Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership

Ruth Haley Barton: Seeing God in the Crucible of Ministry

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership
Seeing God in the Crucible of Ministry

(IVP Books, 2018)

WHO: Ruth Haley Barton, founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center.

SHE SAYS: “Staying involved with our soul is not narcissistic navel gazing; rather, this kind of attentiveness helps us stay on the path of becoming our true self in God—a self that is capable of an ever-deepening yes to God’s call on our life.”

THE BIG IDEA: Using the story of Moses as a touchstone, Ruth helps readers explore the aspects of their leadership that are life-giving (or soul-draining) and re-evaluate the spiritual practices that can help them maintain a strong connection with God.

Divided into 13 chapters, this book begins by looking at what happens when leaders lose their souls. It guides readers in finding their own place of conversion, providing hope for leaders in and out of ministry context. It also shows why solitude is a key discipline for leaders of all temperaments.
Next, the text explores the importance of paying attention, understanding what “calling” really means and guiding others on their spiritual journey.
The book wraps up by honestly addressing the loneliness of leadership, the spiritual rhythms in the life of a leader and finding God’s will. Each chapter ends with a spiritual practice and the appendix in the back includes a self-assessment for leaders.

“Those who are looking to us for spiritual sustenance need us first and foremost to be spiritual seekers ourselves. They need us to keep searching for the bread of life that feeds our own souls so that we can guide them to places of sustenance for their own souls.”

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For pastors, how does connection with other pastors help in nourishing their souls?

Well, it depends on what kind of connection it is and for what purpose. Many leaders today are very connected to ministry colleagues in networking sorts of ways that keep them responsive to the external world of achievement and success. Ministerial conferences and other gatherings often become just another place where a pastor has to be “on” and where the ego gets all riled up to do better and to do more—to the point that they are out of touch with their souls and what God is saying to them there. Such connections among pastors may be good for other things but are not necessarily nourishing to the soul.

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What pastors really need is spiritual companionship with other pastors where they can just be souls in God’s presence and listen to what God is saying to them in the context of the unique challenges of life in ministry. To have relationships where we can be honest about the challenges, give good attention to our own transformational journeys, be supported in hearing and responding to God’s risky invitations in our lives…that is what’s nourishing to the soul. Because it is often hard for pastors to find this, for 15years we have been hosting and leading two-year Transforming Community experiences for pastors where they can cultivate and participate in such relationships in relative anonymity.

How have some of the answers to the “How Is it With Your Soul?” assessment surprised you—or have they?

There are a couple things that surprise me. One is how universal the experience of exhaustion is for those who are in ministry. No matter where I go—small churches, large churches, independent churches, mainline churches—pastors are worn out, and it is not just physical. It is a dangerous kind of exhaustion that accumulates over time and is emotional, spiritual and psychic. And they simply do not know how to get out of it.

The other surprise (although it shouldn’t surprise me) is how many pastors are carrying great burden of unhealed wounds—oftentimes wounds associated with life in ministry—and they have no idea what to do with that. Because there is little to no preparation in seminary (or anywhere else for that matter) for how to deal with the inevitable wounds that come from being on the front line of the spiritual battle, they just soldier on, but they are still bleeding internally or are scarred. It is a very tender moment when leaders are able to name that and it is the beginning of their healing.

How do you define “soul,” and why is it so important for pastors and leaders to be strengthened at the soul level?

The soul is the part of us that is most real. It is the part of us that existed and that God knew before he brought us forth in physical form; it is the part that will continue to exist after our bodies go into the ground. It transcends any role we play, any job or title we have achieved, any success or failure we have allowed to define us.

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Our connection with God at the soul level is what sustains us for the long haul of ministry; it is what tells us who we are when we feel crushed by the demands of ministry, and it is where we discern the will of God that is often the foolishness of this world. Jesus says it is possible to gain the whole world—including the world of ministry success—and lose your own soul. What does he mean by that? I think he means leaders who neglect their own souls lose connection with what is most real within them and will not make it for the long haul of ministry. Early in ministry most of us try to make it on the basis of skills, competencies, sheer will, passion and determination—with a little prayer thrown in. Eventually all of us hit the wall where that is just not enough, and that’s when we discover the importance of paying attention to our souls.

How do the spiritual practices help leaders reconnect with their souls?

All spiritual practices rightly practiced—solitude, silence, prayer, reflection on Scripture, honoring our bodies, self-examination, discernment, Sabbath-keeping, worship, community, engagement with the needs of the world—do at least a couple things. They help us stay connected with God at the center of our being, they help us hear God, they reveal to us our false selves so we can relinquish false-self patterns (yes, we all have them!) and abandon ourselves more fully to God.

They open us to the transforming work of God that only God can do. Without such practices we will be driven by unexamined motives that will eventually wear us out; we will rely on our false-self patterns rather than being strengthened by God’s spirit to do what he has called us to do. Such patterns are not sustainable and we will eventually burn out.