by Michael Murray
It’s a question pastors are accustomed to asking: How is it with your soul? Trained to lead people to the heart of the matter, church leaders often pose this question in counseling sessions, sermons, even in casual conversations over coffee.
But who is helping Christian leaders ask this question of themselves? While tending to the souls of others—and tackling the rest of the job portfolio of a minister in our frenetic times—pastors can too easily lose sight of their own spiritual health.
Dr. Ruth Haley Barton ’81 has seen this happen and decided to do something about it.
While serving on the staff of a church in her early thirties, Ruth hit a wall in her spiritual life. “It was a wall of exhaustion and a wall of awareness that— even though I had been a Christian all my life—I was not transforming at the deepest levels of my being,” she says. “The crucible of marriage and ministry exposed my basic self-centeredness, and there was a performance-oriented drivenness that was, well, driving me. My pace of life was not sustainable.”
A Christian since age four and the daughter of a pastor, she says she tried “everything in the Protestant evangelical tradition.” When nothing changed, someone encouraged her to go to a spiritual director. Through that relationship, Ruth first began practicing spiritual disciplines that were new to her, including solitude and silence. She began experiencing the transformation she had been longing for.
That experience changed the course of her ministry. She eventually became a spiritual director herself, and 10 years ago founded the Transforming Center, a not- for-profit based in Wheaton with a mission of “strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders, and the congregations and organizations they serve.”
Having served on the staff of a large evangelical church, she observes that the pastoral role has changed, and today’s pastors are expected to be innovators, fundraisers, as well as experts in production, marketing, and communications. The Transforming Center was created to give pastors space in which “to step away from the busyness in order to listen to God.”
Someone who practices what she teaches, Ruth appreciates the “seamless balance” of her vocational life today, with its mix of writing, speaking, and directing a not-for-profit. Leading retreats and speaking at conferences comes naturally for this preacher’s daughter, who began preaching and teaching as a young child. “Those memories of leading family devotions are some of my purest and most joyful,” she notes.
The author of more than ten books on spiritual development, including most recently, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2008),Ruth credits Dr. Leland Ryken with encouraging her writing gifts, and the entire English department at Wheaton for “teaching literature with a passion for each genre” and sparking her own lifelong love of literature.
A writer first, Ruth is keenly aware of God’s faithfulness in leading her to a place where all the pieces of her experience work together. She says, “When you travel and speak, you are limited in what you can accomplish, which is why I enjoy being able to leave people with a resource—a book that will hopefully take them further on the journey toward doing the will of God in their own setting.”
Reprinted from the spring 2012 issue of Wheaton magazine, Wheaton College (IL). Used with permission.