Leading From a Healthy Soul…and Why It Matters – Part 1

There is a part of you that no one sees; not even you.

But it is real and it matters.

I was raised in a non-religious home with no underpinnings of the things or reality of God. Somewhere, however, as a child I learned the childhood prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” This age-old prayer resonated with something deep within my young heart; for somehow I knew that God existed. I was sure of it. I didn’t know his name but I knew he was real. I prayed this simple prayer every night before I fell asleep. God heard the prayer of that little girl…”my soul to keep.” This prayer had a way of keeping me connected to God and profoundly formed my soul in ways that shape me still.


How important is the soul?


Traditionally, however, whenever I heard someone speak on the soul it was framed in terms of “saved or unsaved”; “lost or found”. Beyond that, there seemed not much thought or discussion. Consequently, one day when I found myself gasping for something more meaningful and fundamentally real, I didn’t have the language of the soul to describe what I was experiencing.

We need a broader, more robust thinking and language about the soul. We have not taken seriously enough the need for caring for our inner life because we don’t understand the soul’s value and the importance it plays. There is a part of you that no one sees; not even you. But it is real and it matters. Jon Foreman, the lead singer for the band Switchfoot explains,

There is a deeper portion of our being that we rarely allow others to see. Call it a soul maybe. This is the place that holds the most value. All else can drift but this. When this dies our body has no meaning. We handle this portion of our being with extreme care. Life tears at us and scars us as children, so we adopt facades and masks to hide this part of us, to keep this sacred part of ourselves from the pain. And yet, we long to communicate this deeper place…To connect with each other on this spiritual level, for we know that this is the only part of us that will last.


Our souls are not only real but our soul’s well-being or ill-health is guiding and causing everything that matters the most to us. Everything


There lies within each one of us a place in us that can only be described by “deep within.” Our souls are not only real but our soul’s well-being or ill-health is guiding and causing everything that matters the most to us. Everything. Dallas Willard, in his book, Renovation of the Heart explains, “Fundamental aspects of life, art, sleep, sex, ritual, family, parenting, community, health, and meaningful work are all soul functions; they fail and fall apart to the degree that the soul diminishes.  When we speak of the human soul we are speaking of the deepest level of life and power in the human being.”

Several years ago I heard Dallas Willard speak at a conference and he rephrased it like this: “Your heart runs your life. If you attend to it or not, it still runs your life.” You think you run your life but do you ever wonder why you do the things you do? Why to you seemed to lean toward scarcity instead of abundance? What are you so perfectionistic, or scattered, or driven or spontaneous? Why do you feel the need to have everyone like you? Why don’t you speak up when you have an opinion? Why do certain people drive you crazy? Whether you recognize it or not the things that have shaped you, for good or ill, influence and form your present.

Perhaps that is why Jesus talked so much about the heart and why Proverbs instructs, ”Above all else, guard your heart…out of it flows the issues of life.” “Above all else…” I don’t know about you but I always want to cut through the fluff and get to the bottom line of things. Just tell me what is most important. This is it. Guard your heart. Out of our hearts comes the stuff of our everyday lives: disappointment, discouragement, joy, anger, resentment, jealousy, contentment, attentiveness, fear…and on it goes.

Recently a video gone-viral shows Hollywood actor, Chris Pratt, at the 2018 MTV Movie and TV awards, said while accepting the “Our Generation Award Recipient, award “You have a soul; be careful with it.” Wow. Even Hollywood is taking notice.


“You have a soul; be careful with it.” Wow


For leaders, to faithfully lead others we must come to grips with the significance of the inner life. Author Ruth Haley Barton concludes, “Spiritual leadership emerges from our willingness to stay involved with our own soul.”[1]

A Crisis of Distraction. The second reason leaders may find themselves caught up in the struggle to experience life-giving communion with God is the failure to take seriously the impact distraction has on the soul of the leader. The word distraction comes from the Latin distractus, literally meaning to draw or pull part. The implication, cost of distraction: is our minds and lives are literally scattered so much so that the ability for long-term, creative, reflective, restful thinking…deep focus and awareness is diminished.

Writer Andrew Sullivan notes, “But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.”[2]

Day by day, leaders’ hectic lives erode the soul’s capacity for deep focus and awareness and they become separated from all the things most essential to experiencing wholeness. Cultivating a focused attention and ready-responsiveness to fresh movements choreographed by the Holy Spirit remains foundational to spiritual leaders. The cultivation of an integrated life requires the ability to live attentively to how one’s life is unfolding in relationship to the presence of God, one’s own soul, and others. This essentialness of focused attention includes the concepts of intention, practice, and unhurried awareness. These are difficult tasks in a fast-paced, hyperactive, digitally-addicted culture.

More than Management Skills. Ministry leaders cannot simply be persons who possess innate leadership qualities and demonstrate a finely honed set of leadership skills. While these personal competencies remain necessary, given the depth of human need, compounded by the entanglement of distraction both external and internal, effective ministry requires more than simply years of experience, education, or expertise. There remains a need for ministry leaders to give priority, not just an add-on or option, to the condition of their soul. What is needed is both/and; one without the neglect of the other.

Seth Richardson notes, “In a world where the conditions that supported long-held assumptions about church and leadership are shifting, I’m convinced that asking “what is going on?” is not only necessary for finding your bearings in the midst of disorientation, it is a fundamental pastoral practice.”[3]


The experiences of “slow” and “long” run counter to our instincts.


No one sets out to neglect their soul. My personal experience with ministry leaders concludes that there remains a great discrepancy between a leader’s perceived well-being and a leader’s actual well-being. Yet, no one says to themselves, I want to intentionally ignore my inner life. Neglect of the soul is more of a benign neglect. The busier ministry leaders’ lives become and the more demands of time and energy, along with the pressure to “succeed” increase, the easier it is to put aside the long, slow process of soul care. “Doing” eventually trumps the intentionality it takes to maintain enough space and the daily practices that allow the soul to consider and reflect if it is to act as it should, as a guide for what is most important in our lives. Thus, incrementally and imperceptivity, the pressures of ministry to move us away from stopping long enough to let our souls “catch up”. The consequences can be devastating.

Caring for our souls is not selfish. I recently taught at a master’s level class on Spiritual Formation and Development. I explained and stressed to the importance of daily spiritual practices necessary a life of integrated wholeness (the function of the soul). After the class a student came up to me and said, “I really loved what you had to say but it feels so self-indulgent.” I explained to her that a sobering truth about ministry leaders is, we enter ministry as broken people. We hold a faulty assumption we have been exempt from the unresolved and undetected wounds that have formed us. That means we often minister from shame, insecurity, anger, resentment, etc. Daily we can minister from a soul being shaped by God or from a place of our own on-going brokenness.

In our hyperactivity, we do good works without realizing that we ourselves are a good work of God. We are also included in God’s work of restoration in the world. Far from being antisocial or narcissistic, being present to one soul rises as essential for a leader who leads from a place of authenticity, wholeness, and flourishing.

*Excerpt from The Attentive Leader: Living and Leading Fully Present to the Things That Matter Most, by Gail Johnsen.

[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 23.
[2] Andrew Sullivan, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” New York Magazine, September 19, 2016, accessed December 20, 2016, http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html.
[3] Seth Richardson, “The Most Important Pastoral Practice of Our Time,” Missio Alliance Blog, February 3, 2017, accessed August 12, 2017, http://www.missioalliance.org/important-pastoral-practice-time/.

Tomorrow…Part 2...Leading From a Healthy Soul

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