"But what does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but lose their own soul? What is worth more than your soul?"
Several years ago, during an unusually intense season of ministry, I made a comment to a friend that surprised us both. Before I could censor my thoughts, I heard myself saying, "I'm tired of helping other people enjoy God; I just want to enjoy God for myself."
This was not the first time I had noticed such a slip—nor would it be the last—but it was certainly one of the most clearly articulated! In the silence that followed this admission, I realized that there was an even truer truth waiting to be spoken, but I had been too busy and too out of touch with my own soul to say it.
What I really needed to say to God was "I miss you." And when I heard myself say that, the awareness of what was true in my own soul hit me with such force that it felt like being knocked over by a wave that had been gathering strength while my back was turned.
When Leaders Lose Their Souls
Such moments come to all of us—moments when our leadership feels like something we "put on" like a piece of clothing pulled out of the closet for a particular occasion rather than something that flows from a deep inner well. You may have experienced this dynamic in your own way. Perhaps you are preparing to preach or lead a Bible study and you have the sinking realization that you are getting ready to exhort other in values and behaviors you are not living yourself. Maybe you are a worship leader and notice that more and more frequently you are manufacturing a display of emotion because it has been so long since you have experienced any real intimacy with God. Or perhaps someone needs pastoral care and you realize that you just don't care. You rally your energy to go through the motions but you know that your heart is devoid of real compassion.
In her book Leaving Church, Episcopal priest and award-winning preacher Barbara Taylor Brown describes what it was like to feel her soul slipping away:
"Drawn to care for hurt things, I had ended up with compassion fatigue. Drawn to a life of servanthood, I had ended up a service provider. Drawn to marry the Divine Presence, I had ended up estranged."
Sometimes our sense that something is not quite right is more subtle. A young pastor who came for spiritual direction said, "I find [leadership] conferences to be very exciting on one level, but there is something darker that happens as well. Sometimes they leave me feeling competitive towards other churches and what they are accomplishing. I leave the conference feeling dissatisfied with my own situation—my own staff, my own resources, my own gifts and abilities. My ego gets ramped up to do bigger and better things and then I go home and drive everyone crazy. Three months later, the conference notebook is on a bookshelf somewhere and I have returned to life as usual with a vague feeling of uneasiness about my effectiveness as leader, never quite sure if I am measuring up."
This was not meant to be a critique of any particular conference; rather, he was courageously naming in God's presence and in the presence of another person what was taking place inside his soul in the context of his leadership. He needed to hear from God in that place and was unwilling to live his life driven blindly by unexamined inner dynamics.
The All-Important Question
Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If Jesus were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might also point out that when leaders lose their souls, so do the churches and organizations they serve. "Soul slips away easily from a church or an institution," says Gordon Cosby, founding pastor of Church of the Savior in Washington, DC. "The average person doesn't even know when a church begins to lose its soul. It takes unusual deeper wisdom to see it, and when we see it, it is costly beyond words to retrieve it."
Losing your soul is sort of like losing a credit card. You think it's in your wallet so you don't give it much thought until one day you reach for it and can't find it. As soon as you realize it's gone, you start scrambling to find it, trying to remember the last time you used it or at least had it in your possession. No matter what is going on in your life, you stop and look for it, because otherwise major damage can be done. Oh, that we would feel the same sense of urgency when we become aware that we have lost our souls!
When the Wesleyan bands of Christ-followers got together for their small group meetings, their first question to each other was "How is it with your soul?" This is the best possible question for us as Christian leaders in light of Jesus' warning and in light of what we witness in and around us. So, how is it with your soul?
Some of us know that we are losing bits and pieces of our souls every day and we are scared to death that we might be very close to going over the edge. Others of us are still hanging in there fairly well but we are not sure how long we will last. All of us have watched ministry friends and colleagues endure heartbreak, failure, or betrayal that was so profound that they left ministry and are now selling real estate.
Those of us who have been in ministry for any length of time at all are under no illusion that we are exempt from such outcomes. Even the young ones know better these days. One emerging leader writes, "I feel the call of God to move deeper and deeper into service through preaching and leadership. At the same time I am keenly aware of what ministry is doing to the personal spiritual lives of almost everyone I know on staff or in key volunteer positions in the church. I am increasingly unsure about how one is supposed to navigate the time commitments of ministry and one's personal journey towards growth and wholeness. I find myself wondering if the two aren't mutually exclusive."
These are uncomfortable admissions. Paying attention to them requires a certain kind of courage because we don't know where such honest reflections will take us. We're tempted to ignore them, or to beat ourselves up over them. But the soul-ful leader chooses to pay attention because these inner questions open the way to deeper awareness.
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. Then, rather than offering the cold stone of past devotionals, regurgitated apologetics, or someone else's musings about the spiritual life, we will have bread to offer that is warm from the oven of our own intimacy with God.
Spiritual leadership emerges from our willingness to stay involved with our own souls—that place where God's Spirit is at work stirring up our deepest questions and longings to draw us deeper into relationship with him. This is not mere narcissism, mere navel gazing; rather, this kind of attentiveness helps us to stay on the path of becoming our true self in God—a self that is capable of saying a truer and ever-deepening yes to God's call upon our lives.
Someone has said, "You'd be surprised at what your soul wants to say to God."
For those of us who are in leadership, it is often hard to find space that is quiet enough and safe enough for the soul to be as honest as it needs to be. Here is an invitation to sit quietly for a few moments for the sole purpose of allowing your soul to say what it needs to say to God. Don't try to force anything or work hard to make something happen. The soul runs from such attempts. Just sit quietly in God's presence and see what shows itself. It may take time for your soul to say the truest thing it needs to say to God right now, but when your soul has finally said that thing that it has been waiting to say, you will know. If you sit long enough, you might also be surprised at what God wants to say to your soul.
Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of the Transforming Center. A spiritual director, teacher, and retreat leader, she is the author of Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, from which this article is adapted.
© 2010 by the author.
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This resource offers articles, assessments, and discussion questions to help you and your leaders understand the spiritual importance of physical health, pursue it in your own lives, and lead others in honoring God with your bodies.