Healthy leaders are sustained by kingdom life.
THE FUTURE OF THE CHURCH—PART 3
On Saturday, April 26, 1986, a nuclear catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused upwards of 350,000 people to be evacuated from Pripyat, Ukraine, and surrounding areas. The disaster in reactor No. 4 was so devastating that a 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone eventually had to be created around the area.
But then a curious thing happened. Within three years, the remains of Pripyat began to show signs of life. Nature was coming into its own. Now, 35 years later, the once-bustling city is an overgrown, thriving forest of plant and animal life.
As a natural resources graduate, this topic interests me greatly. An article posted on BBC.com titled “How Plants Reclaimed Chernobyl’s Poisoned Land” reports that the unique genetic traits of the local plants have enabled the resilient and now-teeming life to take hold. Anyone who is a gardener knows how plants want to grow, expand and flourish. Have you ever tried to get rid of mint? Or a tree? Have you seen the results of a brutal pruning?
As a participant, volunteer leader and guide to other leaders in the church in the wake of the onset and enduring implications of COVID-19, the story of the new Pripyat encourages me even more. The metaphors of the vine, the mustard seed, the fields ripe for harvest all remind us that, no matter what appearances might be, the kingdom of God is very much alive. Always.
When Hope Is Thin
While this recent season has certainly been challenging, the greatest blow to my sense of hope came in the early 1990s when my husband Jeff and I threw ourselves fully into planting a new church in Boston.
We formed our own 501(c)3, raised the funds, began casting vision, aligned with others who shared this desire—and proceeded to fall headlong into a series of failures and disappointments. Many great things happened through that effort, to be sure. But the difficulties I encountered exposed my self-reliance, my mixed motives, my unhealthy relationship patterns and much more.
At that time, hope was thin. One help for me came from an unlikely source: The Secret Garden, the Broadway musical based on the children’s classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When the characters uncover the abandoned garden, the gardener Dickon Sowerby sings about the quality of living things. This song, “Wick,” regularly opened up my tear ducts because it reminded me of hope for life in the unseen realm, the invisible place where life could go on, even when surrounded by seeming death.
I think back on that time as a severe mercy because everything I have cared about, learned and become after emerging from that experience shaped my resolve and my point of view, giving me great hope for living and leading from a healthy soul. This has become more important as we are now seeing the aftereffects of a crisis when hope is very thin.
We don’t know who our church members actually are right now. We don’t know how many people have left, and we don’t know whether they’ve left the faith or just left our church for another that better aligns with their political views. We don’t know whether the economics will work out or if our organizations are financially viable. Many leaders I talk to are beyond weary, beyond another pivot, beyond another family leaving, beyond another young leader leaving the faith. We ourselves could well be described as being harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
We wonder, Where is that Good Shepherd who is supposed to lead us and protect us?
I have absolute optimism for the body of Christ and for every leader serving in this moment. To get there, though, we need to wade through the Now, the Next and the Never Again.
The Now is about asking, “What’s the church’s reality today?” It’s no secret; the statistics are all around us.
• Barna reports that most Christians in the U.S. do not know what the Great Commission is.
• Also from Barna, 50% of churchgoers do not look to their churches for insight on vocation.
• Deconstruction of faith among the sub-30 age segment seems rampant.
• Several heroes of our faith journey have been exposed for severe abuses of power.
• Many pastors and staff are unsure whether they want to continue in vocational ministry.
• Numerous protestant churches have experienced severe financial shortfalls in the wake of the pandemic, and many are facing closure.
In addition, podcasts, emails, blog posts, books, conferences, webinars, social media and even political text messages are constantly vying for our attention. They broadcast tips and tricks, changes and pivots, failure-porn and shame-filled messages. The net effect on pastors of this barrage is raising our collective cortisol levels, inviting doomscrolling––scrolling through negative news and depressing stories late into the night––leaving us feeling like failures, exhausted and hopeless.
Maybe you can relate. Most leaders I’ve worked with over the last few months identify with a general lack of emotional, physical, relational and spiritual margin. One leader from Florida observed, “In the past, pastors have been purveyors of certainty. Right now, that is impossible. Maybe it never should have been that way.”
Personally, this past year caused me to face patterns of self-sabotage that had crept like a vile weed into my daily habits. I had to face unhelpful ways of relating to others. I’ve enlisted the help of more than a few experts to restore health and life to my Now. By God’s grace, I’m making progress. My Now is leaner, stronger, more relationally vulnerable and more engaged.
At church, we share much of the uncertainty that exists everywhere, but we have also witnessed a refreshed commitment to prayer. We have seen young, diverse leaders recognized and elevated.
On many levels, in many ways, I believe facing the reality of The Now offers a clue to The Next.
We all seek answers to the big questions: What’s coming? How can we prepare? What will be our challenges in the future? What are the opportunities in the future? What should be our strategies? What resources should we secure now for later?
And the deeper questions: Will I be OK? Will I ever feel energy again? Will I ever love ministry again? Will my church make it? Will my family survive the conflict we’ve endured? Will I have to find another job?
I want to suggest that everything related to The Next hinges on one central point: the well-being of your soul. Does that sound too simplistic? Do you roll your eyes and wish for something more practical? Or could this be exactly the invitation God has been whispering to you for weeks, months, maybe years?
I believe God’s persistent invitation hovers over each of us. It’s as near as your breath. As strong as steel. It doesn’t require an advanced degree in spiritual formation. It won’t take you five years or five months or five hours of solitude to find. Access to soul health is immediate.
The defining feature of faith-filled and fruitful communities in the future will not be the size of the church, the role of the building, the level of digital sophistication, the mode of governance, the affiliation with networks or denominations. The defining feature will be life; a quality of life available in the kingdom of God.
We can participate in that life right here and right now. And that will primarily, more than anything else, determine The Next.
Consider this list of characteristics of people who lead from a healthy soul:
• They are peace-filled in crises and in calm times. And during crises, they do not revert to authoritarian or avoidance behaviors.
• They know intimately what it means to be part of or to create community.
• They do not depend on themselves for the vision of the organization.
• They can give power away without feeling a loss of self.
• They are connected intimately to God.
• They do not project their pain or addiction onto others.
• They do not burn out or succumb to stress.
• They practice integrity, reflection and collaboration.
• They have a strong sense of humor and creativity.
• They are courageous.
• Above all, they are life-giving.
—Janet Hagberg in Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations
A healthy soul makes these scenarios possible, even inevitable. The nature of this style of healthy leadership requires that a healthy soul must come first. It must be the priority.
The Never Again
COVID-19 exposed many things. It exposed that “church” had become largely connected to the event where we gather. That the call to being a pastor had primarily become a call to one-way communication. That we struggle to imagine a way of being and serving into the shared life of the people of God in a place other than the one-to-many large-group gatherings. That for long-term, faithful, devoted attendees of church, the experience of coming into church on a Sunday morning, grabbing a coffee, sitting down for an hour or so and then leaving wasn’t all that different than going into their kitchen, grabbing a coffee, sitting down for an hour or so and then walking away. The ones who most felt the difference were those standing up front, not those in the pews.
Many churchgoers reported that their spiritual life was not significantly different as a result of the church not being able to gather. In fact, some said it had improved as they learned afresh to rest. Ouch.
What do we do with this? How might this shape our shared future?
I do not offer a particular mode. Rather, I’d invite you to a fresh posture and position. Take the position of a deeply loved child. The position of one held, as it were, in the mighty hand of God. The position of one whose ultimate well-being is firmly anchored in God. When human imaginations tend to run toward securing our well-being, God’s invitation whispers over our frantic efforts, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness (lacking anxiety) and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it” (Isa. 30:15).
The leaders in Isaiah’s day sought their national and spiritual security through all the conventional means of securing power to self-protect and determine outcomes: powerful alliances, well-equipped armies, strategies for protection and escape. If we’re honest, many of us have done the same. But God’s invitation rings down through the centuries: Come to me. Remain in me. Learn from me. Rest in me. Let your work come from overflow.
The church of the future will be led by those who are marked by kingdom life. By the Fruit of the Spirit. By a lightness of being. By joy. By hope. By a posture toward relationship. By a servant spirit. By an unhurried, unanxious confidence and peace. By creativity. By openness. By humility.
There is no gimmick. No killer strategy. Just the timely and timeless invitation to pray, to partner with God (on God’s terms, not ours), to take obedient risks with energy and intensity while letting go of outcomes. May it be true that, 20 years from now, we see there was a distinct shift in what is expected and experienced in the life of those who are called by God to lead, that they flourish in all dimensions, public and private.
As we look to the future, I believe just as life returned to Pripyat so it will return to the church. The life-sustaining resources available to us in the kingdom of God are certainly abundant enough in supply. Though we have lost many lives through COVID-19, we remain. We wake another day; we engage in the world around us; our burdens have not been fatal. It follows then that life will flourish.
So how about you? Consider all the dimensions of soul, of self, of body, relationships, mind. What’s your holistic plan for self-care? Silent prayer? Sleep? Sabbath? Exercise? Nutrition? Recreation? Hobbies? Life-giving relationships? Vocation? Finances?
At Gloo, we have partnered with the Barna Group and thought leaders from the Human Flourishing Project at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science to deeply explore the dynamics of human flourishing. The concept of human flourishing is surely what the Hebrew word shalom calls to mind. Research has shown five key drivers to human flourishing that would warrant a prominent place of reflection and intentionality in whatever structure, trellis, rule of life or plan you develop.
1. Spiritual Health
2. Relational Health
3. Physical/Mental Health
4. Financial Health
5. Vocational Health
A simple assessment will help you see where you’re at in these five areas. All five warrant a place in your overall plan. At a high-level, my structure generally looks like this these days.
• Spiritual: prayer, journaling, reading
• Relational: seeking help in troubled relationships, continuing to build into the strong ones
• Physical/Mental: Intentional habits around sleep, food and exercise
• Financial: Practicing generosity, contentment and better awareness
• Vocational: Embracing calling, embracing service
As you move toward soul health, you will be able to answer the multitude of questions that cannot now be known or discerned, and also that cannot be simply copied and pasted from someone else’s ministry context, gifting, resources or calling.
This is your journey, and we all need for you to take it.
A Final Word About Your Calling
In my lifetime, vocational ministry has never been more difficult. You have never been more misunderstood, robbed of the validating benefits of your role, placed in impossible situations where no matter what you say—or don’t say—you will be criticized, judged and abandoned. You have never been more scrutinized, confused, without options and seemingly alone.
I see you. We see you. I know you’re waking up each and every day trying to follow the latest best practices, the latest research, the ancient paths, the teachings of Jesus. And trying to keep your marriage afloat, your finances in check, your kids on a solid path and your personal health in a good place.
I know you’re exhausted. You’re afraid. You’re tired of being tired. You forget that God is with you, that God is for you. And then you forget that you forgot.
You resent your congregation. You can’t focus. You make dumb mistakes. You rehearse your mistakes. You are defensive and angry and paranoid and tired. Again, you’re tired. You put massive pressure on yourself. You get angry at Scriptures that speak to a different life than the one you’re currently living.
But here’s what I also know is true:
1. Your performance has nothing to do with your worth. Nothing.
2. Your family is rooting for you. Even if they’re angry, distant and also beyond hope. They want you back.
3. God is able to meet you in the full totality of your interior and exterior circumstances. Right here, right now.
4. God’s posture toward you remains unfailingly, irreversibly, relentlessly for you. For your good, for your life, for your flourishing.
Even now, while you’re reading these words, the river of God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s loving-kindness is flowing all around you.
Your part in God’s kingdom is uniquely yours, and really matters. Whether you stay in vocational ministry or find yourself elsewhere, your life is still part of the unfolding story of God in human history. You will never leave ministry, and that’s a good thing.
Care for your soul. Like the treasure in a field, sell everything if you must to get back to a place of rest and connection in God’s presence. Everything else you care about will flow from that place.
A PAGE, A PERSON AND A PLAN
As my team and I have worked with denominations, large and small churches and various parachurch organizations, we have been inviting leaders into a simple framework to support the health and life of their souls, even in the context of ministry.
Here are three practical ways to examine your personal way of life and see whether opportunities are present to open yourself further to what God has for you.
• A Page. Souls increase in health as we embrace reflection and self-awareness. There may be many ways to enter this complicated and convoluted interior environment, but one of the best places I’ve returned to again and again is in the pages of a journal. A journal provides the non-judgmental invitation to authentic self-expression, focused prayer, sincere questioning of self and God. There is benefit to physically writing, in slowing your mind and harnessing several dimensions of the brain.
If you want to experiment or refresh your journaling practice, our Jump-Start into Journaling experience was created with you in mind. We created a way you can receive daily journaling prompts via text for 21 days. Text JRNL21 to (833) 518-1287. We also have another free resource, Write for Your Soul at SoulCare.com.
• A Person. We all need a third safe space—a real-life, human relationship where we can be fully honest, seen, known and supported in our journey. This safe space could be found through a counselor, a life coach, a spiritual director, ministry peer or a cohort of other leaders. Whether virtually or in-person, we all need someone with whom we can be gut-level honest about our struggles and challenges and doubts and fears—and also about our joys, hopes, aspirations and dreams.
Everything we are learning from neuroscience about the role of relationships in our transformation reinforces and validates what we have long sensed: We have the capacity to be positively shaped and reshaped by certain kinds of relationships. But truly open, authentic and unagenda-ed relationships are tremendously difficult to develop in the midst of vocational ministry. So the services of spiritual directors, coaches, therapists and others can be vital to our soul’s health and growth.
Our team provides professional, virtual spiritual direction and coaching to individuals and organizations. Learn more at SoulCare.com
Collective.soulcare.com is a virtual community we are building through Soul Care. You can access groups, cohorts, courses, virtual and in-person events, and more.
• A Plan. Once again, we turn to neuroscience, spiritual formation and ancient wisdom of the church to see the value of a plan. Historically, the people of God would develop a shared rule of life, or a way of life, as a structure of intentionality to support growth. Like a garden trellis, the structure itself has no ability to impart life, but to a plant seeking to grow, the structure gives something to hang onto, something to share the weight, something to increase exposure to the light and air, and ultimately, something to increase the fruit borne.