Inside Voices: “Making Space” with Lisa Ishihara

Seattle Pacific University's Chaplain Lisa Ishihara didn't anticipate a life in ministry when she was younger, but early on she found a love for worshipping God through her mom's musical dance choir. A business major in college, her love for learning Scripture led her to seminary, where she earned two master's degrees from the Talbot School of Theology. She went on to serve as director of chapel programs at Biola University for 10 years. In 2018, God tapped her on the shoulder to uproot her life and do ministry in Seattle at Seattle Pacific University. Listen to her full story on the SPU Voices Podcast.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this episode we sat down with University Chaplain Lisa Ishihara. She talked to us about how she finds space for all different kinds of students across campus. Do you have young people in your life that you would like to come alongside? Then this is the episode for you.

On August 1, 2018, SPU ended a nationwide search, and Reverend Lisa Ishihara became our university chaplain. Lisa is ordained in the Pacific Coast Japanese Conference of the Free Methodist Church and comes to SPU with an understanding of both SPU’s Wesleyan heritage and the challenging dynamic of the student body on our campus today. Reverend Ishihara received a BA from California State University at Fullerton as well as two master’s degrees from the Talbot School of Theology. She recently contributed to a new book called Diversity Matters, and her chapter is “Leading Change Through Diversity in Spiritual Development.” Lisa, thanks for joining us today.

Lisa Ishihara: Great to be here.

Amanda: Well, we’ve loved having you around this last year or so, year and a half. But I always wonder, a job that is so unique as university chaplain, there aren’t a lot of fourth graders that say, “I want to be a university chaplain when I grow up.” So I just wondered: Where did that come from? What was your journey that led you here to us?

Lisa: Well, I think for myself, I grew up at Anaheim Free Methodist Church in Southern California, and my mom was actually really involved in our musical dance choir. At that time she actually, as I was growing up, brought me in and I got to choreograph dances and just found a love for, I think, worshiping God, but then just being with people and loving people. I felt like that moment was kind of like the kickstart of just growing this desire and this love in my heart. I think not just for ministry but for just doing life with people. So I didn’t ever anticipate actually being in ministry. I was a business major and was really kind of focused on that. At some point I remember just thinking, I actually just want to go back and learn. So that’s how I decided to go to seminary. I didn’t have a vocation or occupation in mind. I just was like, I just wanted to learn the Scriptures. That’s how I ended up in seminary.

I remember getting close to graduation and a lot my friends knew exactly what they’re going to do. They’re going to be pastors or they’re going to be missionaries in the mission field. I was like, Lord, I have no idea. I could go back into business. I could go into ministry. Then God opened the doors for me to serve as the director of chapel programs at Biola University. I think in that space, I felt like God took all of the experiences that I had in internships and my love for the church and people and gave me an opportunity to do something that I really loved and to figure out that I really loved it.

I was there for 10 years and I wasn’t looking. Then God just kind of shoulder tapped me through a friend and he’s like, “Lisa, I think that you should pray about this possibility.” So I did and I had 54 people at home, my really good friends and people in my church, praying for me. The interesting thing is I was going through that discernment process, my whole group was like, “We really believe this is what God has next for you.” That for me really just like felt like confirmation that God is just kind of multiple steps ahead of me and just seeing what he’s doing in me and opening up doors for me to step into. So I have never lived anywhere else but Southern California, but I definitely uprooted my life and was open to seeing what God would do. Now I have the privilege of serving here. I felt more and more, especially like a year and a half in, that this is what God has created me to do.

“Then God just kind of shoulder tapped me through a friend and he’s like, ‘Lisa, I think that you should pray about this possibility.'”

I love what I get to do. I love my team. I respect them. I think that they’re amazing. And just to be able to be a part of walking with students through things that are super exciting, but then also just places that are really hard and really challenging. I think one of the passions on my heart is to create spaces where students can ask hard questions. I love that part of just meeting people where they are. So that’s kind of how I got here. Wasn’t planning on being in ministry, but God has a funny way of just inviting us into things that we didn’t expect.

Amanda: In the story you just told, I heard a little bit of a clue how God made you this personality that is right for being the chaplain at a university. When you said my 54 close friends, I don’t think a lot of us could quickly name 54 maybe Facebook friends, not close friends, that were with you praying this through for you. So I think that alone shows a personality that is ready to be in many, many relationships and therefore a lot of people, which is fabulous. You also mentioned the singing and the dancing, which I did that, too, for awhile.

Lisa: Did you really?

Amanda: In my church that I grew up in, which I love that. Have you been able to bring some of that creativity to your work here?

Lisa: I think in different ways. I think it shows up. I think the most exciting part for me has actually been creating spaces to try to help empower my team to really allow maybe new thinking or new dreaming into different spaces. We have talked about like different things. Like this year we tried chapel on the road for this quarter and it’s actually been amazing. We basically every other week are meeting in Upper Gwinn because we have a lot of commuter students. But then every other week we actually are going into the dorms. We have actually seen our numbers for student attendees skyrocket. For us, that’s huge because chapel is like one of these spaces that it’s a privilege to be able to gather together as students, faculty, and staff. But I think as I’ve watched the dynamic change on our campus and even other campuses nationwide, I think part of the conversation is how do we meet students where they are? What does that look like? It’s not just the location; it’s actually like what is God doing in their lives?

As our campus has really grown in diversity in so many different capacities, part of that is then how do we meet students in these different spaces? Some of them come from different denominations, some of them come and actually aren’t Christians, but have been coming to chapel, which that was an unexpected surprise. The way that I’ve kind of talked about it is we want to help students to go deeper. I thought chapel really was that piece. But we’re also finding it’s also what I’ve been calling like an on ramp kind of ministry in the sense of we want to welcome our students in to experience God in different ways and we actually are going through the Book of Job. it’s one of my favorite books. Some people were like, “Oh, really?” But actually it talks about friendships and relationships. It talks about being honest in the spaces that are very challenging, and it talks about God being big enough to hold all of our questions.

I feel like that has given students space to also ask different questions. I think for me that’s just been kind of a gift of … I haven’t been able to bring dance in yet, but I think finding other ways that we can be expressive in who we are and be reflective of the kingdom of God. One of the pieces that I was able to work on the chapter you were talking about earlier, it really is how can we more fully reflect the body of Christ? Which is really a reflection of the image of God. I believe that we have a diverse God. There’s a reason why we have all of these churches written about in the New Testament. So I want us to be able to reflect the fullness and the beauty of who God is that is reflected in our student body.

“I believe that we have a diverse God. There’s a reason why we have all of these churches written about in the new Testament. So I want us to be able to reflect the fullness and the beauty of who God is that is reflected in our student body.”

I love being creative and my team knows, I call it seed planting, I will just like throw out little ideas and see what happens. Some of them take off and some of them don’t, and then they kind of like grow and launch their own ideas. I feel like that’s a good place to be.

Amanda: You keep using the word space, and I want to talk about that for a minute because I think it can be a little bit of a buzzword, create space for something, but I know with your work that is very much what you are doing. I think for those of us who haven’t been on a college campus for a long time, you maybe remember what your own experience was like and you were … Well, this is when we went to chapel. It was 11 a.m. on Tuesday or whatever day that was for you and you went to chapel and of course there was the space.

But I think with today’s student, they are so full. They have their iPhone in front of them at all time. They don’t just have classes, they don’t just have money issues, but they have the world coming at them 24/7 and they are full in a way that I think, I know for myself, I wasn’t when I was a college student. I just want to talk about that making space because I think it’s a much bigger deal now than it has been in the past.

Lisa: Yes, and I think that because we have such a diverse student body, space is different for each student to some degree or each group of students. So that’s part of, I think, the challenge and then also the blessing of being on a diverse campus. Part of it is I think trying to discern where students are at, how do they connect? How do they receive? What is their particular journey and how do we meet them in that place?

I think sometimes it’s going to be in some of these larger gatherings where we get to ask bigger picture questions and help people to think about the Scriptures in a way that isn’t just like reading the Bible, but what is the wisdom that’s incarnated in this Scripture that can actually impact our lives? Because I believe that if something is true, if God has given it to us in the Word, it’s good for all people. Then what does it look like to contextualize that to students who are in all these different places?

I think that’s what we’re trying to do. So sometimes it comes out in our one-on-one, like pastoral care appointments, we all like meet with students one on one. I think in those spaces, we’re able to sit with students in a way that maybe they’ve never had someone sit with them. I think that part of my calling or job is actually to help students ask big questions of God and then to be able to sit in the tension with God to say, “Okay, do you have something to say to me?” Or, “Is this a space you’re going to be silent in and that I’m just supposed to sit for a bit and see what happens?”

I think in some of our other programs, like we do have small groups and places for students to more interact, like we did a Bible study on the Book of Galatians earlier. That actually, if you study the Book of Galatians, it’s a little dicey. Like almost every possible social or relevant conversation could literally come up in the Book of Galatians. And yet the Book of Galatians is talking about our justification and our salvation.

I’m like, that is such perfect place to be. That actually allowed us to create a space for students to ask questions about the church that they were really struggling with. What we had done is we had brought in a handful of pastors from local churches. We actually all sat together and we went through the Book of Galatians, chapter by chapter. I love that because we have so many denominations really locally close to us. For these pastors to be willing to come and have these conversations with our students I think was such a gift because literally every pastor has different convictions for different reasons. I think to even model for our students that there are still things we’re learning, like you won’t arrive probably until glorification. I think there is something to being in these spaces where we can model pursuing God with other people even if it looks different than what we have known in the past.

Yeah, I feel like there are these larger gatherings. We have these smaller like one-on-one gatherings. We just had started this past year a faith and leadership circle. It’s our second layer of student leadership and we just have conversations every Wednesday. We were just kind of asking them, “Hey, do you want to keep going or should we table it because finals are coming?” They’re like, “This is the only space that I can just come and it doesn’t feel stressful.” There’s a part of me that’s like a Pastor [inaudible 00:13:24] down the street and myself and the Pastor Paul Kim, we sit with our students every week and we just get to love on them and they just get to be themselves and they get to talk about their ministry or they get to talk about how stressful things are. But it was a place that we wanted to be able to come alongside them. So it’s kind of cool just to see what things just grassroots kind of come up and start happening. Then we have these other spaces that we get to be very intentional about crafting.

Amanda: That feels so good to me to have a space that you would regularly go to that you can walk in with the “I don’t know,” and just sit with the “I don’t know” and that being okay. Between again, social media and you’re in school and you’re taking tests and you’re answering questions and you’re spitting out answers. To sit in a place regularly that you can all say together, “I don’t know the answer to this.” That feels good. It feels like a good space to have for students.

Lisa: I feel like it gives them a different kind of freedom because I think they’re trying and working so hard to understand. Most of the things we want are concrete and they’re like tangible. But there really is something about the life of faith, of living into the unknown and the uncertain. That’s such a hard place to sit in. So sometimes it’s just really helpful to have another person sitting with you in that tension to remind you you are not alone. I think that’s why God gave us the Holy Spirit. But it’s also super helpful when we have another person of faith who is there with us just to remind us that we’re fully loved and accepted just in the space that we’re at.

Even if we feel like, I just bombed that test, or I just got into this fight with my roommate. But that you can still be loved no matter what. I think it’s so easy to forget that because of things like social media or all the things that we’re getting all the messages from everything around us. But to have a space to come back and just be reminded. I think it’s like a spiritual rhythm.

“But there really is something about the life of faith, of living into the unknown and the uncertain. That’s such a hard place to sit in. So sometimes it’s just really helpful to have another person sitting with you in that tension to remind you you are not alone.”

Amanda: Absolutely. Absolutely. As a parent of a college-aged student myself, how can any of us really that have a young person in their lives, how can we be a support? Because I think sometimes we try and help and the ways we help sometimes add stress. From your perspective, a very unique and wonderful perspective, what can we do to bring more space to those young people in our lives?

Lisa: I often resonate with parent’s deep desire to want to like love their children and want to protect them and want them to make the decisions that we think will be the most fruitful for them, and we kind of want to guide them into those spaces. I think all of that is really important for students to know. Like, I’m loved, I have somebody like cheering for me. I know that I’m loved no matter what. I think in the middle of that, sometimes on accident, we start communicating things that we don’t actually intend to communicate because every student, I mean if you have more than one child, you know both of your children are different. They’re two totally unique people who view the world through different lenses because of their own experiences. What maybe might really work for one student may not actually work the same for the other student.

I think part of the journey or the privilege that we get to have is coming alongside each person individually and really getting to know who they are, learning their story, what is God doing in their lives? I think there is something to being curious about the people that we get to walk with. I think for parents or for mentors or for friends, as we get to like walk alongside a students that are like college-age or even like post-college-age, I think there is this invitation of getting to just sit and listen and getting to know somebody for the pure joy of getting to know that person and seeing that as a gift. I think in that, there also is the discipline of at moments holding back and not sharing like, this is what I think about what’s happening in your life. There’s moments to, I think, share those encouragements, but I think there’s also moments to say maybe the discipline here is to really focus on what God is doing in their lives.

One of the things that I often even remind myself when I’m sitting with students one on one is coming back to question of what is God doing in this person’s life and how do I help them to cooperate with what God is doing? I think in that space, part of it is that I want this student or this person to own their own journey of faith and their own questions. There has to come a point where we kind of own our own belief system or we own our own dislikes and likes. I’ve worked with college students long enough and even my own journey and my own friends to see how many people actually walked away from the church or walked away from their journey of faith once graduation hit.

“There has to come a point where we kind of own our own belief system or we own our own dislikes and likes.”

It makes me ask the question of, did we or did they not have their own space to actually own their own journey of faith to have a real meaningful relationship with God? I think part of the gift that we have is to come alongside and help them to ask those questions. Especially those of us that are a little bit further along on the journey, we can sometimes anticipate what those are. We can actually ask some really good informative questions that will help them to ask good questions of God as well. I think there are a lot of great resources out there, but I would say my strongest encouragement would be if you can learn to more and more sit with someone and hear their story and love them just as they are and be aware of if I’m communicating judgment or my own lovely thoughts, that we would I think just be self aware about that. And figure out like what does it then look like to … because we’re all going to be in community with it. If this is your family, like you’re all stuck together.

I think there is something to that’s just going to be a part of the relationship and it’s part of them growing and individuating into being adults, which is always hard to let go. But I think there is a gift in them asking those hard questions. I think the hardest part is when you see them going down a road that you think is going to be harmful for them, and I think there is something to figuring out how do I walk alongside my student in that and not necessarily try to control or direct that piece? That’s hard because what that is actually asking is God growing faith in you and trusting that God is sovereign even over things that could be challenging or things that are hard.

At some of our parent gatherings, I’ve had the opportunity to kind of say a couple of parents, “What do you think God is doing in your life and how do you think God might be growing and shaping you as you journey with your student?” That’s such a hard question that people start crying because it’s that whole heart-wrenching, like I love this person so much and …

Amanda: And it’s your job. You feel like God gave you this job to make this person perfect and you’re like, but I have to do my job, I have to finish my job. So it’s hard to give space. It’s hard to give space in that.

Lisa: Yes.

Amanda: I remember from my own life as a young person, there were moments where the best thing my mom did for me was give me space when the pressure was too much and she would say, “Well, you don’t have to do that.” “What do you mean I don’t have to do that? We put down this huge deposit. I have a plane ticket.” “Well you don’t have to. Stay home and do something else.” Then I would get on the plane and go to the study abroad or whatever it was. It was the space that I needed. It was removing the pressure that let me be okay to do that thing. I think that’s so important at this age to just remove the pressure instead of double down on the pressure.

Lisa: Yeah. We just don’t realize we’re doubling down, right?

Amanda: Right. We don’t want to. We’re trying to help. We’re doing our job.

Lisa: Yeah, yeah.

Amanda: Well, Lisa, this has been awesome and I’ve loved our conversation and I would like to end with the same question I ask everybody. If everyone in Seattle woke up tomorrow and did one small thing differently that was going to make this world a better place, what should we do?

Lisa: If it was a beautiful sunny day, I would say to go out and enjoy beauty, to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. I feel like our lives are so fast paced, especially being in the city of Seattle, that we don’t take these moments to be transformed by God, God self. So I think if we can find these moments or these spaces just to dwell or be present with God with nobody asking anything of us, but just to sit in admiration or just to take a moment to receive something as opposed to being productive people. I actually think that that would change how we do life. It would change how we interact with one another. I think that it would also change our productivity and that productivity would look different. But I do think that also it provides this moment for God to divinely break in and show God’s self to us, which I think that actually does change who we are because when we know that we’re loved, we know that we’re cared for, when we get to experience joy and delight in beauty, I believe that God does amazing things.

Amanda: Thank you for that. How about praying us out?

Lisa: Sure. I’d love to. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I just thank you so much just for the opportunity that we have had to sit with one another, to be in fellowship, to be in conversation, God, to talk about really good things. As we have been able to I think talk about journeying together to talk about our students, to talk about our own spiritual growth. God, I know that you want to make yourself known to us, that you want us to know that you are for us, that you love us, that we are fully known, fully accepted, fully cared for by you in whatever space we’re in. God. I pray that your Holy Spirit would continue to be our great teacher, that your Holy Spirit would also continue to be our great comforter in the spaces that feel uncomfortable, God, but that your Holy Spirit would also birth joy and your goodness and moments of delight in you.

So God, it is a privilege just to be able to sit together and to pray together, to know and to be reminded that we are not alone. So God, today I pray that you would give us a moment to take in beauty, that you would also allow us to offer ourselves to you and to one another. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Amanda: Amen. Thank you, Lisa.


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