Nurturing the Pastor’s Soul

spiritual formation

Mandy Smith: My Top 4 Books on Spiritual Formation

We get it. It has been a difficult season with some ups and a lot of downs for everyone. In 2020, churches big or small, urban or rural had to rethink how they would reach an online-only audience while still making budget, meeting practical needs and ministering to hurting souls. And in the midst of this unknown, church leaders had to shoulder the heavy weight of figuring out how to do church when square pegs didn’t fit into holes that were now round.

Some pastors thrived in this new environment; others struggled. While there are stories in this issue of Outreach about churches that are doing well, we aren’t fooling ourselves to believe that there aren’t a lot of people feeling discouraged right now.

Whether you are doing OK or not, we know everyone can use some time alone with God for their spiritual health. So in this issue that celebrates the resilient church, we also celebrate resilient church leaders. Because we wanted to offer some thoughtful resources on spiritual formation that could help strengthen and encourage you, we asked Mandy Smith to give us her top selections.

Originally from Australia, Smith is lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP) and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture (Brazos). Learn more about her work at

Recently I took part in a professional development course. The trainer, who spends her days with pastors, said in passing, “You’d be surprised how many pastors only pray and read their Bibles when they’re preparing a sermon.”

How can we talk with any integrity or authority about something (or someone) we don’t personally know? And how can we convincingly invite our congregations to engage with a God we’re not engaging with? 

I understand why we hesitate. Our personal faith comes and goes. Our limited understanding of God doesn’t seem a reliable thing upon which to base a vocation. Or maybe we’ve watched too many leaders use their congregations for their own personal counseling. So it’s more safe and consistent to just approach our role as a set of tasks, to function out of a sense of obligation. 

But for the sake of our own souls and of those we lead, it’s vital that we figure out healthy ways to allow our faith to fuel our work, and our work to fuel our faith. This way we become living examples. The most powerful lesson we have to offer is not our clever words or programs but our faithful following. We owe it to our congregations to follow well and let them watch that daily faithfulness in all its imperfection and ordinariness.

To start on a journey of spiritual growth, I recommend these titles be in your library:

Ruth Haley Barton in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (IVP) sees ministry as a place where we are shaped to be more like Christ. She invites pastors to remember that remaining connected to God is a way to nourish both ourselves and those we lead. 

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, Second Edition by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich (Sheffield Publishing Co.) explores significant stages in the life of faith that are incredibly insightful for both our personal faith development and the development of those we lead. 

Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity by Eugene Peterson (Wm. B. Eerdmans) describes three acts that are foundational for both the vocation and personal faith of pastors: prayer, Scripture reading and spiritual direction. It’s not surprising to learn his value for these three practices, but their true value will only be found in our regular devotion to them.

The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation, Second Edition by Jim Herrington, Trisha Taylor and R. Robert Creech (Baker Academic) invites leaders to know their own responses to anxiety and pain, both as a way to be healthy in themselves and as a way to lead without reactivity to the anxiety and pain of others.

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