What if a single question could revolutionize your relationship with God? A question like no other that helps you identify the interior fault lines of an earthquake waiting to happen to you, your leadership, and your organization.
Ruth Haley Barton—author, spiritual director, leadership consultant, and founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center—has shared and stewarded this question with countless Christian leaders who have intentionally made it a regular part their daily spiritual practice:
How is it with your soul?
“How is it with your soul?” emerged from the small group meetings of the Wesleyan tradition in the 1700s,” says Ruth, a spiritual director, whose best-selling book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, has been republished in a 10th Anniversary edition.
“This is a tremendously important question and it is essential that we be as honest as possible, as we ask ourselves and each other, as we try to answer it, given the fact that Jesus is clear that it’s possible to gain the whole world (even “the whole world” of ministry success) and lose your own soul in the process.”
This is such a big question that there are multiple ways to get into it; in fact, thoughtfully engaging this question draws us into the makings of a mini spiritual retreat and a freeing invitation. The invitation is to draw closer to God—God who is with you and for you and who knows exactly what you need, particularly as a leader.
The best thing a leader can bring to leadership is his or her own transforming self.”
Three Practical Inroads to a Daunting Inquiry
1. A Wakeup Call and Warning Sign
The book’s first chapter, “When Leaders Lose Their Soul”, is both a wakeup call and a warning sign.
“On the inside, leaders feel like they’re disconnected from God. I’ve heard leaders say, ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve been intimate with God. I’m busy doing stuff for God, but inside I feel empty.’ They feel disillusioned and disappointed with life. They may be good public prayers, but in reality, they’ve ceased praying.
“How does it get to this point?” I asked Ruth.
“In an organization—even a Christian organization—there can be a driven-ness where people are working harder and harder for results, and yet no one can bring their soul to the work environment and admit how exhausted they really are and thus react according to secular business principles, rather than responding to the true need of a deep relationship with God.
“Leaders who’ve lost touch with discerning God’s presence and direction for one’s life are, instead, caught up in human striving and strategic planning. They stop treating people like human beings and begin to view others like cogs in an ego-driven vision.”
2. Moses as Model and Mentor
Ruth continued, “God drew me into the life of Moses because he was a leader who suffered, who experienced some very hard things, including disillusionment, aloneness and abandonment by God, all of which I had experienced in ministry. Here was a leader I could relate to, and Scripture tells us so much about how he endured, and he had staying power to say ‘yes’ to God and be faithful to his calling all the way to the end.
“Concrete spiritual practices can nourish our soul. One of my favorite exercises involves the leader’s role as intercessor for those he or she is leading. When we carefully observe Moses’ life we see his calling and commitment to function as an intercessor for the Hebrew people. Time and time again, Moses stood in God’s presence on behalf of the people listening for God’s guidance.
“Today, we don’t talk much about intercession as a primary function of leadership. In fact, it seems like the practice of interceding on behalf of the people and organizations God has called us to lead has been lost on many of us!
“In chapter seven, I introduce a guided prayer experience in which we pray through different areas of concern and need and as we do that, I invite the reader to hold in their hands before God persons or situations God brings to mind. After a time of silence in which we hold these people and situations in God’s presence, we simply pray, ‘May they know the deep peace of Christ.” Instead of working so hard in prayer, we acknowledge God as the active One who brings people to us to simply hold in God’s loving presence.”
3. Discerning the Will of God
Ruth went on to say that, “Many Christian leaders are big on visionary thinking and strategic planning, but they don’t know very much about discerning and doing the will of God. Practicing discernment is the commitment that characterizes a truly spiritual leader.
“How can Christians, and leaders in particular, discern the will of God?
- Commit to discerning the will of God as a habit and practice and define their leadership around discernment.
- Cultivate friendship with God, by enveloping the prayer practices that go along with discernment, such as prayers of wisdom, quiet trust, and indifference to anything but the will of God.
- Notice everything without judging and without being tied to any grandiosity in our lives.
“The most soul-strengthening thing that can happen to us as leaders is to be connected to God and to cultivate our ‘belongness’ to God above all else.”
“David affirms this in Psalm 138 when he says, ‘On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul.’ God is the One who strengthens our souls. God is the one who transforms us in the crucible of ministry. So, the best thing any of us can bring to leadership is our own transforming self.” What does the soul’s strengthening and transformation look like?
“I know a leader,” says Ruth, “who entered a deeply transformational journey by practicing solitude and silence more intentionally. As a result, he became more in touch with the voice of God as being distinct from all the voices clamoring for his attention. When he led and made decisions from that place, he and those around him experienced more peace, more confidence, and more unity as they moved forward.
“I also think of a church leader who shared her journey of desiring a deeper intimacy with God and beginning to arrange her life more intentionally around this desire. As a result of her openness and vulnerability, her fellow elders felt free to voice similar desires and over time, the entire elder board was enlivened to seek God and pursue a deepening practice of discerning and doing God’s will together in the context of their leadership.
“Their transformation, both as a board and as revitalized individual followers of Jesus, bears witness to the fact that when we create space, God–who is longing to speak to and lead us as his people–shows up! Leadership meetings that were prone to polarization, instead became a time of peace, deep sharing, and unity.”
A Personal Encouragement
Finally, Ruth notes, “It’s important to remember that Moses’ transformation as a spiritual leader began with his own sin. Having killed an Egyptian, Moses saw that he had given in to his false, undisciplined, out-of-control self, which made him ineffective as a leader. He ran to solitude in the desert, and as God did his purifying work, Moses began to hear God calling him to go back to the place of his greatest pain to free God’s people in Egypt. Moses decided to trust God and that God’s presence would give him what he needed.
“The journey of leadership transformation often begins with an honest, sobering assessment of where we are so we can move beyond the brokenness and sin which keeps us ineffective. Like Moses, God brings us to a place where he begins to heal us and shape something new and true in us. Like Moses, we get in touch with our soul, where God’s spirit witnesses with our spirit about who we are and what God is calling us to do.
“’The nearness of God is our greatest good,’ the Psalmist says. “When we experience the nearness of God, which cannot be taken from us, we are free to serve God to the end of our days with all of our strength and then let go when it is time.”
It’s Your Turn!
As you were reading Ruth’s remarks, what caught your attention the most? What thoughts, feelings, or images came to the surface? How do you respond to what is stirring deep inside—both in your relationship to God and in your role at work?
Order Ruth’s Book
“The Ideal Result of Staff Engagement”
Duane Zook, CEO
Josh McDowell Ministry
The Employee Engagement Survey
Click here to learn more!