“It you attempt to act and do for others or for the world without deepening your own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love, you will not have anything to give others.  You will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of your own obsessions, your aggressivity, your ambitions, your delusions and ends and means…”

–Thomas Merton

I remember sitting in a staff meeting once at a church I was serving; the purpose of the meeting was to talk about how we could attract more people to join the church. At one point someone counted the requirements for church membership already in place and made the startling discovery that there were at least five time commitments per week required of those who wanted to become church members!

Outwardly I tried to be supportive of the purpose for the meeting, but on the inside I was screaming, Who would want to sign up for this? I was already trying to combat CFS (Christian fatigue syndrome) in my own life and couldn’t imagine willingly inflicting it on someone else!

As I sat with my discomfort a whole new awareness opened up:  all of us leaders sitting around the table that day only knew one speed in life and that was full steam ahead—and we had been stuck in that speed for a very long time.  The kind of frenetic, unworkable schedules that we were all living was exactly the kind of life-style we had been leading others into and if we didn’t pay attention, this meeting was only going to produce more of the same. If we as leaders did not deal with ourselves and establish saner rhythms for our lives—rhythms that would curb our unbridled activism and allow space for the work of God in our own lives—we would not have much of value to offer others. We would not be able to lead others into a way of life that allowed time and space for the patient, plodding, and mysterious process of spiritual transformation.

Good news and bad news

Spiritual transformation has become quite the trend in Protestant circles today. A mere ten years ago few church leaders were talking about it and there was even some  suspicion about what it was and what might happen if we allowed it to become too much of priority. Although there are still pockets of mistrust, this widespread suspicion has finally given way to a deeper embrace of this important element of the Gospel.

The good news is that this renewed interest in spiritual formation speaks to a collective desire for more in the spiritual life—more than just head knowledge, more than rules that merely govern external behaviors, more than religious activity loaded onto lives that already feel unmanageable.  The language of spiritual formation helps us name desires that are so deep and have so often been disappointed that many of us had given up trying to articulate them.  The promise of spiritual transformation is an intimacy with God that results in the satisfaction of the soul’s deepest longings.

The bad news (or at least the news that makes us a bit uncomfortable) is that many pastors are trying to respond to these longings by attempting to lead their congregations into realities that they are not experiencing for themselves. They may lack clarity about what spiritual transformation is and how central it is to the message of the Gospel.  They may not have a clear idea about how the process of transformation unfolds in the lives of real people or how a church might order their shared life around this priority.  They might think that because they have heard an inspiring speaker or read a few books, they are ready to lead others on the journey of opening to deeper levels of transformation.

A Slippery Slope

The problem, of course, is that it is a slippery slope from momentary inspirations to a scenario in which pastors and Christian leaders are preaching, teaching and casting vision for a spirituality that they themselves are not experiencing in any kind of a substantive way. After all, a gifted speaker can make anything sound good—whether they know much about it or not.  They might preach an inspiring message about solitude, but they don’t ever get around to practicing it.  They might encourage others to pray more and offer all sorts of techniques, but they themselves don’t pray.  They might speak about Sabbath-keeping, but they themselves don’t keep a Sabbath and their church life is so busy that Sabbath-keeping is impossible for the staff and/or the congregation. They might use the language of discernment, but lack concrete practices or the necessary discipline for discerning God’s will in their setting.

Desperate to stay current and respond to people’s desire, leaders may succumb to the temptation to cast vision for a life-giving way of life for others while they lack a life-giving way of life for themselves.  Spiritual formation is the latest bandwagon that everyone is trying to jump on and no one wants to be left behind but what do you do if you’re just not prepared?

Leading from the Center

Spiritual transformation in your church doesn’t begin with the hiring of a new spiritual formation pastor.  It doesn’t begin with the appointment of a committee to look into these things.  It doesn’t begin when some new spiritual formation electives are offered or a few people start going on retreats.  It doesn’t begin with an on-line tool.  It doesn’t even begin when someone preaches a sermon series on spiritual disciplines.  No.  It begins when the senior pastor, staff, elders, deacons, vestry, management team, board of trustees—the highest level leaders in a church or organization—take a step back and give serious attention to their own personal process of spiritual transformation or the lack thereof.  It begins when the leadership “center” of the church or organization commits themselves to a more intentional process of spiritual transformation and  determines that they will lead from that place.

Anglican theologian W.H. Vanstone once observed that the church is like a swimming pool in which all the noise comes from the shallow end.  But most of the wisdom is to be found in the deep end, among those who have taken the time and cultivated the habits and disciplines to learn to swim in deeper waters.  If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, then we need the kind of sustained learning that leads us into the deep end of the pool.

If we as leaders want to help others learn to swim in the deep end of the pool, we must know how to swim there ourselves; otherwise, we put ourselves and everyone else in danger!

What Your People Need Most

The best thing any of us have to bring to leadership is not our preaching, our education, our strategic thinking or our pastoral skills—as important as those are. The best thing we to bring to leadership is our own transforming selves and the inner authority that comes from our own life and practice.  As Jesus says in John 3, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.”

Spiritual transformation—the process by which Christ is formed in us for the glory of God, for the sake of others, and for the abundance of our own lives—is an organic process that goes far beyond mere behavioral tweaks. In this process the Spirit of God works deep and fundamental changes at the core of our being, moving us from behaviors motivated by fear and self-protection to trust and abandonment to God. From selfishness and self-absorption to freely offering the gifts of the authentic self. From the ego’s desperate attempts to control the outcomes of our lives to the ability to discern and do God’s will even when it is foolishness to the world around us.

The reality of spiritual transformation lived and modeled by it’s leaders is what our churches and Christian organizations need first and most.  This process alone will change who we are and what people experience when they are with us. Spiritual transformation in your church or organization begins with you and your transformation. Any additional strategy must and will come quite naturally after that.


Ruth Haley Barton is founding president of the Transforming Center (www.thetransformingcenter.org). A teacher, trained spiritual director and retreat leader, she is the author of spiritual formation books and resources including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Longing For More.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2010. This article is not to be reproduced without permission from the author or the Transforming Center.


Share this article: