Leadership and ministry have the capacity to suck the life out of a pastor. At the same time, these roles present opportunities to experience deeper formation in Christlikeness and more authentic life with God. Neither of these outcomes is inevitable, however. Ruth Haley Barton writes to encourage those in ministry leadership roles to meet God in this “crucible” that is ministry.
Ruth Haley Barton is the founding president of the Transforming Center, a spiritual formation ministry to pastors and Christian leaders. She is a trained spiritual director, teacher, and retreat leader. She served as adjunct professor of spiritual transformation at Northern Seminary and has served several churches, including Willow Creek Community Church. She knows from experience what it is to meet God in ministry.
The opening chapter, “When Leaders Lose Their Souls,” is testimony of Barton’s own experience of nearly losing the soul of her leadership. She explores the challenges to spiritual life that ministry can offer and commends a journey into solitude and seeking God that can provide a remedy. She closes the first chapter, as she does each one, with a suggested practice for the reader to engage.
Barton engages the narrative of Moses and his relationship with God as a guide for contemporary leaders. Moses’ being required to face his dark side came early for him. She examines Moses’ “conversion” and invites us to find our own, turning away from those things that keep us bound and turning to the freedom God desires for us to know. She narrates Moses’ experience at the burning bush and invites us to learn to turn aside, pay attention, and hear God’s call in our own lives and ministry. Like Moses with Israel, contemporary leaders experience turning points, obstacles, and being led in what can seem like round-about ways. But in solitude, leaders find direction and strength.
Eventually Moses needed to learn to live his life and to do his ministry within the limits of his humanity. Barton identifies the symptoms of the life on the way to burn out, the life being lived outside the boundaries that should be respected. Moses remains the fountainhead of other leadership lessons as the book unfolds. He learns spiritual rhythms for his life. He learns the life of intercession. He must know what it is like to be lonely and turn to God. He must learn how to move from isolation to engagement in a leadership community. He must help God’s people discover God’s will. He must keep the vision of the Promised Land before them.
All of this work is the work of contemporary leaders as well. And, like Moses, we learn to do this out of a relationship with God. The times of solitude that Barton commends are intended to help that relationship deepen even in the “crucible” of doing ministry.
Barton’s work is endorsed by no less figures of spiritual leadership than Leighton Ford and Gordon Cosby, who enthusiastically commend it to pastors. She has produced an important work reminding ministers that our calling is about more than a profession or a set of ministry skills. Ultimately ministry is done sustainably, over a lifetime, out of a relationship. The solitude of life with God ushers in a ministry to the church and the world.
Recommended by Dr. R. Robert Creech, Professor of Christian Ministries and Director of Pastoral Ministries at Truett Seminary