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Leaders with Soul Friends

August 1, 2012

Recently I sat with a very close friend and lead pastor in his mid thirties. The church is doing well in every way. However, at his pastoral staff meeting earlier that day he broke down and reported that, “things are happening inside of me that never happened before.” In tears, he admitted that the challenges were wearing him out. He needed to take a break before he went over the edge.

Working with leaders has convinced me that there are many of us who unexpectedly wind up in places of brokenness, confusion and disillusionment.

I have a deep conviction that has grown over years of ministry. Here it is: Every Christian leader needs a “soul friend,” someone who knows how to help us make sense of all the things that are going on at spiritual and emotional level.

In the past I have blogged about the importance of spiritual direction. (If you want to catch up, you might want to look at what I wrote back in June.) I don’t think spiritual direction is a specialized ministry for persons facing unique situations. I believe every leader needs a soul friend. I’m not the only person that believes this.

Kenneth Leech authored the groundbreaking classic, Soul Friend: Spiritual Direction in the Modern World over thirty-five years ago. In the introduction to his book Leech declares, “Spiritual direction must be reclaimed in the service of the kingdom of God.” And, just in case we don’t get the message, on the first page of his book we find only one line – an old Celtic saying, “Anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head.” That might seem overstated to you; however, if you take a closer look at what is happening to leaders in ministry it might actually begin to make sense.

Ruth Barton, founder of the Transforming Center and spiritual director to other leaders writes:

I am not the only leader to have come to spiritual direction by way of desperation. Many pastors and leaders come for spiritual direction because they, too, are experiencing inner emptiness in the midst of outward busyness, feeling “stuck” in their spiritual lives, or longing for more in the midst of seeming success. Their question is, where does a leader go to articulate questions that seem so dangerous and doubts that seem so unsettling? Who pastors the pastor? Who provides spiritual leadership for the leader? Often it is a spiritual director.

I spent over 35 of those years in ministry so far. Recently someone asked me to speak on the topic “What Would You Do Different If You Were Starting Over Again.” (Not my favorite question because of the implications!) There are several things I would want to say, but I definitely have a bottom line which comes out of my life experience after all these years, “Everyone needs spiritual direction. Everyone needs a soul friend.”

My conviction actually goes back almost 2000 years as early Christians began to see the need for guidance amid all the challenges of spiritual living in a pagan world. So what’s changed over two millennia? Nothing! We still need guides, people who will help us discover where Christ is at work amid the highs and lows of our life and leadership.

Some time ago I met with one pastor (we’ll call him Mike) who oversees a large and healthy church. My regular contact with Mike left me assured that he was on top of his world. His emotional well-being seemed strong and I certainly viewed him as someone who was not in the at-risk category. However, shortly after I made this optimistic assumption about Mike, I met with him only to find out that he had a dramatic meltdown the Sunday before. It was the beginning of a new year and he was preaching a series on vision. On this particular Sunday, Mike was making a point from Galatians 6:9 – “Be not weary in doing good” – as a way to stir the congregation to greater commitment. When these words left his mouth he stopped short and then began to weep. It went on uncontrollably. Mike was unable to collect himself despite several attempts over a period of about five minutes. Finally, some church leaders came to the pulpit to offer support so that he could bring the service to a conclusion.

When we met for our time of spiritual direction, Mike indicated that he had no idea the meltdown was imminent in his life. All he knew was, when the words “Be not weary in doing good,” left his mouth, a tsunami surged in his own soul. He was weary amid the responsibilities – weary in a way that he had somehow been able to avoid.

Maybe you can relate to Mike. You might not be at a crisis point yet, but deep inside you know our soul needs oxygen. In the future, I’ll keep blogging about the importance of finding a “soul friend” and spiritual direction. Why… because according to the statistics 50- 70 percent of pastors don’t have a close friend. Let’s work together to change that!

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  1. Thank you so much for this, Morris. As a spiritual director myself, I long for church leaders to know how this ministry is available to help them throughout their journey with God. God bless you and your ministry!

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