Keeping a Focus on Prayer

August 21, 2008

Lina Sánchez-Herrera has been active in campus ministry since she was a student member of Unidad Cristiana Universitaria (UCU), the Colombia affiliate of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). UCU is where she met her husband, Wilson Herrera.“We have been involved with college ministry our whole lives, it seems,” she commented.

Following 25 years of leadership in UCU, Lina and Wilson came to the U.S. for advanced study at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1997. As they settled their family in the Chicago area they met new friends who knew about their ministry with IFES, and encouraged them to become involved with InterVarsity. “It was a natural connection,” she said.

Six years ago, after earning a Master’s Degree in Christian Ministries, Lina began as a staff worker with InterVarsity and became the spiritual formation and prayer coordinator for the Northern Illinois/Northern Indiana Division. Now, in 2008, she has been appointed National Prayer and Spiritual Formation Specialist, working under the director of Joe Moore and Jay Sivits, co-directors of prayer and spiritual formation.

Just as Joe and Jay are following the footsteps of Doug and Marilyn Stewart, who recently reduced their hours and stepped back from directing spiritual formation for the movement, Lina is succeeding Mary Anne Voelkel, who has been InterVarsity’s point person for prayer ministry for almost two decades.

Lina and Mary Anne both want to see prayer continuing as the center of student, graduate and faculty ministry, as it was in the early years of InterVarsity. “This movement was planted in prayer,” Lina said. The Daily Quiet Time for personal devotions and the Daily Prayer Meeting on each campus were important themes for InterVarsity.

Dan Harrison wanted to re-emphasize prayer as he began planning Urbana 90. He contacted Mary Anne Voelkel and invited her to work behind the scenes, leading prayer and training prayer leadership. Mary Anne and her husband Jack were missionaries in Colombia and had met Dan at the IFES World Assembly in Colombia.

Mary Anne continued in the same prayer role at Urbana 93 and Urbana 96. “I love leading teams,” she said. “I found a hunger for God and for prayer among the many staff that joined us.” As preparations began for Urbana 2000 Jack and Mary Anne were invited to move to the National Service Center. Mary Anne began providing prayer leadership not only for Urbana but for the broader movement through ONS and NISET, Spring and Fall meetings, and national staff conferences. She also by partnered with Doug and Marilyn Stewart in spiritual formation activities.

“What started as an Urbana thrust in 1990 has become an enrichment of the prayer thread that has been in InterVarsity’s DNA since the beginning, but which had become a sort of ‘recessive gene,’” Mary Anne said. “What makes me happy about what’s happening in InterVarsity is not just that we pray more, but that through prayer we are growing closer to God and depending more on him as we carry out the mission he has given us.”

Mary Anne believes that InterVarsity has improved staff retention by emphasizing prayer and spiritual formation. “Instead of being drained by ministry many staff have been refreshed and empowered by days of spiritual formation and by times in God’s palpable presence in the Prayer Room,” she said.

It’s interesting that the person selected to assume Mary Anne’s prayer leadership position in InterVarsity is someone she mentored more than three decades ago in student ministry in Colombia. “She taught me how to study the Bible,” Lina recalled. They met regularly for Bible study, to answer Lina’s questions, and then eventually they worked together on the national leadership team that wrote materials on discipleship and trained leaders. Lina became a UCU student leader and then a staff worker. She remained active in UCU as national advisor during the years that her husband served as general secretary.

Since coming to the U.S. to study, “we decided to stay until God says go,” she said. Wilson now works as the national Christian Formation coordinator for Latino ministry with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Lina has been teaching Spanish at Wheaton College, in addition to her work with InterVarsity, and she got her certificate as spiritual director from North Park Theological Seminar this July. Andrés, the oldest of their three children, is also on staff with InterVarsity. Daughters Adriana and Denise are both enrolled on campuses of the University of Illinois.

Joe Moore said that Lina was a natural choice to succeed Mary Anne as national prayer and spiritual formation coordinator, because of her education and her experience. “Her work with UCU is impressive and invaluable,” he said. “She is trusted and respected by the national leadership.” She has worked with Mary Anne and the prayer team for last two Urbana conventions.

Byron Graham, who has been Lina’s most recent supervisor, said that her ministry gifts include “a soft sensitivity to the Holy Spirit.” This sensitivity has been particularly helpful with staff who are evaluating their long term role in InterVarsity. “She has guided them through a process of hearing God’s call to ministry or to something else,” he said. “She is also a great teacher and has taught our division on the rhythms of work and rest.”

Lina has also been appointed the Urbana 09 Prayer Coordinator, and is already making plans to mobilize prayer for Urbana 09. She says that figuring out what else is entailed by her new role as National Prayer and Spiritual Formation specialist will come into focus in time. She is excited about the opportunities that lay ahead for the student Christian movement in the U.S. “I have a sense of calling about this ministry,” she said. “I couldn’t say no to Jesus.”

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The complete interview with Mary Anne Voelkel, talking about prayer and InterVarsity, is this week’s InterVarsity podcast. It’s available for listening and/or downloading at InterVarsity’s audio page.