Challenges & Blessings of Soulful Leadership in the 21st Century Church

Editor’s note: Part of this blog post is a further development of material in The Soul of a Leader by Margaret Benefiel (Crossroad, 2008). Used with permission of the publisher.

The Western church rewards twenty-first-century ministry leaders, lay and ordained alike, for their drive, decisiveness, productivity, and long work hours. In such an environment, what happens to the soul of a leader? Too often, it shrivels and dies, resulting in harm to those called to serve churches and to church communities themselves.

The past decade has witnessed scandal after scandal in churches. From child sexual abuse to financial impropriety to affairs between pastors and parishioners, we’ve seen it all. Even short of scandal, pastors too often drift toward burnout, and lay leaders give up in frustration. The dream that originally drew people to ministry loses its luster. Pastors find themselves going through the motions, ground down by chronic complainers, unrealistic expectations, and the daily pressures of making ends meet financially. Lay leaders find other, less defeating contexts for spiritual engagement and service.

When facing such challenges as burnout and erosion of integrity, where can ministry leaders find the help they need to keep their souls alive? The typical continuing education offerings for pastors focus more on how to run a capital campaign or how to improve preaching skills than they do on soul formation. Don’t get me wrong; all these skills are important for a pastor’s toolbox. Yet when all the focus is on technical skills and none of the focus is on the inner life, something is amiss. Even when a pastor is able to find a course on spiritual formation, its impact wanes once s/he returns to daily life in the church. The overwhelming demands overshadow care of the soul. Too often, the implicit (or even explicit) message pastors receive is that they must neglect their souls in order to be successful in the church. And lay leaders often find little help at all for ministry leadership.

Myriad forces have converged to create this state of affairs. The primary force, the rise of modern science over the past 350 years, has caused Western culture to focus on the external to the detriment of the internal. While modern science has made many positive contributions to Western culture, our single focus has made us myopic. B. Alan Wallace summarizes the situation succinctly:

While science has enthralled first Euro-American society and now most of the world with its progress in illuminating the nature of the external, physical world . . . it has eclipsed earlier knowledge of the nature of the inner reality of consciousness. In this regard, we in the modern West are unknowingly living in a dark age.

This eclipsed knowledge of the inner reality of consciousness has distorted Western understandings of leadership, including pastoral leadership. This has caused both ministry leaders and leadership scholars to focus on external results to the exclusion of internal growth and development. In most of what they learn about leadership, whether in their training or in the reinforcement they receive on the job, pastors are taught to focus on external results. They learn that outward results matter, while the inner life does not. As the business adage goes, what is measured becomes what is real. Because external results are measured and the inner life is ignored, the soul fades into oblivion.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with focusing on external results. Certainly, ministry leaders must focus on the results of their leadership in order to face reality directly. Assessing results and adjusting one’s leadership according to the consequences of one’s actions is one of the fruits of good leadership.

The external results lauded by those who study leadership depend upon the internal. Yet, paradoxically, the internal is largely a taboo subject in mainstream leadership literature. Like arborists trying to improve the health of a tree while ignoring the roots, leadership scholars, by and large, have been blind to a significant dimension of leadership.

20150306_benefiel_autumn_forestAt the same time, when roots don’t receive the nourishment they need, the fruit and even the branches eventually wither. Long after its inner strength has begun to erode, a tree may look outwardly strong, especially to the untrained eye. It’s only when a strong wind knocks down the once-mighty tree that it becomes clear to the untrained onlooker that its roots died long ago. The external results lauded by those who study leadership depend upon the internal. Yet, paradoxically, the internal is largely a taboo subject in mainstream leadership literature. Like arborists trying to improve the health of a tree while ignoring the roots, leadership scholars, by and large, have been blind to a significant dimension of leadership.

Furthermore, if this cultural focus on the external to the exclusion of the internal weren’t enough to thoroughly erode a minister’s soul, ministers find themselves up against a second influential force in Western culture: individualism, which results in a Lone Ranger mentality of leadership. This mentality, so firmly embraced by Western culture, sits squarely against the wisdom of the Christian tradition. Those wise in the ways of the soul know that souls need one another in order to flourish. Ministry leaders who long to lead with soul find themselves in inner conflict when they bump into the cultural expectation that they should solve all their problems on their own—that they shouldn’t need to draw on others’ support. At one level, they know that they desperately need to share their problems with those with whom they can share their souls. On the other hand, they know that to admit this need will likely be interpreted as a sign of weakness by those whose opinions they value. How often does a church board ask its pastor, “How is it with your soul?” or, “With whom are you sharing your inner doubts and struggles?” Or how often will a church reimburse its pastor for a training program that promises to renew her soul? What support is provided to nourish the souls of laypeople who share their gifts in church communities often year after year after year?

Such lack of support for a pastor’s soul is shortsighted, since the people a pastor leads suffer mightily when the pastor’s soul shrivels. As Parker Palmer puts it in his definition of a leader: “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there.”

The soul of a pastor faces threats from every side. Therefore, those for whom the pastor carries responsibility experience vulnerability.

Those wise in the ways of the soul know that souls need one another in order to flourish. Ministry leaders who long to lead with soul find themselves in inner conflict when they bump into the cultural expectation that they should solve all their problems on their own—that they shouldn’t need to draw on others’ support.

What blessings await the ministry leader who overcomes these obstacles and leads with soul? They are many.

First, the ministry leader herself, with soul renewed, will discover renewed energy, joy, creativity, resilience, and an ability to not take things personally. Does this mean all her problems will disappear? By no means. But it does mean that she will have the resources to deal with them more effectively. She will be able to draw on God’s presence more, knowing that the one who called her has not left her alone to solve the problems, but walks with her, to guide and to strengthen.

Leading with soul also does not mean that a pastor or lay leader will never experience a dark night of the soul. But it does mean that, instead of doubting and giving up on the spiritual life at those times, he will recognize the dark night as a normal part of the spiritual journey, and seek companionship to help him grow and deepen through it.

Second, congregational blessings will abound. The congregation whose pastor and lay leaders take their souls seriously is more likely to take its own soul seriously. Spiritual growth may occur. A congregation might learn to incorporate spiritual discernment into its decision-making, individually and collectively. Congregants may experience God’s presence in their daily lives, guiding them. Committees and boards may learn to let God into their deliberations, discovering that they can transcend debate mode and make decisions in ways that strengthen community rather than dividing people into camps of winners and losers.

The congregation whose pastor and lay leaders take their souls seriously is more likely to take its own soul seriously.”

Does this mean that congregational life will become easy? In one sense, yes. Church members may experience the reality of Jesus’ words, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” As they invite God into their structures and processes, their burdens will lighten. On the other hand, though, congregational life will still have its same challenges. People will still get on one another’s nerves. Recessions will still affect the budget. A shrinking congregation may need to consider closing its doors. Yet, by focusing on God’s presence in their midst, the people of God are more like to discover creative ways forward. And, if they need to close their doors, they are more likely to be able to let go and grieve and move on.

The church desperately needs soulful leadership. If ministers can get the support they need to overcome the many challenges eroding their souls, the impact on the church could be far-reaching. If church boards and denominational bodies could catch the vision of soulful leadership, the energy unleashed would be tremendous. Like Gandhi “experimenting with truth,” may church leaders tap into this vast source and discover what is possible.

Photo credits:

Shoes Walking Feet Grey Gravel Blue Jeans,” Public Domain Archive, May 16, 2014. Desaturated from original.

Autumn Forest,” by Dave Meier, via Picography.co. Licensed under Creative Commons Public Domain CC0.

Margaret Benefiel

Margaret Benefiel is Executive Officer of Executive Soul, LLC, which offers consulting, coaching, and spiritual direction for leaders and organizations. She teaches at Andover Newton Theological School in Boston and is a visiting lecturer at All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland. Dr. Benefiel is the author of Soul at Work (Seabury, 2005) and The Soul of a Leader (Crossroad, 2008), co-editor of The Soul of Supervision (Morehouse, 2010), and has written for a wide variety of academic journals and popular magazines. She is a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in Boston and lives in Boston with her husband. She enjoys hiking, cycling, reading novels, and scuba diving in her free time. You can find her on Twitter ‪@MargaretBenefie‪, on her blog, and at ExecutiveSoul.com.

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