Cultivating Your Soul to Lead


paul-art-wingI’m currently reading through Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Occasionally, I’ll post reflections on my reading.

In my seminary program, there’s a lot of talk about one’s “True Self”. We live so much of our existence living from the place of masks, coping mechanisms, fears, anxieties, etc.–our “False Selves”. Articulating it like this is so helpful in some ways, but in others can be frustrating.

At least for me, this “True Self” seems so deeply inside of me, so elusive, that I’ve very much resigned myself to never actually knowing this self. Like a celebrity or historical figure, I’ve had to learn to live with the reality that I’ll never actually meet this person, no matter how much I may want to. I’ve come to terms with a reality in which I just need to be gracious with myself (just as God is) that most all of my life and existence will be more “False” than “True”, and I just need to make the best out of that.

Barton’s book simplifies this and gives me hope. She says that the True Self is “simply” one’s soul. She writes:

When I refer to the soul, I am not talking about some ill-defined, amorphous, soft-around-the-edges sort of thing. I am talking about the part of you that is most real–the very essence of you that God knew before he brought you forth in physical form… This is the “you” that exists beyond any role you play, any job you perform, any relationship that seems to define you, or any notoriety or success you may have achieved. It is the part of you that longs for more of God than you have right now, the part that may, even now, be aware of “missing” God amid the challenges of life in ministry.

Now if that is my “True Self, then that person I’ve been acquainted with. That person I’ve known, lived out of, given to others, and learned a bit of the rhythm of. It’s still work to “meet with” this self, but it’s certainly not impossible. It just takes time, silence, and solitude.

In that case, then, I’ve got re-calibrate my expectations for the Self out of which I lead and grow. I can’t resign myself to never knowing and giving my truest, most authentic self to others in service and leadership. I not only have to work at this, but also work with confidence and assurance that it is possible in the first place.

I don’t know about you, but it’s this confidence that is the hardest discipline for me. My biggest weakness in being a leader is my lack of discipline and rhythm. I have few, if any, consistent practices that mark my life. I work out, sleep, eat, read, write, pray, and so on at drastically different times and days of any given week.

Now, a big (probably primary) reason for this is the decades-old, deeply-carved neural pathways that lead to this lack of rhythm, but there’s also surely an emotional/spiritual component as well. And a big part of that is my lack of confidence that I can access and truly live out of this truest part of myself.

So how do I attend to my soul in a way that builds me as a leader and child of God?

Anyone that knows me know that I’m a passionate man that longs for deep connection with others (to a fault). And so, much of the ways in my life that I’ve felt most “myself” are when I’m acting out of this passion and depth of human connection. The activities of preparing for home groups, teachings, and (now) sermons have been the places in which I’ve genuinely felt most myself, most centered and at peace. I’ve also felt this way as I’ve counseled others and received their own grace, care, and love.

And yet, as I get older, I’ve realized more and more that this seemingly extroverted, active part of myself, though part of the flowing river of my soul, is not its absolute deepest current.

That is reserved for a deep, quiet, intense space within me that is truly only accessed in intense silence, meditation, and solitude. It’s the part of me that has reached a tipping point in recent years of needing to be attended to, and yet it’s the part of me I’m least equipped and practiced in tending.

I’ve known this self in guided prayer and meditation, in praying through Psalms, and journaling. These are the things I would like to build into my life in rhythms, consistency, and discipline.

I originally wrote that last sentence with the phrase “need to build into my life”. But it’s precisely that dynamic of obligation, rather than freedom, that leads my soul to revolt against it. I would like to know God’s grace in this, so that I might offer this deepest self to others I might lead and care for, rather than just giving them the active, anxious, emotional, intense, passionate self.

I would love to see what it might look like to grow into the kind of man that moves in both these modes well: from a place of rest, where passion meets focus and leads to the flourishing of myself and others as we pursue our God and one another well.

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