The Refuge of the Embattled Soul


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

“Reach the campus, reach the world.”

That’s how they got me. With those words, I began an amazing three years in the campus ministry I was a part of throughout college. I was coming out of a fundamentalist evangelical fog, and was desperate for deep, impactful community. I found it in those incredible people.

They had pointed out that our college had students from almost every “closed nation” in the world (countries where missionaries aren’t allowed to go). The campus was a place of such diversity and nationalities; the thought was that this was the most strategic place to have the most global Christian impact. Playing a part in this excited me and stirred me to serve in this mission.

Compared to the few-hundred strong InterVarsity, our little band of 12 or so students were the definite underdogs of campus ministry. We were just starting out and decided to go legitimate and become an official student organization. This would give us access to room and equipment rentals, money, and advertising resources. But we needed “officers” and a board of leaders to do this.

I thus became the President of our campus ministry.

The campus ministers, other leadership officers, and I became very close. We went through hard times and good, butt heads, and saw lives change. We cast visions and saw things go from idea to reality. We were changed.

One particularly formative moment for me came somewhat towards the middle of our campus ministry’s life. I lived with our Vice President, and our personalities clashed often. I had been annoying my closest friends by being obsessed by a girl far longer than I should have. The church we were connected to was going through its own pains, and we were all feeling the effects.

We knew that, as a leadership, we had been incredibly strained and tensed. We had started complaining about one another to our campus ministers (the “grown ups”, as it were), and they told us that we needed to hash this out amongst one another.

And so, after one of our campus ministry meetings, we stayed behind in the now-empty auditorium. I stood in front, with the rest of the leadership sating in the front row. I led us into prayer and then a time of airing our pains and grievances and attempting reconciliation.

I had entered this moment as “The President”, and felt that I was “above” the fray and messiness and could coordinate our glorious reconciliation as a composer leads an orchestra.

This quickly turned against me.

It seemed that everyone felt like I bore a huge amount of the responsibility for the funk our leadership had been in. They didn’t trust me. They felt that when I spoke, I had an agenda. I had been distracted by personal pursuits and used my leadership post as a means to then end rather than giving real attention to the ministry. I was pushing my own agenda and not truly hearing others. I was arrogant and unresponsive to the needs of those around me.

To my credit, I only defended myself a little before falling silent. This was so unexpected. I didn’t know what to say. This was one of the most sustained, vocal, and personal of critiques I’d ever received. At 20-years old or so, I hadn’t the developed emotional infrastructure to know what to do or how to respond.

In Chapter 2 of Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, she talks about Moses and how he was shaped and formed into the leader God wanted him to be. She talks about that moment when he kills the Egyptian and flees. This was a moment when all that was most broken and dark and unattended to in his soul came out. And what did he do?

He fled into solitude. Barton convincingly shows that this is the refuge for the leader’s soul when it’s own darkness comes to light. She shows how this is God’s mercy to us along the path to growing as a leader. It’s the crisis that forces us into the growing and rejuvenating place of solitude with God.

Having read this, it’s funny looking back at that moment with the campus ministry years ago. What did my soul do that night?

It walked out in a stupor, emotionally bruised and tired. It got into my car, and drove. And drove. I drove from Richmond to Williamsburg–over 100 miles of driving. I listened to music. I prayed. I was alone. I got home super late that night, but I was strengthened. I had found some moments of solitude and had taken baby steps on the path to leadership.

There’s another post-script and encouragement to this, by the way. The path of growth for the leader happens over a long, stretched out period of time. As recently as a couple of months ago, when I took a leadership assessment filled out by people around me, the very same critiques came up there as came up that night after the campus ministry.

And yet, they were to a lesser degree of severity, according to this assessment, as it was then. Further, they were things that were no longer a surprise. They are the dark parts of me with which I’ve become greatly acquainted this past decade or so. And they are parts that have shown tangible, real growth as I’ve gone through counseling and met with others.

It’s funny that after this moment of darkness from Moses, and after he seeks solitude, the next time we see him is after “many years” have passed. Preparation take time. Preparation takes pain. Preparation takes refuge.

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