in time we will find the transforming grace of God at work in our lives. This grace we can then pass on to the youth we care about so much.

  1. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream (Image books, 2004) 71.
  2. Note: the first four theodicy categories are adapted from Hall and Johnson, “Theodicy and Therapy: Philosophical/Theological Contributions to the Problem of Suffering.” In Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 2001, Vo. 20. No. 1, 5-17.
  3. Hall and Johnson, 8.
  4. The Greek word is splangchnizomai, meaning “to be moved with pity or compassion.”  See Matthew 9:36.
  5. Henri Nouwen et al, Compassion: A Reflection of the Christian Life, Image/Doubleday, 1982, 16-17.
  6. A note of caution - one of the characteristics of pain and suffering is that it can cause us to feel powerless in the face of the pain. We cannot tell someone else who is suffering that God is building their character, even if that is the case. Youth come to us because they need someone to listen first. Later they may realize God has used the suffering to transform them, but that may not be appropriate early on after a loss or trauma. This is not our role, but the role of the Holy Spirit.
  7. Gregory A.  Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, IVP, 1997. See also, Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.
  8. My friend was born in Central America and arrived in the United States when he was a teenager. He has worked with urban children and youth through the public school district, urban boy scouts and through sports.  See the “Going Deeper” interview on the [intlink id=“3481” type=“post”]toolkit page[/intlink] under Month 3 for more of his story.
  9. Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square (Brown and Miller, eds., WJK, 2005), xv.  Also see [intlink id=“235” type=“post”]this article[/intlink] on trauma and lament by Brad Griffin and Cynthia Eriksson.

Your Life

Finding Space to Love God, Your Neighbor, and Yourself in the City

Feb 02, 2009 Jude Tiersma WatsonKimberly Williams

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbor as yourself.”

(Matthew 22:37, 39).

If you’re like me (Kimberly), you hear these commands as “love God and love your neighbor” and you overlook the rest of Jesus’ teachings, particularly the “as yourself” part. If I were to literally love my neighbors in the way I love myself then I probably wouldn’t let them sleep when they were tired, would give them more responsibilities and expectations than they could handle, and deprive them of water when they were thirsty.

As a leader, I find it difficult to carve out space and energy to care for myself.  It has always been easier for me to care for others instead. While this is true for many, this seems to be especially true for those of us living and working in urban environments. Amidst so much need, we think, I’m okay, and others need to be attended to more than I do. Many of us have been thinking like this for so long that we often don’t even recognize we’re doing it anymore.


This is not the way of Jesus. Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus is found retreating into solitude, finding time for prayer, and nourishing himself in the presence of the Father. 1   Thelma Hall, in her book Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, notices this practice of Jesus, “In Jesus’ life this prayer and action follow one another in a rhythm which seems as constant as the inhaling and exhaling of breathing.” 2   For Jesus, life is made up of both outward and inward movements. He is caring for himself as he is loving others.

Jesus also models this for his disciples. In Mark 6:31-32, Jesus notices that his disciples are not getting a chance to eat because there are so many people coming and going. So he says to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Jesus is not only concerned about the crowds, but also his disciples. He wants us to eat, to rest, to be with him. This rhythm is rooted deeply in the life of Jesus.


In Month 1 of our Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City series, Jude describes some of the external factors that make life in the city stressful.  This article explains the “environmental press” and the “everyday harassments” that can weigh on urban dwellers. In addition to external factors, urban youth workers also have multiple internal factors that contribute to the stress they experience.

In a study by the Fuller Youth Institute entitled “Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress, Spirituality, and Support,” urban youth ministry workers identified chronic stressors and “modifiable” organizational stressors that they experience. “Difficulty finding time for rest and relaxation” made both of these lists.

Several factors contribute to this dynamic. Urban youth workers juggle many roles and responsibilities. We spend time with kids, walk with them through the crises of life, and want to get to know their friends and families. Knowing how much the environment impacts youth, we want to work toward community transformation. To work toward community transformation, we need to be networking. In addition to all of these responsibilities within the youth worker role, we also have families, go to school, lead ministries at church, and perhaps work another job to make ends meet. Furthermore, youth workers who are local leaders from the city often help carry the responsibility of family of origin finances. Sometimes these roles conflict with each other, and we feel great internal tension.

No wonder we feel exhausted.

Another reason it can be difficult is our lack of boundaries. Unlike therapists, teachers, or social workers, youth workers do not have jobs with set hours and boundaries. Relationships and crises interrupt our schedules and intentions. We respond quickly because we want to be - and often need to be - readily available. In their book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend recognize that “we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t.” 3 Setting these boundaries can be a struggle, but what urban youth worker doesn’t want to be able to distinguish what is and isn’t our responsibility?  4

The words of Wayne Muller give further insight into why rest is difficult and the resulting consequences: “Because we do not rest we lose our way…Poisoned by the hypnotic belief that good things come only through unceasing determination and tireless effort, we can never truly rest. And for want of rest, our lives are in danger.” 5 This danger manifests itself in every area of our lives, not least in our bodies themselves. 6


Most urban youth workers long for a life that is sustainable over the long haul. Might it actually be possible to love and serve youth without feeling overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time? What might it look like if our bodies were rested, our spirits refreshed, and our hearts encouraged?  What can we learn from Jesus about a life that is sustainable in the city, in which we love ourselves as well as our neighbors?


Following the rhythms of Jesus first means we examine the way that we are outwardly interacting with others.  This part of Jesus’ rhythm comes easily to many urban youth workers. We desire to be the hands and feet, even the heart of Jesus for urban youth. This is what gets us up in the morning. We know what it means to express our love of God through loving our youth.

Our problem is that we often do this until we have nothing left to give. Well-known spiritual leader Henri Nouwen learned that unless we create space for solitude in our busy world, “we will lose our soul while we help others.” 7   That’s why the second part of Jesus’ rhythm is so vitally important.


The other side of the rhythm is the inward movement. Jesus spent a lot of time among the crowds and with his disciples, but he also withdrew to be alone and pray. His was a regular habit of withdrawing after spending time in ministry. 8

If we look at this through the lens of our roles, one role Jesus took seriously was his relationship as the Beloved Son of God. 9   Jesus took time to be in communion with his Father. Jesus was many things to many people -Teacher, Healer, Savior. Yet he did not neglect his role as God’s beloved Son.

How would our lives change if we took our role as God’s beloved children as seriously as our other roles, or even gave it priority?  Perhaps this would not mean we are neglecting our call as youth workers, but rather more fully living into that call.

What does this inward movement look like in the city? Jesus went away to “lonely places,” places where he could be by himself or with his disciples in solitude. Are there spots in your city that might serve this same function? This might be a location in your own home, such as a designated chair for prayer, or a literal prayer closet. Other possibilities might include a nearby retreat center, a chapel in the local hospital or a local church open for prayer. 10

Once we leave that place of solitude, how do we carry the experience of solitude back into the noisy city? Perhaps we can think of the noises of the city as calls to prayer rather than distractions. Sirens and helicopters can call our attention to God in that moment.  Our time on the train, bus, or in the car can also become a place of communion with God, as well as intercession for those around us.


Jesus may never have discussed boundaries with his disciples. Yet Jesus did model when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. In his doctoral study of the rhythms of Jesus, Dr. Paul Jensen, Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, highlights the story captured in Mark 4:42. At daybreak, Jesus withdraws to a lonely place. The people were looking for him, and when they found him, they tried to keep him from leaving them. Jesus, however, tells them that he must leave. He must go and preach the gospel of the Kingdom in Judea, which is why he had come. 11   Notice how he had to say “no” to the pull of the people in order to maintain a focus on his ultimate call.

When we spend time in solitude and the urgency of ministry fades, we are able to listen to God’s still small voice. Some of what seemed so urgent falls into perspective. Knowing when to say “no” and when to say “yes” tend to become less of a struggle.

Odds are good that kids in our ministries respect many things about us.  They often want to mirror who we are in their own character and relationships. What an opportunity that instead of modeling a stress-filled life, we can model the rhythms of Jesus. Besides caring for ourselves as we take on these rhythms, we will also be loving our kids as we live in sustainable patterns that they can adopt into their own lives as they move toward healthy adulthood.


A rhythm is a rhythm because of its movement of ebbs and flows. Once we catch a rhythm, it begins to carry us along despite ourselves. By taking rhythms seriously and taking time to love ourselves as well as our kids, we may then also be able to love God more. If we are experiencing rhythms of work and rest, then we may have more to give to God. As we create space to care for ourselves and learn to set boundaries, perhaps others will actually want us to love them the way we love ourselves.


  1. What in the article most     resonated with your experience?
  2. Think of an     experience when failure to care for yourself impacted you, your family, or     your ministry. Can you picture how this might work in reverse - when making     space to care for yourself could have a positive impact on you, your     family or your ministry?
  3. Find a copy of one or     more of the books footnoted or FYI articles highlighted in this article.    Spend some time reading and reflecting on the practices suggested for     creating boundaries and health in ministry.  Another good resource is Carmen Renee     Berry’s When Helping You is Hurting     Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap (San Francisco: Harper Books, 1988).

To access the monthly practices designed as follow-ups to this article, as well as additional resources from the Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City urban ministry toolkit, CLICK HERE.

  1. There are many examples of Jesus taking some time to rest and pray.  See for example: Mt 14:13, 23-24, 15:29, 17:1; Mk 6:31, 7:24; Lk 4:42, 6:12, 9:10, 22:41.
  2. Thelma Hall, r.c. Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1988, 13.
  3. Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 25.
  4. Those sensitive to cross-cultural questions will wonder how many of these principles apply in other cultures and contexts. Many cultures do not have a category for saying no, especially to family. One young woman from another culture who tried to apply the principles of boundaries was accused of becoming too individualistic and “too American.” Research is needed to determine how much of the literature on boundaries is universal, and what is culture-specific.
  5. Quoted by Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, (Carol Stream: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 55.
  6. Doctors have thought for years that stress has a major impact on our health, but the research of Esther Sternberg has shown clear evidence of the connection between emotional stress and physical health. Sternberg has shown how stress moves from good stress to bad stress and then negatively impacts our immune system. (Sternberg, Esther, The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (New York: Freeman and Co, 2001).
  7. Henri Nouwen, Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry, Ave  Maria Press, 1988, Tape 1, “Solitude”.
  8. Paul Jensen describes this rhythm in Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission through the Collapse of Space and Time (Pickwick Press, in press).
  9. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Crossroad Publishing, 2002.
  10. For more ideas on finding Sabbath rest in the urban environment, see Kimberly Williams, “[intlink id=“106” type=“post”]Rest in the City.[/intlink]”
  11. L. Paul Jensen, Subversive Spirituality: Transforming Mission through the Collapse of Space and Time (Pickwick, in press).

Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City

A Journey for Urban Youth Workers

Jan 05, 2009 Jude Tiersma Watson

Photo by Luis Hernandez.

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11: 28-30 (The Message)

Welcome to “Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City,” a five month journey toward finding God’s rest in the midst of urban ministry. If you live or minister in an urban context, you know that the city is a place where life never stops. Stores and restaurants are open 24 hours a day, and the needs of people never quit either.

Given that, how do we as youth workers find rest in the midst of a 24/7 city? How do we stop when the city never does? What does it mean to care for ourselves when the needs of others can overwhelm us? We know that the greatest commandments are to love God first, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But in reality, some of us are better at loving our neighbors and the kids we work with than ourselves.  We often love our neighbors instead of ourselves, and then find ourselves worn out and exhausted.

Month 1—Your Community: The City as a Unique Context for Ministry

Our lives do not exist in a vacuum, but are lived out among specific people in specific places. Ministry in any context has its challenges, but the city context has some unique challenges that can drain our energy. Being aware of how these dynamics press down on us and deplete us can help us to take steps toward a healthier life.

I remember returning home to Los Angeles after I had been away from the city at my brother’s house in Santa Barbara.  As I approached Los Angeles, I felt my body go into an “alert” stage. Suddenly the traffic became dense and I became a more defensive driver. I stopped for gas and had to decide which of a handful of people who were homeless could wash my windows (for a fee).  When I visited the grocery store, the parking lot was nearly full, and someone almost backed into my car. I noticed how dirty the streets were, and felt assaulted by the smells and sounds on all sides, even overhead as the helicopters circled. The line at the ATM was long, as were the lines in other stores. When I arrived home, I found a parking space on my street, amazed at my good fortune, only to be reminded by my neighbors that I would get a ticket since it was street cleaning day. I had forgotten how much energy it takes to just live in the city.

The average urban context comes with noise, smells, crowds, and long lines that would not be tolerated in more affluent areas. We often overlook the impact of these seemingly small irritations, sometimes called the “everyday harassments” of urban life, but their cumulative effect takes its toll on us.

In addition to these everyday harassments, ministry in the city is filled with the “big dramas” of life as well-the joys and struggles of life that we share with our youth and their families. Together they create an “environmental press” that can weigh upon us more than we realize.

The term “environmental press” comes from the work of developmentalist Urie Bronfenbrenner and refers to the shaping influences of the forces in our environment. 1 According to one researcher, “environmental press” is “the combined influence of forces working in a setting to shape the behavior and development of people in that setting.” 2

For example, imagine a single working mother of three who lives in an urban setting and does not let her children play outside because of the dangers in the streets. The children must then spend most of their time in their small apartment. The children begin to play video games and watch more television. Over time they may develop patterns that can lead to obesity and related health problems.  These behaviors emerged, however, as adaptations due to the lack of a safe place to play.

Forces in the City’s “Environmental Press”

What are some of the elements of urban life that press upon us as urban youth workers?  One reality of the city is space. Space is used differently in cities from other areas, because there is less of it. More people tend to occupy the same space, thus there is less room for green, parking, playgrounds, and privacy. This lack of space also means that our lives can feel like we live in a fishbowl-a fishbowl without curtains. 3

The city is a place of stimulus overload. According to Stanley Milgram, this stimulation is a result of the great amount of input and stimulation that comes with urban living. 4 Overload seems to have become a way of life in the information age, affecting people in many locations, but the physical environment of the city presses in on us in ways that are not true of other environments.

The city is a diverse place. This diversity is one of the great appeals of the city and yet it also means that we may need to operate outside our comfort zone.  We expect cultural stress when we travel overseas, but it can also be a part of life in cities within the United States in which various cultures often live next to each other—literally. We are confronted daily with new and unfamiliar ways of life. A common language can no longer be assumed. Role expectations for men and women might be different than we are used to. People’s sense of personal space differs from culture to culture, as well as their boundaries around what is private and public. Women may find they receive a lot of attention they may not want. Tensions can develop about what we value and how we use time and space. 5

The city is a place of struggle and injustice. Perhaps the aspect of city life that one never gets used to—and should never get used to—is the daily encounter with the struggle to survive. We find ourselves surrounded by people barely making it, and this can weigh upon us. There are the day laborers waiting for work, grandmothers as well as people who are homeless scouring for cans and bottles, unemployed neighbors, young leaders dropping out of college because the family needs their income, and friends who are evicted or deported. Then there are the more blatant injustices faced regularly by those whose skin is not white. Injustice and struggle in the city is an unrelenting, 24/7 event. Hope seems to be in short supply. 6

The city is a place of projected stereotypes. The media, from news reports to Hollywood, loves to portray cities in their most negative light. This anti-urban bias is deeply ingrained in our country; the American Dream, in the minds of most people, is not an urban dream. 7

Yet those of us who love the city know that it is a place of deep and rich relationships, where neighbors look out for each other, and where moms look after neighborhood kids in addition to their own kids. We know the joys of participating in family celebrations, as well as the shared sorrow during tragedies. Thus for urban youth workers, these negative portrayals in the media can add to the stress in our lives.  This was confirmed by the recent FYI Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project in which urban youth workers nationwide ranked “frustration with portrayals of urban life in media” their second greatest source of stress.

The city is also a place of complexity. One day we are rejoicing with the good choices of one of our kids, the next day someone is dropping out of school. One day our heart is filled with joy, the next day sorrow.

The City as the Place of God’s Transformation

And yet finally and most importantly, the city is the place of God’s transformation. The city environment presses in, but it is God who wants to form us and make into God’s people. Certainly the city can be a place where we keep so busy there is no space for God. But the city can also be the place where God works transformation in our lives. Because of the struggles of life, it can become the place where we encounter ourselves, encounter our God, and where God can lead us to places of healing and growth.

Franciscan Priest and author Richard Rohr believes that the two primary means of transformation in our lives are suffering and prayer. 8 The city faces us with the suffering of our world. Rather than avoid that suffering or allow it to embitter us, we can allow God to use it to transform us. The avenue for this is prayer.

It’s interesting to me that classic literature on spiritual formation, which tends to have emerged from non-urban settings, has missed the power of the city in divine transformation.  Rarely do spiritual formation materials encourage us to look for God in the press of the city, in the noise of sirens and helicopters and among the crowds. The waterfalls and mountains on the cover of devotional books at the local Christian bookstore seem to suggest that God is found more easily outside the city. It may take some time to develop eyes to see how God reveals himself within the city. But if we do, the city can increasingly become the location of our transformation.

In order to help each of us experience God’s transformation in the midst of the city, we will be offering you far more than articles in this “Sabbath Rest” series.  With each of our five articles, including this one, we’ll offer you four weeks’ worth of exercises.  You can do them by yourself, or you can do them with some friends or fellow youth workers.  You can do one per week, or develop a pace that fits the ups and downs of your schedule.

The city never sleeps, but our God invites us to rest.  Amen to that!

To access more resources from the Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City urban ministry toolkit, CLICK HERE.

  1. For more on the ecology of human development, see the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner, The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979) and James Garbarino. For an excellent explanation of this model, see Garbarino, Children and Families in the Social Environment (Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction, 1992), especially Chapter 2.
  2. James Garbarino, Children and Families, 12.
  3. For more research on urban space, see Dan Hodge, “The Place and Space of the Hood” on the FYI website.
  4. Stanley Milgram, “The Experience of Living in Cities,” Science (167:3924), 1461-1468.
  5. For an excellent look at various cultural tensions and how we respond to them, see Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers, Ministering Cross-culturally: An incarnational model for personal relationships (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003).
  6. Learning to engage issues and formulate justice-oriented responses can seem overwhelming, whether you live in the city or elsewhere.  FYI has created a host of resources addressing these concerns, available at our Deep Justice page (including a book by the same name).
  7. For more on the anti-urban bias, see Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, & the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).
  8. Richard Rohr, Hidden Things: Scripture as Spirituality (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008).

God of the Generations

Raising Up Leaders in the City

Jan 04, 2008 Jude Tiersma Watson

Is there hope for the city?

This question is often asked after some high-profile urban crisis.  While that’s not a bad question, I know a better one.

What is the city’s greatest hope?

As someone who has spent twenty years in the city of Los Angeles, I can immediately answer that question.  Born on a dairy farm in the Netherlands, raised on a dairy farm in rural California, not an urban gene in my heritage, I moved into the city.  With the call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) in the city, it did not take long to realize that the best hope of transformation would come not through me or our team of relocated leaders, but through the amazing young people we were coming to know.  While God works through all sorts of leaders, some of my greatest hope for the city comes from those who grew up in the city and choose to stay there as indigenous leaders. 1

Layers of Leaders

Other types of leaders are also active in the city.  In their seminal text, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God, Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz cite three types of urban leaders. 2 The first are the relocated leaders.  These are often non-urbanites who have sensed a call to move into the urban context to live alongside the poor and to serve in the city.  Relocated leaders can play a key role, if they walk with humility and recognize the central role of other types of leaders.

According to Conn and Ortiz, another form of leader is the multiethnic leadership team. These teams are often found as pastoral teams of large urban churches. These teams can be effective at crossing the cultural divides between various ethnic groups.

The third type is the focus of this article, the indigenous leaders. These are the folks who grew up in the urban context. For these leaders, the city is not a cross-cultural context, it is their life—the very air they breathe.

In addition to this typology from Conn and Ortiz, I believe a fourth type of leader is important to recognize as similar to, but nonetheless distinct from, indigenous leaders. This person is culturally similar to those in a particular urban context, perhaps speaking the same language, but this is not their home turf.  An educated Argentine may speak Spanish, and be culturally near immigrants from Mexico, but they are not indigenous to the U.S. urban context. Another example is a ministry that is looking for a leader for an African American ministry, and ends up hiring a Nigerian.  While these folks certainly have an important part to play, it is helpful to distinguish them from indigenous leaders.

Gleanings from FYI research

Through the research of the Urban Empowerment Project (an initiative to develop competencies in urban youth workers that includes an [intlink id=“41” type=“post”  target=“_blank”]Urban Youth Ministry Certificate Program[/intlink]), FYI conducted interviews with a variety of exemplary urban youth ministries. This article will highlight the most pertinent themes that emerged from this research.

The priority of relationships over programs is a theme that was echoed by many ministries. Programs have their place and can accomplish many things, but programs by themselves don’t change people. Relationships change people—their relationship with God, with a mentor, and with others in their community. Relationships provide the unconditional love that is life-transforming.  Youth workers who are effective at indigenous urban leadership development (IULD) recognize that programs then flow from the relationships rather than attempting to fit people into programs that may or may not suit them.

One way to do this is through mentoring relationships. Mentoring and coaching relationships can be a lifeline for a young person. Some youth will find the one-hour-a-week approach adequate, but for others, this will not be nearly enough. Effective groups take a more whole-life approach.  After all, Jesus spent more than one hour per week with his disciples.

We must also remember that like the African proverb reminds us, it does in fact take a village or community to raise a child.  If a kid’s only support is their mentor, what happens when that mentor leaves? Youth also need a broader community in which they belong. Finding a church community that can embrace these emerging leaders can be a challenge, but one that we must keep working on. Another aspect of community is the networks of relationships that embed a young person. As we know from James Garbarino’s groundbreaking work, when these are strengthened and interconnected, the chances of thriving are increased. 3

Flowing from the theme on the importance of relationships is the time commitment needed to facilitate urban youth becoming leaders.   Soon after I began hanging out with neighborhood kids, they began asking me how long I planned to stick around. The message was clear—if they were going to trust me, they needed to know that I wouldn’t be taking the next Greyhound out of town. This theme is also found in Lyle Schaller’s City Center Churches. 4 Schaller looks at what contributes to the success of urban churches, and finds that one of the key characteristics is pastors who stayed for many years, even decades, in the same location. Many of the ministries we spoke with also had leaders who had committed for many years and had grown along with the ministries. An example is Kit Danley of Neighborhood Ministries in Phoenix, who has been guiding this ministry more than two decades and is now seeing the next generation take the helm of leadership.

This long-term approach is counter-cultural within our society. Ours is a culture that wants things done now, but God is never in the same hurry that we are. God works in and through the generations. The story of God forming his people in the Old Testament takes many twists and turns over many generations. Young people need time for the things of God to truly take root. We need to be people who extend grace to others, as God continually does with us. God is a God of generations, not two-year plans. This generational perspective allows us to walk with urban youth through the passages of life, to see the bigger picture of what God is doing, not only within them, but in their entire families and networks, for now and for the generations to come.

Raising Up Stay-ers?

Another theme that arose from the research, and one of the tensions of urban leadership development, is the question of whether youth need to stay in or leave the neighborhood. The ideal of IULD says to the indigenous leader, “Stay, you are needed here.” However, that is a choice that we cannot make for them. We must be careful not to pressure through guilt, when in fact the circumstances of the street do make it difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to remain in the neighborhood.

It is hard for those not from the city to understand how strong the pressures and allures of the streets can be.  The distinction between those who are living a street life and the rest of the neighborhood are often blurred—the gang member is the kid I grew up with, or my cousin. Additionally, there often is no place else to go. If the entire family lives in a very small space, the corner may be the only place to hang out. The entertainment options available to those in the suburbs with more economic resources often aren’t available in a poorer neighborhood. I have known several moms who have bought their sons video games to keep them indoors.

Some do make it off the streets without leaving the neighborhood, but others need to leave, at least for a time. Young people must be able to make that decision without losing the support of those who love them. If we hold only to the ideal of IULD, without considering the needs of a particular young person, we may end up sacrificing them for the sake of ministry. We always must remember that the youth belong to God, not to us. Faced with overwhelming needs, it is easy to believe that this person is so needed as a leader in the ministry that we can’t let them go.  But when we do, we may find them returning, or making a difference elsewhere as leaders within their spheres of influence as mechanics, nurses, or teachers.

Challenges for Indigenous Leaders

While local leaders have great advantages as they minister, there are also some added challenges. When a relocated leader sets boundaries, the boundaries may be accepted, as this person is seen as culturally different. But for a local, setting limits can be an offense. They are expected to be available at all hours. Also within their families, there are expectations and demands that can increase the challenges. The family may look to them for economic, social, or spiritual support, and these burdens can be significant at times. While many relocated leaders have families supporting them through college, indigenous leaders are often a key source of support and strength in their own families.

This leads to one of the more challenging areas of IULD: the lack of economic resources. Many urban young people need to contribute to the family income, so volunteering in a ministry is not an option for them. Those who work for groups that use the personal support-raising model have an added challenge. This model assumes a social network with significant resources. What does this look like if a local leader does not have the network to raise support? How do we bring them into the ministry without creating new dependencies? These questions are not easily resolved.

Empowering to Lead

One theme that underlies all the other themes in the IULD paradigm is empowerment. Exemplary churches and ministries give youth a sense of agency in the world, to help them see that they can be agents of transformation in their world. Facilitating the raising up of local leaders is the ultimate way that this empowering and the subsequent transformation take place.

Often youth workers who are not from the urban context want to help and to serve. So these well-intentioned non-locals start doing things FOR people instead of coming alongside people. This makes us feel good, but does not provide a permanent solution. If we look through the lens of indigenous urban leadership development, we are not asking “What can I do?” but “How can I come alongside those already in the community who know it from the inside, the ones God is raising up to be the leaders of transformation in their own communities?” If we remember to look through this lens, we can also be partners in this transformation, working together to create a city full of hope for the generations to come.

Action Points

  • Look in a Bible concordance or do an online search at on the term “generations”.  What does God say in the scriptures about generations?  What do we do with that when it comes to thinking about our timing and schedules (either explicit or implicit) for leadership development?
  • How are you balancing the need for results in ministry with patiently acknowledging that God often works slowly over time in ministry?  What’s most frustrating about serving a “God of generations”?  What’s most hopeful and exciting?
  • What kinds of leaders are most represented in your ministry and/or in your neighborhood context?  Gather some students and adults and ask how they feel about the level of diversity represented in your personal and team leadership, and consider developing a plan for more effective indigenous leadership development.
  • Download this chart (16 KB PDF) and use it as a discussion tool for your ministry team.  Do you tend toward developing indigenous leadership or toward outside or relocated leadership?  What’s good about your tendency?  What might be problematic about it?
  • How is your ministry wrestling with some of the difficult issues raised in the IULD chart?  How should your ministry be wrestling with some of these issues?

Additional Audio Resources for this Article:

Kara Powell interviews Rudy Carrasco (mp3) on IULD
Jude Tiersma Watson and Dan Hodge teach on IULD (mp3) for our [intlink id=“41” type=“post”  target=“_blank”]Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program[/intlink].

  1. While there are some problems with the term “indigenous” since it is also the term for First Nations people who are native to America (often also referred to as Native Americans), it is the term popularized by John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and has roots in the history of mission. A similar term is “local leaders”, and the two will be used interchangeably here.
  2. Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 379 ff.
  3. For more on Garbarino’s work on the ecological niches that make up a child’s world, see Garbarino et al, Children and Families in the Social Environment (2nd ed, Edison, NJ: Transaction, 1992).For a brief summary of Garbarino’s work, see Jude Tiersma Watson, “[intlink id=“112” type=“post”  target=“_blank”]We Have Forgotten That We Belong To Each Other[/intlink].”
  4. Lyle E. Schaller, ed, Center City Churches: The New Urban Frontier (Ministry for the Third Millennium Series, Nashville: Abingdon, 1993).

Toward Deeper Justice for All

The Urban Social Justice Report

Jun 25, 2007 Kara Powell

NOTE: This article has an accompanying FREE downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available as a pdf (86 KB—you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download this resource. Click here to download Acrobat for free).

The singers, sponsors, and fans of “American Idol” give back…to the tune of $70 million.

“Evan Almighty” floats into our movie theatres and our churches, beckoning us to match our skills and talents with the needs of others.

Bono wants us to see “(Red)” when we think of AIDS and poverty around the world, and take at least “ONE” step to make a difference.

These days there is no shortage of philanthropists jumping in to respond to the needs of the least, the last, and the lost. While it’s great to swim in a pool crowded with activists, it’s quite possible that in the midst of all the splashing around, the water’s gotten a bit muddy.

At least that’s part of the rationale driving the Urban Social Justice Project, coordinated by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), World Vision, Community Solutions, Inc., and the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI). The goal of the Urban Social Justice Project (USJP) is to survey urban youth workers in order to eliminate the murkiness swirling around what social justice is, what it isn’t, and how to bring the most dignity and transformation for all.

In phase one of the USJP, approximately 60 urban youth workers participated in focus groups held in eight U.S. cities in conjunction with the 2006-2007 UYWI ReLoad tour. 1 In April 2007, FYI sifted through the focus group answers in order to identify social justice “best practices” already being implemented around the U.S. as well as the most pressing justice concerns. In phase two of the USJP, FYI presented that report to a group of 27 strategically-invited leaders both to elicit their feedback and to pinpoint the focus groups’ most salient insights. 2

In the midst of the waves of attention devoted to helping the poor, perhaps you’ve even stuck a toe in the social justice waters yourself. But how do you know if your justice work is making a deep impact or just adding a few drops to a leaky bucket? As a leader, do you know what separates good justice work from truly great justice ministry? Regardless of whether you serve in an urban, suburban, or rural/small town context, hopefully these combined findings from both phases of the USJP can help you and your students plunge into deeper justice for all.

Deeper Question #1: How Would You Define Social Justice?

While identifying a precise definition of social justice is beyond the scope of the USJP, the research revealed eight themes that help define effective ministry with the “least of these”. 3

  • It involves righting wrongs, often through systemic change.
  • It levels the playing field and provides equal opportunities, especially in areas of housing, education, safety, and holistic support.
  • It speaks the truth.
  • It develops skills that enable people to help themselves.
  • It gives a voice to those who are often voiceless.
  • It creates economic and social well-being.
  • It is rooted in our love for one another.
  • It is contextual and will manifest itself differently in different communities.

Deeper Question #2: What is Social Justice NOT?

Often surprising to social justice novices is the widely held distinction between service and justice work. Service is offering a thirsty person a cup of cold water. Justice is not only offering a cup of cold water, but asking why they’re thirsty to begin with, and partnering with them to make sure not only that they are never thirsty again but that they can get their own water.

That distinction between service and social justice wove its way through the most common themes of what social justice is not:

  • It is not handouts.
  • It is not focused only on individuals but is instead focused on both helping individuals and creating systemic change.
  • It is not free giving without personal involvement and relationship.
  • It is not just programs.

Deeper Question #3: What Makes Youth Workers Who Are Effective in Justice Work So Effective?

When asked to think about the qualities of effective justice leaders, focus group members in phase one of the USJP repeatedly mentioned the importance of building relationships, usually to the point of becoming “part of the neighborhood.” In addition to quality relationships, both phases of the USJP revealed eleven other important qualities of social justice leaders.

  • They have a theological conviction about God’s intended shalom that motivates their work.
  • They don’t view others as projects but as people.
  • They realize that they don’t always know what others need.
  • They involve kids in their work and understand kids’ potential to catch a vision and be justice leaders.
  • They work holistically instead of focusing only on “spiritual” needs.
  • They ask why.
  • They think communally instead of individually.
  • They “keep it real”.
  • They realize that they need to collaborate with others outside of their own church.
  • They realize they can’t wait for someone else to act.
  • They need an effective support system so they don’t experience compassion burnout. 4

Deeper Question #4: What Justice Issues are Most Important to Your Community?

In the midst of the myriad of diverse needs facing communities today, nine issues emerged as the most dominant.

  • Poverty
  • Police/criminal justice system/juvenile justice system
  • Unequal access to services, especially services related to housing, health, education, and safety
  • Violence and gangs
  • Housing
  • Gentrification
  • Education
  • Family/home life
  • White privilege

Action Points: Your Own Plan to Dive into Deeper Justice Work

I wish you and I could simply read an article like this and presto, our ministries would automatically dive into deeper justice. Unfortunately, reading isn’t enough. Deeper justice involves not just exposure to new ideas from the USJP, but also opportunities both to reflect and to act.

In order to help your ministry put feet to the USJP findings, we’ve developed a free downloadable assessment tool entitled “Our Ministry Plan for Deeper Justice,” available HERE. We encourage you to print it out and take some time to assess your justice growth areas. Better yet, invite others to help shape your ministry’s justice journey by making copies for the rest of your adult leadership team, your spouse and other friends who know you well, as well as the students and parents in your ministry. The justice pool may be crowded, but there’s still room for your ministry.

For more research-based resources related to social justice, see our upcoming November 2007 and January 2008 releases of the FYI E-Journal which will be largely devoted to social justice, as well as the upcoming FYI book, Deep Justice in a Broken World, by Chap Clark and Kara Powell, to be released by Zondervan/Youth Specialties in January 2008.

To read the actual FYI report as well as notes from the meeting with 27 leaders held at UYWI in May 2007, check out . You might also be interested in online resources available at

  1. The eight cities involved were Fresno, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, Pittsburgh, Memphis, and Philadelphia.
  2. That presentation was held on May 17, 2007 at the UYWI Conference at Azusa Pacific University.
  3. The order of items in this list, as well as the lists corresponding to the other three Deeper Questions, does not reflect any hierarchy of frequency of response. Items are listed in random order.
  4. For more on urban youth worker stress and burnout, please see the FYI research report entitled Stress in the City: A New Study of Youth Workers

Rest in the City

Jun 25, 2007 Kimberly Williams

What do prayer and rest have in common? For many youth workers, the first answer that leaps to mind is that we wish we did more of both, and we feel guilty (and off-kilter) because of how little of either we practice. But they’re actually more closely linked than we might first guess.

While reading a book on prayer by Richard Foster, I attempted to practice each prayer he described as I went through the chapters. Not surprisingly, the day I read the chapter entitled “The Prayer of Rest” I happened to be exhausted. In an already too-busy day, I had barely managed to read about the prayer, let alone practice it, before I crawled into bed.

“Be still…Rest…Shalom,” 1 , 2 is how Richard Foster described his experience of the Prayer of Rest. I smiled to myself as I wrote “The Prayer of Rest…” in my journal and proceeded to lay my head on my pillow, only to be woken up an hour later by a frantic phone call. As the City Director of a yearlong urban ministry, I received a call from one of my teams who had witnessed an intense domestic violence dispute involving their neighbor. I offered to come over to sit with them and pray. As I drove to their house, I realized I had no words to soften what they had seen. “Be still…Rest…Shalom” was still on my mind and I pondered how it was possible to rest when faced with such ugliness. My natural response would have been to try to sugarcoat what had happened, but with the concept of Shalom running through my mind I decided to take a different strategy. I let myself experience the trauma for what it was, and I allowed my heart to be broken. I challenged myself to be still and rest in the context of the city, even when faced with the ugliness in front of me.


Why is it that the crises always seem to come when I’m beyond tired? I mean, is it really possible for youth workers to rest? And is it really possible to rest in the city? In a place where nature is rare, where there are always people, noise, and obvious needs, how can we experience stillness, rest and Shalom? And particularly when we are faced by situations that seem exceptionally ugly, how are we supposed to rest before God?

Recent research through the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that rest is precisely what urban youth workers need in order to survive and even thrive in ministry in the city. According to the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry study, nearly 70% of paid staff and nearly half of volunteer youth workers have difficulty resting in urban youth ministry. Yet, the more exhausted we feel, the more successful we feel in ministry. This triggers an endless cycle of more ministry and less sleep until we’re completely burned out. Unfortunately, this all-too-familiar pattern contributes to serious physical and emotional health risks, not to mention a short-lived ministry career.

I learned something the night I decided not to offer hope and answers to my shaken-up students. Resting prayer is not only possible in the city, but it is essential. It is precisely when we are faced with the ugly, raw sides of the city that we feel most laid bare and vulnerable. In these moments, in order to rest, in order to hope, we must trust who God is. To rest requires us to trust that “God’s got this,” even when everything around and inside of us is telling us otherwise. This trust does not just happen; it must be nurtured and primed in order to relax in the most challenging of circumstances.


Not surprisingly, we are only able to experience rest in prayer when we actually stop and relax. It requires a ceasing of activity. This type of prayer focuses on being and experiencing rather than talking, asking or analyzing. This is not a prayer for changing circumstances or trying to understand—there are other types of prayers for that—but this is a prayer of resting in what is.

When I think of the prayer of rest, I think of accepting whatever comes my way. Not just accepting, but entering into and experiencing it as well. I have often prayed, “Lord, I want whatever you give me.” But this can involve a discipline of training myself to want something other than what I really wanted. The prayer of rest is different; there is no training of the mind. It is raw. It is more like, “Lord, allow me to experience whatever I step into.” It is sincerely responding with disappointment, joy, fear, anger or love and knowing God can handle who you are in that moment. These emotions may not initially be what comes to mind when you think of resting, but resting in the Lord looks different in the city than it does in other circumstances. Being at rest in prayer requires us to let down our guard, which can be harder to do in the city.


When Richard Foster describes the prayer of rest he describes being in solitude and nature. I can understand this. Often when I leave the city, my senses awaken to the sights and smells of the natural world around me. In certain environments, I can at times actually feel myself letting my guard down and relaxing my muscles. This can lead me into a prayer of rest.

There are aspects of city life that lead me to this type of prayer as well. Watching children play, spending quality time with a neighbor, experiencing celebrations with friends and families, or the times I have felt people’s fierce loyalty—these are some of the city’s features that allow me to let down my guard and trust that God is here in the city too.

At the same time, there are also elements of the city that keep me from resting in prayer. The city is filled with tensions that come from its being multi-faceted. With beauty also comes ugliness. As vulnerability emerges, so do stalkers and predators. For every glimpse of the Kingdom “now” there is also a sense of “not yet.” This could be said about many places. What is unique about the city is the showcase of need. Need is everywhere. Kathleen Norris in her book The Cloister Walk recognizes this constant need in the city as a call to prayer. “Being in the city is good for my monastic soul,” she says. “If anything, the desert monks’ command to ‘pray without ceasing’ seems easier there; the need is so obvious, so constant.” 3 Suffering, injustice and violence continually remind those in the city of their vulnerability and need for hope.


As youth workers we feel the need to offer hope and point out the presence of God in the city to others. This can be hard to do when we’re tired and having a hard time being hopeful ourselves. We act as if we must be strong for others and guard them from seeing our own hearts breaking.

Jesus doesn’t do this. We see in scripture that he allowed his heart to break. Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus who had died. The Gospel of John says that he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and when he comes before the tomb he weeps. He was able to experience what he felt in that moment (John 11:33-35), even though he would soon raise Lazarus from the dead! Instead of encouraging the crowds to cheer up and be hopeful about the miracle to come, he paused and allowed himself to grieve with them.

This pause is what the prayer of rest can look like in the city. This prayer allows us to come before God with what is in front of us rather than muster up hope. It is a prayer that allows our heart to be moved, even broken. This is so hard for us to do. We are so afraid of being hurt. Often with good reason, we have created barriers and developed suspicions. Being hurt is such a familiar feeling that it is hard to imagine that we can choose to be vulnerable in front of anyone, including God. 4

Sometimes we find ourselves resting in prayer not because we are trying to, but because we don’t have what it takes to hold it together any more. Once in college I was slated to give a talk on a youth group mission trip. I had prepared a funny-yet-thought-provoking talk on experiencing God’s peace, but ironically I wasn’t feeling peaceful at all. For years I had been encouraging my students to not give me “Sunday School answers” because I wanted them to be really honest with me. But I was realizing how much I guarded myself from being really honest with them. I scratched my planned talk and instead opened up about my own insecurities and weaknesses. At the time, I was sure I was going to disappoint them. I thought they would respond by accusing me of not being who I said I was. Instead, it was almost like my students heaved a sigh of relief. From that point on, they opened up to me even more than they had in the past.

A similar experience takes place when we unveil ourselves before God. We don’t assume God can handle our raw and honest emotions, but we learn that we can be weak and broken before him when we sit before him without explanation or justification, just being quiet and offering ourselves as we are. In these moments, we rest knowing it is not our own strength that sustains us.

By practicing the prayer of rest, we can rest in who God is and rest in who we are. We are relieved from the impulse to have God-like control and we are completely free to be ourselves. It is out of this balance that we can rest in the midst of the evil we see in the city. Again, this does not necessarily mean accepting or understanding what we see, but rather entering into and experiencing what we feel, whether that is anger, rage or powerlessness. This requires us to trust God. In prayer, when we trust God, we can rest even while we experience the ugly sides of life.


This takes practice. We can prepare ourselves to rest by creating “sanctuaries,” or sacred places in our lives. We can create a sanctuary anywhere. C.S. Lewis notes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.” 5 And so, in our crowded worlds full of need and noise, and in cities that “never sleep,” we set aside sacred spaces to learn how to be still and rest.

This will mean we need to choose to stop our normal routines, both our activities and interactions with others, while we rest. 6 This is how we begin to carve out sacred spaces in our daily life. We create sanctuaries by setting aside time and place to rest with God. 7

It is possible to find a sanctuary in your own home or neighborhood. Determine a chair, a pillow, a closet, a hallway, even a rooftop and reserve that place for prayer. If home is not a safe place, it may be possible to borrow a sanctuary from a church in your neighborhood. A Laundromat could become your refuge, a park bench your safe haven, or a simple stroll around the block could become sacred. What is important is that our sanctuaries feel like safe places where we can relax. The more consistent we are in these disciplines, the more our bodies become used to this sacred rhythm.

Sanctuary spaces in the city rarely just appear. We need to be intentional about creating spaces to be in God’s presence, all the while not trying to force ourselves into a place of rest. Just like forcing ourselves to sleep can often keep us awake, trying to force ourselves to rest in prayer can keep us from doing just that. Foster recounts a story of a student seeking spiritual direction from a monk. The monk encourages the student not to manipulate God, but receive. He says, “It’s like sleep. You can’t make yourself sleep, but you can create the conditions that allow sleep to happen.” 8 Likewise, we gently create conditions for restful prayer.


We are affected by this restful prayer. Resting in God provides a quiet place where we do not have to explain anything. God sits with us; we sit with God. Our resting creates a space for God to provide for us and teach us about what we are experiencing. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). 9 This is an invitation to shalom—to the wholeness of God for our frantic selves.

What we experience in our sanctuaries enables us to interact with the ugly parts of the city in a different way. Our experiences of God’s rest change us. When trusting in God, we develop a confidence not from knowing what is going to happen, but knowing that God is holding this too. This does not take away the pain. Rather, it is safe to feel it. In the same way that God’s heart breaks for the brokenness and pain in the city, we allow our own hearts to break as well.


Through our prayers of rest we see the city differently, making this type of rest not merely a “good idea”, but an essential in urban ministry. What we learn in the context of these types of prayers is what—and Who—we need to depend on when we face the ugliness of the city. What we learn about ourselves and God in solitude is what we need to draw from when we go back into the world.

John Perkins writes, “All sorts of earthly powers claim the bodies and souls of the urban poor—from pimps and pushers and welfare to cults, television, and materialism. We, the community of believers, should demonstrate that we obey an authority that rules over all authorities. Our allegiance is to the righteous and just demands of our sovereign God, and no earthly power should control or intimidate us.” 10 Our confidence and responses to the city flow from our resting in who God is. May we boldly proclaim our trust in God by prayerfully resting in the city.


  • Sleep. Learn how to rest your soul through resting your body. This week, revisit your evening and morning schedules and routines to more intentionally practice sleeping enough. Even let yourself schedule in naps to stay healthy.
  • Practice being vulnerable with a person you trust. Set up a time to meet with a close friend and challenge yourself to share something that makes your heart break. Let that lead into vulnerability before God in prayer.
  • Take a good, hard look at your prayer life. Do you ever pray this type of resting prayer? Make a space in your week to sit with God and not ask for anything, but simply be quiet.
  • Do you have a “sanctuary” in the city? Look around for a special space where you feel you are able to relax and come before God. Make a point to go there regularly so it becomes part of the rhythms of your life.
  • Call another youth worker to talk through the issue of rest. Brainstorm together ways to build more rest into your lives, and hold each other accountable for resting more in the next month.
  • For additional reading on youth workers and rest (particularly the concept of Sabbath), please read “R-E-S-T: The Four-Letter Word of Youth Workers?” by Brad Griffin.

  1. Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 95.
  2. A word often translated as “peace” in the Bible, Shalom actually means much more. Shalom indicates not simply an absence of conflict, but a restoration of wholeness.
  3. Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 69.
  4. In her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, Ruth Haley Barton describes her journey of seeking solitude. She recognizes the risk in “exposing the tender, unfinished places of our soul” to God. She says, “We are so accustomed to being shamed or condemned in the unfinished parts of ourselves that it is hard to believe there is a place where all of who we are—the good, the bad and the ugly—will be handled with love and gentleness.” Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 96.
  5. C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Orlando: Harcourt, Brace, and Co, 1964), 75.
  6. Foster, 100.
  7. In doing this it is important to be aware of our surroundings. Though we cannot always gauge or control the activity around us, we can be thoughtful to avoid the times and places that are generally more loud and distracting for us.
  8. Foster, 144.
  9. As I was writing, I received a beautiful word picture of this. I was babysitting and heard Jaya (age 5) had woken up and was crying. I found her sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. I picked her up and sat with her on the steps so she would not wake the other children. In between sobs, before she could even explain to me why she was crying, she took a big sigh, leaned her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. As I sat there, amazed at how suddenly she had stopped crying, I could not help thinking, “Is this not what our Father God does for us?”
  10. John Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 47.

Stress in the City

A New Study of Youth Workers

May 04, 2007 Cynthia ErikssonJude Tiersma WatsonKara Powell


That’s a word urban youth workers know all about.


That word probably isn’t as familiar, but we as youth workers demonstrate it every day.  When people are resilient, or “bounce back,” they are able to go through difficult experiences and find energy, hope, and support.

Shortly after Robert heard about our urban youth worker study on risk and resilience, he left us a phone message, asking how he could be involved.  When one of our team members called him back, it was tough to hear him over the loud clanging and echoing voices in the background.  He explained that he was at a juvenile hall, being fingerprinted so that he could visit some of his kids.

Given that, we agreed that we’d call him back.

When we did, Robert answered the phone and very patiently listened as we explained our goal of understanding both the stress that urban youth workers experience, as well as the support that helps them not just survive, but thrive.  Before we could give more details, Robert explained that he was short on time because he was preparing to perform a funeral service for one of the young men in his neighborhood who had been shot.

Violence, poverty, inadequate schools, juvenile hall, gangs, racial tensions, the every-day injustices of urban life. If you are a youth worker like Robert, these are some of your realities.

But as we learned through the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project, there are life-giving resources and support structures that can help urban youth workers like Robert not just survive, but actually thrive.

In order to understand urban youth workers’ risk and resilience, Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry) partnered with Fuller’s Headington Program 1 to launch the Risk and Resilience in Urban Youth Ministry Project. 2 Surveys were sent to 905 urban youth workers from five randomly selected large American cities (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis, and Philadelphia) with questions related to community violence, chronic stressors, posttraumatic stressors, burnout, motivation, spirituality, and beliefs about God in the midst of suffering.  Completed surveys were returned by 284 youth workers (or 31.4% of those who received them). 3

Nearly two thirds (65%) of the youth workers who completed the survey were women, and while they represented ages ranging from 18 to over 65, the average age was 35.  Just over half of the youth workers (53%) were married, 39% were single, and the remaining 8% were separated, divorced, or widowed; just over half (53%) had children.

The vast majority (90%) were born in the United States.  Almost half (46%) of the urban youth workers were Caucasian, 34% were African American, 12% were Latino/a, 4% were Middle Eastern, Asian American, or Native American, and the remaining 4% indicated that they were of more than one race. Nearly two thirds (65%) did NOT live in the community in which they do urban youth ministry. Almost two thirds (62%) were being paid for their urban ministry work.

In order to better understand and translate our research findings into practical ideas, we convened urban youth worker focus groups. 4 The insights from these groups resulted in practical suggestions that you can try in your life and ministry right now—whether you’re from inner-city Detroit, a small town outside of Des Moines, or the suburbs of Denver.

Question 1:  What Traumatic Experiences Did Urban Youth Workers Experience During Childhood?

As depicted in Table 1, urban youth workers reported fairly high rates of exposure well-documented Adverse Childhood Experiences. 5

Table 1:  Adverse Childhood Experiences in Urban Youth Workers

Over 22% of the urban youth workers indicated that they had experienced four or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Unfortunately, that level of childhood trauma has been shown to increase the risk for psychological and physical health problems later in life.  Adults with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely than those who do not report any adverse experiences to be obese, experience depression, attempt suicide, use drugs, have more than fifty sexual partners, and experience a stroke or heart disease. 6

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  According to the urban youth workers in our focus groups, these numbers fit their experience. Yet in the midst of these traumatic experiences, many urban youth workers keep it to themselves because they are reluctant to “tell other people my business.”  One national leader remarked, “I know a lot of folks who have 4 or 5 of those Adverse Childhood Experiences, and they don’t talk to others about it.  They deal with it through worship and through going to church.”  While the Lord is the ultimate healer, many of the urban leaders we talked to recommended that leaders find other like-minded men and women with whom they can share their pain.

Yet sometimes people do need specific care for problems that get in the way of their work and relationships. Leaders said that finding someone who was a trained counselor who understands the urban context may take time. But finding that person is worth the effort, and may prove to be a life-giving resource to staff, as well as kids in the neighborhood.

Question 2:  What Stressors Do Youth Workers Experience Now?

Of 24 potential stressors, at least 50% of volunteer and/or paid urban youth workers reported experiencing the following twelve stressful situations.

Table 2:  Stressors Experienced by Urban Youth Workers

Interestingly, the most frequent stressors tended to be more personal and internal than we might expect (violence in the community being an obvious exception).  As indicated in Table 2, the top stressor in both groups was “feeling powerless to change the situation of the people in the community.”  The second most prevalent for paid staff was “frustration with portrayals of urban life in the media.”

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  These stressors undoubtedly take their toll on dedicated youth workers.  As one urban youth worker who switched from suburban to inner city ministry commented, “I never saw a leader meltdown until I got into urban youth ministry.  Now I see if four or five times a year.”

The internal quality of these stressors means that we might not see them coming, and they may not be things that the organization can change. But they raise several important questions about our support structure.  Who are we talking to about feeling powerless? Who encourages us to take a break when they see us starting to get frazzled or frustrated with our kids? Who reminds us to take a vacation away from the ministry and offers to cover our responsibilities?

Question 3:  What Types of Violence Do Urban Youth Workers Experience?

Violence, while not the top rated stressor, is still part of the stress in the city.  Table 3 below captures the violent events that urban youth workers have personally experienced in their lives, as well as in the past year.

Table 3:  Types of Violence 7

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  Most everybody we interviewed agreed that the inner city can be a war zone.  Not all inner cities are alike, however.  As one urban leader described, “There are urban jungles, which are rough and tough, and there are urban villages, which are still tough but not as traumatic.”

In either case, one leader likened urban workers to “sponges” who “absorb all this trauma and then are supposed to squeeze out wisdom.  When all the pain comes into you, it’s easy to feel anger, stress, and pity.  That pain has to come out somehow, or it can do real damage.”  As this comment reminds us, experiencing trauma does not happen only when you are the victim yourself. We experience the pain of trauma when we hear stories, witness violence, or feel loss when a kid turns away from us and to drugs or gangs instead.

In the midst of trying to express pain, many church and parachurch urban youth workers seem to rely on the support of their community for help and healing.  As one national parachurch leader commented, “Urban leaders will turn to their church as much or more as to our national ministry.  They want support from relationships more than from organizational structure.”  Yet on the flipside, other leaders described how important relationships with colleagues can be, both colleagues within their own organization as well as with friends in other ministries who are not connected to organizational politics.

Other tools that were helpful for letting out pain were crying, praying, physical exercise, and expressing pain through art, including music, dance, and murals.  As one urban veteran summarized, “In our work with street artists, I’ve learned that for some, tagging is a way to release pain. One kid told me that tagging was his aspirin. The pain of their broken lives has to come out somehow, and if we can provide appropriate ways, then fewer kids and adults will resort to methods like tagging that can get them arrested.”

Question 4:  What Keeps Urban Youth Workers From Receiving the Support They Need?

Because of these and other types of stress in the city, about one-third of urban youth workers (or 36%) reported significant levels of posttraumatic stress. 8 , 9 By “posttraumatic stress,” we mean the emotional and physical symptoms that can develop after experiencing a trauma. These symptoms fit in 3 categories: re-experiencing the trauma (for example through nightmares or thinking about the event when you do not want to); avoiding the trauma (avoiding things that remind you of the event, withdrawing from people) and hyperarousal (feeling jumpy, easily agitated, or irritable).

The urban youth workers who filled out the survey indicated that 36% of them are feeling those symptoms right now. We can compare that to the general public where studies show that 12% of the population will experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in their lifetime. 10 This means that there are a significant number of urban youth workers who are serving while simultaneously managing a considerable level of internal pain.

Thankfully, many urban youth workers are taking advantage of support systems available to them such as medical care, church services, counseling, spiritual direction, small groups, support from their teams, and spiritual mentoring.  Yet in the last year, approximately one-fifth of urban youth workers felt the need to get emotional, physical or spiritual support but did not end up receiving any.  When asked why, they reported the following obstacles:  availability, affordability, lack of time, self-addressed (meaning they ended up taking care of it themselves), and concern about the stigma involved in getting the help.

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  For many of the urban youth workers in our focus groups, the idea that “lack of time” would keep leaders from getting the support they need was disconcerting.  As one summarized, “If I need help, going to a spiritual director is just as much part of my ministry as hanging out with a kid.”  Some likened self-care to the announcement we hear every time we board a plane that we need to put on our own oxygen masks before we try to put the mask around the children. Keeping ourselves healthy means that we will be around to care for kids in the future.

A few wondered if behind the obstacles of time and money lay a deeper obstacle: that if I have a “Savior Complex” and I have to get help, then that means I’m no longer the Savior.  Taking time to get support forces leaders to realize that it’s “God’s ministry and not mine,” which quite honestly, can be hard to face.

In addition, some youth workers seem to enjoy the “drama” of urban ministry.  As one leader lamented, “I had to let one of our team members go because he seemed to thrive on the drama of urban ministry.  Since he couldn’t control the drama in his own home, he burned himself out trying to respond to the drama in his kids’ homes.”

Question 5:  What is Unique About Urban Youth Workers’ Burnout? 11

In general, people who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are accomplishing less than those who are less exhausted.  Perhaps the greatest surprise of our entire study is that in urban youth workers, the opposite is true.  Youth workers who are emotionally exhausted tend to feel like they are actually accomplishing more!

Response and Ideas from Urban Youth Workers:  The majority of our focus group leaders didn’t seem surprised that the youth workers who are the most tired also seem to feel the most effective.  In many cases, perhaps being exhausted and/or traumatized by violence and pain is a “badge of honor” in the city.  As one youth worker commented, “Someone is welcomed into the urban family when they’ve been shot or done time.”

However, urban youth workers cautioned against oversimplifying the link between fatigue and a sense of accomplishment.  For many urban youth workers, being tired and experiencing suffering is part of who they are, and since it is part of their own personal story, it becomes a deep well of healing for the kids and families in their own communities.

In either case, the urban leaders also made a number of recommendations to help youth workers find a sense of rhythm and balance:

  • Take a sabbatical, and if your ministry doesn’t currently have a sabbatical policy, suggest that they consider developing one.
  • REQUIRE, not recommend, that leaders take one day each week to disengage from the constant ups and downs of urban ministry.
  • Beware of adrenaline addiction, meaning the tendency we have to get hooked on the physiological “rush” that comes from being needed and being busy.
  • Listen to your team members or your mentor when they warn you that you are approaching burnout.
  • Team leaders need to model rest for their entire team.  If they don’t, then the rest of the team wonders if it is okay to take a break.
  • Think about what “rest” is for you. It does not always mean getting away and taking a retreat. It may mean having a great game of one on one basketball with a kid in the neighborhood. What are the things that give you life, that renew and “recycle” you?


During our focus groups, one veteran youth worker shared about her early days living in the neighborhood and pouring herself out for the kids, taking little rest for herself.  One day one of her high school seniors told her, “You need to get a life. We love you and we love all the time you spend with us. But if you don’t get a life, you will burn out and get tired of us. Then you’ll leave and we will have no one.”

In the gospels, Jesus teaches us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” not “instead of ourselves.” More often than not, seeking our own health and healing is the best ministry we can offer our kids.

Action Points

  • What among these primary findings strikes a chord with you?  What stressors or responses do you most resonate with from this research?  Write these down and call a friend or ministry partner to talk through the questions and issues this research raises for you.
  • How do you respond to the finding that youth workers tend to equate exhaustion with accomplishment?  Set aside some time for some personal reflection and prayer on what makes you feel like you’ve succeeded in ministry and whether you might be “addicted to exhaustion.”
  • What avenues for self-care and resilience exist in your ministry?  Who can you forward this article to and set up a conversation with this week to begin evaluating those avenues and their effectiveness?  Where might your ministry need to grow to help you and other youth workers get healthier?
  • When you think about your own responses to painful experiences, do you tend to find help from others when you need it or keep to yourself?  What relationships do you need to intentionally build, or what professional help might you need to seek, to set yourself on a trajectory towards processing and healing from the pain in your life and ministry?

NOTE: All of the research data reported in this article is taken from the Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress, Spirituality, and Support, Report of General Findings (Eriksson, Shin, Walling, Lee, & Montgomery , 2007). This report is now avaialble for download HERE (466 KB PDF download).


Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F. Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V., & Williamson, D. F. (2002). Exposure to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction among adults who witnessed intimate partner violence as children: Implication for health and social services, Violence and Victims, 17, 3-17

Eriksson, C., Shin, H., Walling, S., Lee, H., & Montgomery, C. (2007, January). Risk and resilience in urban ministry: Stress, spirituality, and support, Report of General Findings. Pasadena, CA: Fuller Youth Institute (formerly Center for Youth and Family Ministry), Fuller Theological Seminary.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D.,. Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258

King, L., King, D., Leskin, G., & Foy, D. (1995). The Los Angeles symptom checklist: A self-report measure of posttraumatic stress disorder. Assessment, 2, 1-17.

Maslach, C. & Jackson, S. E. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory - Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS). In C. Maslach, S. E. Jackson, & M. P. Leiter (Eds.), MBI Manual (3rd Ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.

Richters, J.E., & Saltzman, W. (1990). Survey of Children’s Exposure to Community Violence. National Institute of Mental Health.

A version of this article also appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of the Journal of Student Ministries.

  1. The mission of the Headington Program is to understand the experience of traumatic and chronic stress in ministry settings.
  2. All of the research data reported in this article is taken from the Risk and Resilience in Urban Ministry: Stress,  Spirituality, and Support, Report of General Findings (Eriksson, Shin,  Walling, Lee, & Montgomery ,  2007). This report is avaialble for download HERE (466 KB PDF download
  3. Thirty percent is considered a fairly typical response rate for survey research.
  4. One of the focus groups was predominantly Los Angeles urban youth workers; the other was comprised of national leaders from across the United States.
  5. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (Dube, Anda, Felliti, Edwards, & Williamson, 2002; Felitti, et al., 1998) was used to assess these early traumatic experiences.
  6. Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M.. P., Marks, J. S. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245-258
  7. The experience of violence in the community was measured using the Survey of Exposure to Community Violence (Richters & Saltzman, 1990).
  8. Posttraumatic stress was measured using the Los Angeles Symptom Checklist (King, King, Leskin, & Foy, 1995).
  9. There was no significant difference in levels of posttraumatic stress between the volunteers compared to paid staff. In addition, there was not a significant difference in levels of post-traumatic stress disorder severity between local leaders (those who ministered in the same neighborhood in which they grew up) and relocated leaders (those who ministered in a different neighborhood than the one in which they grew up).
  10. Resnick, H. S., Kilpatrick, D. G., Dansky, B. S., Saudners, B. E., & Best, C. L., (1993). Prevalence of civilian trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder in a representative national sample of women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 984-991.
  11. Burnout was measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach & Jackson, 1996).