Leading with Mo’ Soul: a ★★★★★ book review

It took me too long to get around to Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. I am a Ruth Haley Barton fan and I’ve read several of her books: Invitation to Solitude and Silence (IVP 2004), Sacred Rhythms (IVP 2006), Life Together in Christ (IVP 2014). While there are tons of authors who explore the realm of spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation, Barton has a special gift for combining an evangelical sensibility with contemplative spirituality. She is a spiritual director and the founder and president of the Transforming Center, an organization dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders, and congregations and the organizations they serve.

4645So being a Barton fan, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (SSYL) had already been on my ‘to read’ list for several years, when a couple of years ago, a pastoral job I had imploded, and I was left reeling. Several friends and colleagues recommended this book and I made plans to read it. Though I never, until now, made it past my several false starts. I think I wasn’t in the right psycho-social-space to wrestle with this stuff.  Now in its second edition, SSYL frames the soul-formation of a leader with the life of Moses as her reference point (a page taken from Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses?).  Moses was a Hebrew raised in the house Pharoah, and his first attempt at leadership resulted in murder and coverup. The fear of being found out drives Moses to the wilderness. There, solitude begins to work on Moses’s Soul as he confronts his struggles with identity (who is he, learns to pay attention, and wrestles with vocation. When Moses emerges from the wilderness, there are other lessons he needs to learn about leading others, the gifts of the round-about-wilderness way, intercession, isolation, and sabotage, delegating, leadership community and detachment.

Barton is guided by the conviction, “what lies beneath the surface—of the ocean of our lives—really matters (39). Where we encounter and wrestle with what is swirling on our insides, is in submitting to the rhythms of silence and solitude. She writes:

God’s call to us is to find a way to do what Moses did—to leave our life in the complany of others at least for a time, to let go of all of our attempts to fix whatever needs fixing “out there,” to leave whatever hope we had of leading people somewhere, and to believe that what needs to be done in the deep interior places of our life is the most important work to be done right now. In fact, to try to press on without paying attention to whatever it is that is bubbling up from way down deep is the most dangerous thing we could do. (40).

So, each chapter weaves examples from Moses, from Barton’s own life, leadership and ministry, and examples from the lives of others who have thought to lead attentive of their inner life. Notable examples include Gary Haugen of IJM, who also wrote the forward, and Martin Luther King’s wrestling with the dangers of being a Civil Rights leader, and his detachment from seeing his work come to fruition (“I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve seen the promised land. . . I may not get there with you”).

The emphasis throughout is on practicing the sort of spirituality exhibited in the life of Moses. So each chapter closes with a practice designed to help us press into God and reflect on the character of our leadership. Often this is a moment in solitude. Listening to our breath, reflecting and listening in the quietness to what God may be whispering to our soul. A time to stop and attend to what is in us.

My exegetical, seminary-trained self, is occasionally critical with the way Barton uses episodes from Moses’ life as illustrative of spiritual practices, whether or not that is what the narrative is about. Moses didn’t run into the wilderness to pursue a life of silence and solitude and devote himself to prayer. He ran for his life because he was scared. He didn’t go there to do inner work.  Did the angel of the Lord cause the burning bush to burn and not be consumed because Moses was now ready to turn aside and pay attention? (60-61, chapter 4) This seems more pre-text than text. I wondered as I read if Moses story provides a canvas on which Barton simply paints the picture of spiritual formation she wishes to describe.

Yet, just as often, I found her insights into the story opened it up to me in ways that I had not previously considered. For example, Moses named his son Gershom because he had “been an alien in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22). Barton reflects, “this is a profound admission. It had taken a very long time, but finally, Moses was able to acknowledge what was underneath the behavior that had gotten him where he was. He was finally able to admit that all his life he had struggled with his identity and he was mad as hell about it” (47). The sense of identity dislocation and his feeling like an imposter makes sense of the young Moses’ life. Not only is this fruitful for understanding my own struggles with identity in leadership, but it changed the way I read Exodus 1-3. Similarly, the way Barton inhabits Moses angst and disappointment of seeing a promised land he would never enter was instructive and illuminative.

While this is the second edition, I didn’t notice any substantive changes in the main text of the book.  SSYL remain the same,  word for word, by my reading anyway, what it was in the 2008 edition. But included in this edition is a flexible group discussion guide (for a weekly group or meeting with a spiritual mentor) and an assessment tool for gauging the state of our souls as leaders.

Despite noting my occasional exegetical wariness, I can’t recommend this book enough. Barton names the issues that have swirled inside of me as I’ve pursued (and failed at) my pastoral calling (e.g. struggles with identity, clarifying calling, living within and recognizing my limitations, delegating, paying attention to God, etc). This would be an excellent book to read together as a leadership team or as guide for a lead-team retreat. I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars! -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review

 

Transformed Together on Emmaus Road: a book review

Ruth Haley Barton is well established as an author of Christian spirituality. I have read and found beneficial her Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. The former, explores the importance of practicing silence as a spiritual discipline while the latter examines eight spiritual practices that help people press deeper into faith in God. Barton draws on the insights of the broad Christian tradition, but her writings is palatable for an evangelical audience.

Though I had read and enjoyed Barton before, I wasn’t prepared to like Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community as much as much as I did. My standing critique of many books on spiritual disciplines is how they appeal to an individualistic, consumer mindset and apply  it to the realm of spirituality (if this doesn’t work, try another discipline. . .). Barton made strides in Sacred Rhythms to address this attitude, but Life Together in Christ is a more developed, mature reflection on the nature of Spiritual practice.

Barton frames her exploration of communal spiritual transformation through one of the Jesus’ most evocative post-resurrection appearances.  In Luke 24: 13-35 we hear the story of Cleopas and his companion, despondent on their trek home from Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified. They are met on their way by a stranger who listens to them and explains to them, from the scriptures, why the Son of Man would suffer. When they reach the end of their journey, they invite him home for dinner and discover in the dinner grace that Jesus himself was their travelling companion.

Barton turns over the words of this story and reflects on nine communal practices and characteristics which enable and encourage spiritual transformation. These are:

  • Choosing to walk together
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Choosing to listen and not fix
  • Gathering on the basis of shared desire
  • The place of men and women in community
  • The cruciform nature of the spiritual journey
  • Locating our own stories in Jesus’ story
  • Discerning the presence of Christ in our midst
  • Bearing witness to what we have seen and heard

Barton is an astute reader of the text, but this isn’t a purely exegetical treatment (more of a sustained Lectio Divina). She finds in this story some great segues to the nature of the spiritual life in community. I appreciate her insights into spirituality. I also like that they way these chapters are crafted and set up, to sit down and read it cover to cover by yourself (as I did) is the absolutely wrong way of doing it. Barton is not naive about the difficulties, letdowns, betrayals and disappointments that happen in real-life Christian communities, but she is cognizant that to live the Christian faith we are a part of the church–God’s kingdom people. Her words hone in on how to be God’s people (and God’s presence) for one another.

My favorite part of the book was her explanation of the nature of the spiritual journey, or in her words, “the paschal rhythm of death, burial and resurrection as the essential rhythm of the spiritual life, and of suffering as a necessary part of it” (102). These poignant words helped me see how Christ’s cross and resurrection not only explain the journey the Son of God took, but all of us who are in Him. Often I hear this said theologically (we have been crucified with Christ and our lives are buried with him)  but Barton helped me connect the dots a little bit on how this is a lived reality.

I highly recommend this book. It is the best book on community I read in 2014 and it would be a great resource for small groups or to read with a spiritual friend (Barton herself is a spiritual director and leads a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of and training pastors and ministry leaders). Because it reflects on Christ’s resurrection, my lectionary-loving friends may appreciate reading through this in Easter as they seek to deepen their resurrection practice. However the principles and practices are applicable anytime. I give this book a hearty high five (stars): ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.