Hospitality of Presence

As I looked back at my first year here and planned for the upcoming retreats, I spent some time reflecting on my role as a youth minister. I explored what went well, what I needed to work on, and what I could do to be the best minister I could possibly be.

As a team, we had opportunities to learn about better ministry. We read a wonderful book together, Hearing Beyond the Words, by Emma J. Justes, which demonstrated the power of ministerial listening and hospitality of presence. This book really challenged me to be honest with myself and see if I lived up to my own belief that I was a good listener and if I truly upheld the principles of hospitality. To my disappointment, I found that I had a lot of room to improve.

I often find myself tempted to lead, teach, fix, and correct. These have always come naturally to me, especially given my past tutoring and service experience. Whenever I see people struggle, I try to help; it’s my natural reaction. When I began the year, freshly placed into ministry after a three-year hiatus, my instinct was to give unsolicited advice. I knew I’d done a lot of Examen and discernment in my life, and I had lots of advice that came from a good place. I also had a knack for making my faith journey and struggles in life accessible through stories and metaphors and thought myself well-equipped to be a spiritual Sherpa for the youth that came through the center. In our training, however, we were told that this is exactly what we should not do in our small groups.

I was taken aback—how could this not be the way we lead small groups? I had been guided by many spiritual experiences before—how would this be any different? So many of the struggles that come up with young people I have successfully navigated and had a pretty good understanding on how to overcome. Is it not my job to help them? To be a good example to them? Confused, but acknowledging the experience and authority of the Youth Ministry Team, I followed the training and advice and allowed others to drive the conversation and act as a facilitator. As time went on, I found myself giving in to the temptation to course correct and give unsolicited advice. I would often offer up a helpful comment or a challenge to the students and was mostly met with positive results. I thought of myself as a great small group leader who always had fun and talked about deep spiritual themes with the retreatants.

I realized I wasn’t the one who had fixed my own brokenness, and I had no business acting like I could fix theirs.

Halfway through the fall semester, we started reading Hearing
Beyond the Words
. The book was designed with helpful activities and
challenges to act as a check-in with our listening skills as well as work on our communication. As we explored the ministerial themes Justes described, they kept coming back to the same root: hospitality. Listening is an important service that we give to one another out of hospitality. Over the following weeks of reading and discussion, I began to see my actions in a new light. The compulsion to give advice and correct the retreatants was coming from a selfish place. Though I believed my intentions to be pure, I found that I was motivated by the assumption that “You need to be more like me, and you need to be shown how to do that.” 

I was crushed. There was my pride and vanity, once more, rearing its ugly head. I was taking this time for the retreatants to explore their questions and take a spiritual inventory and making it about myself. I wasn’t being hospitable with them. I was too caught up in my own ego and my own experience. I was not bringing them the great value that I deluded myself into believing; I was taking away their time for reflection and discernment. With a heavy heart, I realized I wasn’t the one who had fixed my own brokenness, and I had no business acting like I could fix theirs. I had taken Christ out of the equation and put myself in His place.

I understood, finally, why we were trained to be facilitators and not preachers. The conversion of the retreatants’ hearts is not my responsibility; it is their own choice to accept the presence of God in their own lives. All I can and should do is to bring them closer to Him by encouraging their own Examen and discernment. The love of God is hospitable. He allows us to approach Him in our own time, on our own terms, in our own ways. He is not demanding, limiting, or judgmental but meets us however and wherever we are. The love of God is what converted my heart and changed my life. If I aim to help these retreatants experience His love and make their own choice to seek Him in their lives and build a relationship with Him, then I, too, must be hospitable and act not out of my own will and ego, but out of God’s will. I must learn to be a good listener: one who lacks the need to make their presence known in a conversation.

We all seek to know and to be known, to love and to be loved, to see and to be seen. I want to better see, know, and love those we minister to. I want to be a better instrument of the love of the God who saved my life and brings me fullness, peace, and joy. My biggest goal for the upcoming year is to be a truly hospitable leader and to be the love of Christ for others. I hope that I can continue growing as a minister and bring these lessons to the other parts of my life.

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