the Inside Voice Approach
A survival guide for leading spiritual practices
by Diana Shiflett | January 30, 2017
It happened all too often. By Wednesday afternoon I had made sure there was a Sunday-school lesson and a sermon for the next week, completed a board meeting agenda, and had a staff meeting. None of those things was especially earth-shattering, and then I found myself wondering, how could I possibly pull off one more strong spiritual moment?
In more than twenty years of ministry, I have had several moments like this in my life. Too often I would find myself thinking, “I’m too busy already—how in the world can I find a way to spend more time doing devotions?”
I finally got tired of just surviving.
I began to learn a rhythm of using spiritual practices in the midst of the chaos of ministry. When I am living into these spiritual practices and using them well in leadership, I feel most fully alive in Christ and it seems so do the people around me. Spiritual practices give a voice to what God is doing in our hearts and minds—which is often something we do not know how to talk about or articulate. They give us a way to hear from God and make it easier to share with each other what we are hearing.
When I lead spiritual practices corporately, I learn from others as we share what God is doing in each of us. There is a time and a place for a lesson or sermon, but we also need to make space to listen for the voice of God together. It is important as leaders to be living into ways where we are connecting and hearing from God so that we can teach others to do the same. If we are not doing it as leaders, how can we teach others what they need to know about God?
We had a group of about two hundred high-school students gathered in the room, and we were encouraging them to share spiritually and deeply with the person next to them. They enthusiastically complied, and within two minutes, the noise level had risen considerably. The sound system was out, and without thinking, the youth pastor yelled at the top of his lungs, “Hey!”
The room went dead silent—and then the youth pastor and I burst out laughing. Through his uncontrollable laughter he said, “I guess that was not my best soothing spiritual voice.” And then he put his hand in the air and made it into the shape of an animal with a long neck and two ears, and said, “Okay, from now on when I need to pull us back together I will raise my hand like this and you will imitate it so others know it’s time to be quiet, because, this is a quiet giraffe.”
I loved how he handled that moment. He was able to laugh at himself, which drew the kids back to him after he had disrupted them with loud shouting, and then he quickly regrouped and moved forward to finish the spiritual practice well. He also taught me that not everyone intuitively knows how to lead a spiritual practice.
So here are some best practices tips for leading spiritual practices.
1. Do the spiritual practice on your own first at least once before you lead it.
This seems obvious, but it is essential. From your own experience you can talk about how you met God and about any challenges you might have had. You can get a sense of the space that you need for silence and sharing. And you have a chance to meet with God before you try to invite other people in the room into a space with God.
2. Breathe deeply.
Breathing deeply resets your nervous system and will calm you. When you are full of anxiety people can hear it in your voice and may internalize it themselves. When people sense that you are calm they feel calm.
3. Listen for the Holy Spirit.
As you start any spiritual practice, pause and invite the Holy Spirit to speak. Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to the people you are leading as well as to be at work in you as you speak, lead, and teach. You can pray this prayer out loud or silently. Set your heart and mind in the place of desiring to hear from God as you lead.
4. Speak slowly.
Slowing down will help you hear the Holy Spirit as you lead and will help you lead people into the practice. When leading a spiritual practice, you are not just giving people information; you are taking them through a process in which they enter into the practice at three different levels. The first level they take in is your voice. Those listening need to be able to understand what you are saying. The next level is for them to check in with where they are personally. After that, they can hear the still small voice of God. This all happens nearly simultaneously, but if you speak too quickly it is easy for people to get stuck at the level of trying to understand you.
5. Get out of the way.
People will know if you are being anything but authentic. Once you have started the spiritual practice, make sure you are no longer preaching or teaching. Instead, you are facilitating a space where people can meet God. Make sure you use each word to take them deeper into the practice, rather than into a head space where you are doing the teaching. When I am tempted in this way, I remember that God is in the middle of a personal sermon for each person in the room and that sermon is far more powerful than anything I could ever say myself. One way I know I have led a spiritual practice well is when people don’t remember that I led it. Sometimes I run into people who start telling me about their experience—and in the middle of the story one of us realizes I was the one leading that practice! It always floors both of us when we realize how much the moment was about God, not the facilitator. It keeps me in check to remember that it’s not about me—it’s about God speaking to God’s people.
6. Do not rush.
As you are leading the spiritual practice, do your best to not rush the process at any point. Allow time for people to engage with both your words and what God is prompting. There will be moments when you are tempted to race ahead to the next piece. Sometimes that’s because you are worried that nothing is happening, and sometimes it’s because you think people are getting antsy. And sometimes you genuinely run out of time. This is where practicing the practice before you lead it is really important so you can get a feel for how long each piece takes. After you are finished ask your group about your pacing. I am often surprised that they want even more time of silence.
7. Use a timer that only you can see.
As you move through each piece of the spiritual practice, use a timer on your phone to help you monitor your pacing. (I also encourage you to put your phone on airplane mode whenever you are leading a spiritual practice, and encourage the whole group to turn their phones off or to airplane mode. Even a phone on silent can be distracting.) Before you start, think about how many minutes you want to give to each part of the practice. This is important because the last step is to debrief each practice corporately which is often the most powerful aspect of the practice. You want to make sure you have adequate time to do that at the end.
8. Stay in tune with your audience.
Notice people’s facial expressions as you lead. If you see looks of confusion, use different words to explain what you just said. Use various examples to help people understand the concept. Pay attention to whether people are still writing. When about half the people have stopped writing, move the practice along. Notice whether people are crying. Crying can be a sign that the Holy Spirit is present and doing deep work in a person’s soul. Often I remind people to let the tears flow. Notice when you need to use humor, when you should stop and be silent, and when you need to allow more time. Watch the body language in the room. If people are falling asleep, pick up the pace a little. If people are sitting with their arms crossed, take some more time to build trust with them. Chat a little bit with the group. Ask God to give you eyes to see what he wants you to see and ears to hear what you need to hear.
Try to get to know your audience. If you do not know the people in the group, ask the person who knows them best to tell you a little bit about them beforehand. I use spiritual practices with children, youth, and adults from all walks of life. It is important to try to understand what the group can withstand. You want people to be able to enter in, so you need to help them hold the space with God at a level they can handle (which is not necessarily the level they are comfortable with). What you are looking for is a level of risk that is right on the growing edge for that particular group. Tell them how long the silence will be. For teens one to five minutes can feel like a long time, but for a group of spiritual directors it can feel way too short. At the end of each practice ask for feedback. Each time you lead a spiritual practice you grow in your leadership as well. This will help you as you lead the next time.
9. Debrief well.
Debriefing gives others the gift of hearing how God moved in someone else during the spiritual practice. It also helps the individual make the experience feel real. Often when we meet alone with God it is powerful in the moment, but then fades over time, and we might even question if it even happened at all. Verbalizing what God said soon after the moment he spoke brings it into reality. And even helps us long term know that God spoke clearly.
Here are a few questions that can be used with just about any spiritual practice: What was that process like for you? What felt significant to you during this spiritual practice? What was hard about this process? What did you enjoy about this process? What do you think God was saying to you?
May God do a mighty work in and through you as you embark on leading spiritual practices in new ways in your ministry setting. Remember, God is the one moving the Spirit. You are just being obedient to what he has asked you to do and to say.