In this episode, Nathan interviews Alan Fadling of Unhurried Living, Kristi Gaultiere of Soul Shepherding, and Steve Macchia of Leadership Transformations to discuss spiritual formation and soul care for leaders.

[5:06] N: Why leaders, what was it in you that you felt to move in that direction?

K: We saw the impact that leaders have, the influence that they have, and that when they are healthy in their soul, it spreads — the fruit of that is so much bigger.

A: I was a leader who needed what we do. We wanted to come along side others who were discouraged or weary or needing a crisper vision of what God might be inviting them to.

S: It began with the transformation I was going through as I was engaged in spiritual direction. I was being taught and encouraged to pray, to rest, to trust, to slow down, to enjoy the delights of being a child of God. I realized there was a disparity between the way in which I was living and what my heart was crying out for. What we’ve tried to do is around the adage as the leader goes, so goes the organization.” But more importantly, as the soul of the leader goes, so goes the leader.

[9:03] N: What are some of the challenges that leaders in the Christian community face today?

A: One of the challenges that I find with leaders is that no one (board, constituents, congregants) is asking them about their souls, how they are cultivating spiritual practices that keep them in living contact with God.

K: The work that God has called them to do is great, compelling work. But it can be hard for leaders to recognize that a part of that good work that’s really necessary, that they are also being asked to do by the Lord, is stewarding their own soul and keeping their own relationship with Christ strong. 

S: Leaders don’t rest, it’s no longer a part of the vocabulary or priority list. They don’t know how to or what it means to rest.

[12:48] N: I’d take it a little further and say that it’s a virtue not to rest, to keep pushing through. How does a leader break out of that system that is pulling them do to more and more, to be more closed, of not sharing or not feeling safe or that there is space to share?

K: It really helps to have others who can mentor you, can help you learn those practices and give you the permission and help you see that it’s actually part of loving God and your neighbor as you love yourself. 

S: Everything related to spiritual formation need to be invitational, including and beginning with rest.

A: There is a question of identity. We have an essential belief that I am what I do, even though we would say my identity is rooted in who God says that I am. But we culturally think my work establishes my identity. So resting is an exercise in oblivion – I’m nobody if I rest. Leaders need to understand that rest is the soil in which good works grow instead of being a break from proving who you are. I want them to know that Jesus is trying to give them rest. Are they willing to receive that from Jesus just as faithfully as they receive work from Jesus?

S: Since our culture no longer promotes rest or Sabbath, my prayer is the Christian culture will make it a priority. Imagine what it would be like if the Christian family actually said, we’re going to practice Sabbath, which means there’s going to be at least a full day that’s going to look completely different than the rest of our week.” 

K: Another resistance to rest comes out of fear. Resting in community is also really important and helpful.

[17:23] N: All three of you provide safe spaces for people. What would you say to someone not connected to a program or ministry that’s caring for their soul, who really wants to be open, vulnerable, honest? How do you do that when you’re surrounded in a community that needs you to have everything together?

K: You probably can’t start in that community that needs you to be leading them. You need to find a safe space where you can humble yourself before the Lord, where you can be emotionally honest with yourself, God and another safe person.

A: I would start by asking God to provide someone or someplace where you can take a first step. Jesus says, Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31). Jesus wants to be a good shepherd, so ask that Good Shepherd how the next step might go.

S: Find one person to share that journey with. It can be a lonely journey when you know that your heart’s hunger is for something different than the constancy of a heavy-duty pace of life. It’s really the trajectory toward burnout, and there’s a wall out there for everyone to hit. We have that propensity to produce and be competitive, to do whatever we can to win in this life. Leaders get caught up in that, and we have to upend that because there’s not place in the scriptures that says to compete with one another. Instead, we’re to cooperate, to love and serve and come alongside and pray with and bear one another’s burdens. 

A: Nearly every leader is already tired. A lot of leaders having been pushing and holding it together to get to some finish line out there in the blurry future. I’m really concerned that a level of weariness and tiredness bordering on burnout is really going to be a significant concern for the next 6 – 12 months. The need is going to be huge for leaders to find rest for their souls.

S: The New York Times said the word of the year is languishing.” We’re not necessarily depressed, but we’re languishing, we’re certainly not thriving. How do we get out of languishing to thriving? 

K: It’s an invitation to do some lamenting. There’s a lot of grief and loss we’ve experienced in the last 15 months, the loss of being face-to-face with. The amount that has changed in our society, work, relationships, communities, and the world with the political division and divisiveness that we’ve seen, it’s been exhausting and scary for them as they lead people. They need to take time to really ponder and lament some of these difficult experiences, to get some help with some empathy, for some of the language they need for what they feel. 

[25:48] N: When we rest or slow down, sometimes emotions come up, and that’s quite normal, and an opportunity for reset, a chance to make some shifts. A lot of ties into community. How can lay folk best help their leaders?

S: Covenant. As we’re getting back together, we may have to restore, renew, or perhaps write a covenant. It doesn’t have to be complex. But a few things we’re going to promise to each other about life together in Christ. 

A: It would help if congregations would allow their pastors to be human. It has always seemed like pastors are supposed to be men and women who have no troubles, no struggles, and are examples of perfection. Assume that they are human with needs and struggles and troubles and losses. 

K: We have to learn to set boundaries on our ministries. We also learned how much we needed a sabbatical. It actually gave us an appetite for rest. Support sabbaticals for your leadership so that they can go deep in their relationship with the Lord.

[31:18] N: What is the Biblical view of sabbatical?

K: The Lord talks about sabbatical and rest in many different ways in Scripture, even for the land and letting it rest every 7 years. It can be as short as a month or 3 weeks, but if you can really stretch it to a longer season, even a number of months. Don’t wait because you can’t get a longer period of time; make use of what you can get. You’re really cutting off all your normal ministry work and activity during that time, but you’re cutting it off for the reason of being present to God, to bring your full self and your full intention and energy to doing some soul work of being emotionally honest and present to the Lord. Engage in some spiritual disciplines that will foster your relationship with Jesus, your intimacy with him and your growth in him. 

[32:54] N: These 3 pieces – covenant and support and sabbatical – I have this picture of boards or elders or deacons who are dealing with the accountability of leaders not just encouraging sabbatical but demanding it, setting it as a way we’re going to be as a ministry. I think sometimes people just need a little permission to move into some of this.

A: That goes back to the comment about covenants, that now the idea of sabbatical would be part of our culture rather than a one-off or response to somebody’s failure or struggle or running out of gas dramatically. And I would say to boards that it is in your interest that the leaders of your organizations are well. 

S: Most churches and organizations don’t have boards that are educated around this, so perhaps getting a coach to help them think through:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What is the timeframe?
  • How are things going to be covered so that we’re not getting sloppy in the process, so things will continue to move on without the leader present?

So, there is a need for coaching and education and resources to help churches and organizations come to a place where they understand and identify the importance of sabbatical, that it would be a time of lifegiving rest, not a time of redirected productivity. That rest is spiritual, relational, physical, vocational – every aspect of our lives. This takes a lot of hard work and effort on the front end to make sure it’s a successful sabbatical on the back end.

[37:10] N: Do you have any thoughts for leaders or families on how to do this well?

A: We would love it if leaders saw that their first ministry was their own family. It’s too easy in ministry to chase the headline-making achievement organizationally and not to do the good, ongoing, long-term, quiet, hidden work of just loving your husband or wife, loving your children well. If you can do that well, it will translate into the way you lead a congregation, an organization. If you’re not a loving husband or wife, if you’re not a loving dad or mom, it’s going to be really hard to be a loving pastor or leader in your organization. 

K: Our children are our first followers, and they’re the ones that really see our character. It’s really receiving Jesus’ commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Your family is your neighbor. And we even see Jesus modeling that all those years before he started his public ministry; after his father died, many of those were him loving his family, caring for his mom and his siblings there faithfully.

S: Throughout my ministry career of 40 plus years, there have been many days that everyone else got my best time, not my family, not my wife, my kids in their formative seasons of life. The older I get, the more aware I am of my brokenness and my desperate need for God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness, so that I can be present with my wife and my kids as a genuine dad. I want to make sure we give space for parents to acknowledge that life has been hard, and at times we’re doing a really good job and sometimes we’re doing a really poor job. But we want to remain faithful and true to what God has called us to in our marriages and family life, and give our kids permission to speak honestly of their experience with us growing up in this house. And hopefully they’re walking with the Lord, but I know there’s no pill. I work with a lot of pastors and leaders that are just heartbroken that their kids aren’t walking with the Lord, that they’re not doing great. It’s hard. There are no guarantees that our kids are going to be just where we want them to be. But if we can be genuine and vulnerable and honest and forgiving, then I think we will be pursuing wholeness together through our brokenness.

K: It can be so easy to take our families for granted, and parenting, quite honestly, can be exhausting and feel like thankless work. When you’re getting your rewards in your career and you’re feeling all kinds of responsibilities and pressures to provide for the family, it’s just complicated loving your family first; it isn’t always as straightforward or as easy as it sounds.

[42:27] N: Can you paint a picture of a leader who’s doing things well, who’s functioning with health and being effective for the Kingdom. What does their life look like?

S: It’s a person who’s aware that there’s a hard side to leadership and a soft side to leadership. They’re going to purse the financial and strategic and number crunching side of the equation. They also pay attention to the softer, relational, spiritual, heart-focused side of leadership. They have both sides to them. Both need to be attended to. It’s a both and. I want to come alongside leaders and help them understand how to embrace the tensions that exist as they’re pushing their goals and their objectives, and pursuing the care and nurture of their soul. 

K: It’s leaders that have come to the end of their false self; they’ve been willing to die to their false self and to discover their true self. Now it comes to the Lord and not really seek to secure themselves or their reputations. They’ve learned that they’re wounded healers, honest about the areas where they struggle, where they’ve had some failures. 

A: Their way of life is modeling something they’re learning from Jesus. There are times you have to disappoint the crowd and go to the lonely place. There’s also the soft side of who Jesus is, that little kids seem incredibly comfortable coming right up to him. There’s an invitation of making a relationship with the Father central, that there’s always time and space to cultivate that friendship, that we’re invited into this Father-Son intimacy. And there’s the way of learning to follow Jesus – to do the sorts of things the Father is doing and saying the sorts of things the Father is saying in the real world in which he’s living, in which he’s trying to mentor the 12 and the 72, where he’s navigating the expectations of the crowd, as unrealistic as they often are. There’s something beautiful in this discipleship to Jesus, both for our intimacy with God and our cooperation with God in the work he’s entrusted to us.

[47:26] N: How do you guys, as leaders, care for your soul?

A: It’s been 21 years since our last sabbatical. In 10 days as of this recording, we will have a one-month sabbatical. It has taken an immense amount of work to put into place, to get the details solved so we can completely stop work. We have desperately needed this. There are patterns of life we’ve had to double down on, the disengagement practices like sabbath so we can engage with God.

S: For me it’s Sabbath and Sabbath moments, including extended time in my prayer closet. It’s critical to the care and nurture of my soul. I love journaling – I don’t do anything in black or blue ink, just choosing the color that fits the journaling space. I write slow, writing my letters slowly and beautifully, crafting them so that they’re meaningful to me. Beauty needs to invade ugly! It’s slowed me down long enough to pray and pause and notice. The quieter disciplines, alone time not just on Sabbath but throughout the week to be in the Word, to pray, to journal, filling a gratitude journal as often as possible. 

K: Sabbatical. Going on retreat regularly. Weekly Sabbath, to be with the Lord, to worship him to be with each other, to rest, to get out in nature. God’s beauty ministers to our souls. When we encounter God’s beauty, we encounter his glory, and it prompts gratitude and worship. We have also found it important to have spiritual friendships and people we can be really honest and open with, who know us totally, who we don’t have to hide anything from, that we can have soul talk with, that we can bare the deepest inner workings of our soul. Meeting with a spiritual director is important to us, so that we’re not living this hidden, private life, but people we’re living our life open with, who have permission to speak into our lives. It can look as little as praying a breath prayer, going over a passage or chapter of scripture that I’ve memorized while lying in bed or brushing my teeth or at a stoplight in the car. The monks have a practice of arriving to appointments early in order to be present to God and another person, which helps us to not just depend on ourselves or go through life in a hurry.

[54:17] N: I keep a list of things that breathe life, and then when I have space, going that direction instead of numbing out. And part of that is play, creativity, laughter. 

S: cooking, walking, doing some of the basics of life with a mindset toward restful or creative practice. We who are involved in spiritual formation ministry need to be careful that we’re not ignoring the need for us to do these things privately, just for us. There’s so much of a propensity to be present for others, and there are times we need make sure we’re posturing ourselves to receive just for us. If we’re not healthy, what are we offering to those that are coming to us? I want to be careful, too, that I don’t see these practices as functional, that I’ve got to do it just to say that I know how to do it, as opposed to just purely being present with God and with each other.

A: I’ve been taking Jesus seriously when Jesus says, Look at the birds.” So in the mornings I make my coffee and go to our backyard in the cool of the morning. And the first thing I do is just watch for and listen for the birds in our neighborhood. And the think I keep learning is they do not seem very anxious. The crows sound irritated, but most of the other birds sound happy, joyful; they are taking baths in the lawn and finding breakfast.

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