|The everlasting arms propel as well as sustain.|
You can't be fruitful if you neglect the Source.
July 1, 2004
Yesterday, I stood in front of a ministry team and asked: "What tends to emerge in the life of a person who neglects his or her soul? What symptoms creep in?"
I explained that no one ever sets out to trash the condition of his soul, and particularly not those of us in vocational ministry. Yet we often find ourselves in a spiritual death spiral—facing ever increasing ministry loads yielding ever diminishing returns. But we march dutifully onward, assuming that our spiritual state, a neglected soul, is somehow part of the "deal" in a life devoted to ministry.
So, I asked, what are the signs of soul neglect? At first the room was silent. Then somebody ventured, "Anxiety," and I knew they got it (not every group does). Once started, their answers came so fast I couldn't write them on the flip chart fast enough.
"Self-absorption," they called out. "Shame," "apathy," "toxic anger," "chronic fatigue," "lack of confidence," "isolation," "sin looks more appealing," "no compassion," "self-oriented," "drivenness," "loss of vision," and "no desire for God." Soon every inch of the page was crammed.
A sad feeling hovered over the room as these leaders, "weary in well doing," saw themselves in the mirror.
Then, with much relief, we turned the page, and I asked: "What emerges in your life when you're deeply connected with God, when your soul is healthy?"
This page also filled up quickly: "love," "joy," "compassion," "giving and receiving grace," "generosity of spirit," "peace," (at this point, some bright bulb usually suggests the entire list of the fruit of the spirit!) "ability to trust," "discernment."
Heads nod in acknowledgement as individuals recall times when this was their experience, too. "Boundlessness," "work coming out of the overflow of my life with God," "creativity," "vision," "balance," "focus." All in all, a pretty desirable list.
Then I bring it to a vote. Holding up the Soul Neglect list, I ask, "Who votes for this?" Everyone laughs! No one in their right mind would choose to live this way. Then I call their bluff. "The truth is, you vote for one or the other of these two lists every minute of every day." Ouch.
The truth is, even as Christian leaders, we can neglect the care of our own souls in our attempt to care for the souls of others.
In a redemptive relationship with God through Christ, the soul is said to be "saved," and rightly so. Positionally, it has been brought from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from death to life.
But beyond a soul's "position," something else is true about souls. They are living. Like all living things, our souls can thrive or shrivel. Every soul, even if redeemed, has a quality of life, a degree of health. How do we assess that degree of health, and how is it improved?
In the realm of physical health, if we care for our bodies, they tend toward health. If not, they don't. To assess physical health, we rely on measures like blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol, and the like.
There are also indicators of soul health. And for many in leadership these days, the results aren't good. The soul is susceptible to neglect. Why? Well, here's a profound thought to impress your friends with: souls are deep.
What exactly does that mean? In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard explains the depth of souls in two senses. In one sense, the soul is deep because it's below the level of our conscious awareness.
For example, your soul will not directly rise up within you after a conflict and say, "Hey, that's me driving your reaction here!" The soul does not register formal dissent when you mistreat your body; it will not announce itself wounded when harsh words are spoken to you. It stays well below the surface of your conscious life. It is, indeed, deep. There are many symptoms of soul health, but we often miss them because the soul evades observation.
The soul is also deep in the sense that it is foundational to who you are. In the end, everything about your life, your personhood, is in some way a function of your soul. Willard writes, "Fundamental aspects of life such as art, sleep, sex, ritual, family ('roots'), parenting, community, health, and meaningful work are all in fact soul functions, and they fail and fall apart to the degree that soul diminishes." Your soul's health is the driving force behind everything that matters to you.
So what makes a soul healthy? Quite simply, a soul is healthy to the extent that it experiences a strong connection to and receptivity to God. Under those conditions, the soul is most alive, most receptive to divine breathings, divine promptings, divine power in the face of joy or pain or opposition. Connection and receptivity. A rather simple spiritual concept, really.
Jesus' warning was clear: "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5, TNIV). However, I find that connecting this spiritual reality to how we actually live is another matter.
Personally, I've known what it means to fail in this area. I crashed through every symptom of soul neglect when working with a team to launch a new church near Boston. Eventually my soul demanded to be heard. I was attempting to bear fruit, to do everything in my own strength. Finally I heard the gentle voice of the shepherd ask, "Mindy, what part of 'nothing' (in John 15:5) don't you understand?"
My soul's recovery was a slow one. Thankfully, I had a few soul-guides (in person and on pages) that led me into a new way of life that, while still a work in process, keeps me much more clear on my need for authentic connection to God, more than anything else in my life. So my role at Willow Creek now is to highlight our intense conviction about the centrality of the soul, and then, as a corollary, the urgency to find a way of life that keeps the soul healthy. Details of how are always less important than those two points, but they matter as well.
The "how" of soul health is all about cultivating connection and receptivity to God, and that generally takes the form of spiritual practices that open the human soul to God. Woven together, these practices become a way of life that keeps the soul healthy. But living this way does require a fundamental shift in the psyche, not just a better plan to be more organized or more "spiritual." The shift is to believe that precisely in this depth of connection with God is where life and fruit-bearing are to be found. Live without that kind of connection, and you're kidding yourself.
Sitting in the atrium across from Scott over lunch, he asked, "Mindy, I want to believe what you're saying, and to live that way without having to go through the pain. But is that really possible? I can't seem to get there on my own." He knows his inclinations well. All I could say was, "I hope so …" I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone. Yet, the decision is his to make. Every minute, every hour, every day.
Most Christian leaders would agree that certain practices help us "grow" or attain spiritual health. Prayer and Bible study make the top of almost any list. But given the current symptoms it would appear that more is needed, either in actually doing these vital core practices or in approaching them in new ways. Especially in the complex, confusing, and mission-critical world of leadership.
In addition to the role of Scripture and self-examination, these four practices are emphasized in our church's efforts towards spiritual formation in leaders:
Spiritual friendship is the intentional pursuit of friends who help you remain open to God. Spiritual friends help each other pay attention to where God's at work in their lives and help each other respond.
Leaders often live lonely lives of pretending. Sometimes, they're aware of the pretending; sometimes even they themselves are fooled. Spiritual friendship takes the "everything is together" mask off in very specific, human, in-the-moment ways. It's considered a "practice" because this vulnerability requires a willingness to enter the risky realm of being known as a person in process.
Tobias told me, "I approached friendships exactly as I was advised in seminary, 'Do not befriend anyone in your congregation.'" He had been instructed, "They need to look up to you, they need to see your example, and if you share your struggles, it will undermine your role as their leader."
He continued, "After a painful burnout, it finally dawned on me … we're telling ourselves that in order to be effective in ministry, you have to live a lie." Alone.
Admittedly, dangers lurk on the path to authentic relationships. But will we continue to live a lonely lie, or will we navigate these dangers for the hope of life and freedom and transformation? That hope is well founded. But it will take a concerted effort, and practice, to build a spiritual friendship.
In working with groups, I'm often amazed at two things: One, how few leaders enjoy a vibrant experience of prayer. Second, how many leaders carry tremendous guilt about their lack of prayer. A double-whammy! No wonder we don't like to talk about prayer.
Nonetheless, great healing and fueling power is released from God to us in prayer. Lynne has been a spiritual friend in my life, and has guided me particularly in prayer. She introduced me to centering prayer years ago, teaching me how to silently open my soul to God.
In this form of prayer, there are no more words, no more agenda, no more striving. This is an open, surrendered, peaceful way of resting in the presence of God. Centering prayer is not an absenting of the soul, as in eastern mysticism, but very much with God. It requires practice and patience as your soul learns to become quiet and still.
Try centering prayer for about 20 minutes once a day for a week. Be prepared for the onslaught of ideas and images that will invade you inside. No matter, you can gently release them and return to the quietness of soul (100 times per minute if your mind is like mine was when I started!). As Lynne told me, God loves your intent to be attentive, even if your attentiveness wavers with embarrassing frequency.
Over time, you can say like the psalmist, "But I have stilled and quieted my soul" (Ps. 131:2)."
This is time alone, with God. Most leaders love solitude. They know it helps them stay sane. They realize it causes their souls to flourish. They just don't do it. Go figure.
Why is solitude so potent? Because it frees you for a while from many things that would otherwise drive you. We can be invisibly driven by our ego, our pride, our fears, our insecurities, or even other people. Solitude helps us recognize and confront voices other than the Holy Spirit.
Solitude also protects those unique parts of you that will get lost along the way if not guarded. What is that for you? Do you know what's at stake? Artists might say, "I lose my creativity." Elders say, "I lose my discernment." Leaders may say, "I lose clarity of vision."
Note what Jesus did. After a "run" of demanding ministry commitments, "very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus left the house and went off to a solitary place."
In solitude he regained clarity about his purpose. It fueled his unflinching resolve. What leader today doesn't need clarity amid clamoring voices? What leader doesn't need inner resolve to set and keep a direction? We all do. We need times of solitude.
In the wake of the current secular buzz around simplicity, it's important to be clear about what simplicity is and isn't from a biblical perspective. If you were to adopt the view of RealSimple magazine, for example, you'd see simplicity as intentional efforts to reduce complexity in your life. To make life more manageable. As nice as that sounds, it's not what we are after.
For a follower of Christ, the enemy of simplicity is not complexity. It's duplicity. Double-mindedness. The apostle Paul hardly led a complexity-free life. But he led a life of deep integrity and focus. A singularity of purpose. That's the simplicity we seek.
Overbooking my schedule is a deeper spiritual issue than merely managing my life's complexities. At its core, it's me being dishonest about who I am and what my limits are. I'm presenting myself as one person to my many appointments, when in fact I am another.
It is an insistence upon self-rule, not upon God's calling.
Simplicity rests on single-mindedness. Letting your yes be yes, your no, no. To make progress in simplicity, you'll need to be versed in all the other practices. Simplicity is bringing one's whole self into union with God's purposes. Every dimension, every thought, every decision, under the direction of God.
I ask individuals to explore areas where they bump into their own duplicity. It may be trying to appear to be more than we are, trying to have more than we can afford, trying to do more than we really can, or shrinking back from who we really are. Then, it takes a courageous step in the direction of simplicity, focusing on God's purposes for you, trusting that your limits are okay.
That's simplicity. That's what leads to soul health.
is director of spiritual formation at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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