“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26) I’ll admit, there have been a few times when I’ve felt like I’ve lost my soul to ministry. In one particular season, I forgot who I was for a while. My identity became so entangled in my role; I forgot that first and foremost, I am a child of God. I got so wrapped up in doing ministry and my desire to be successful that I neglected my own personal relationship with the Lord. My relationship with Jesus was an afterthought or at best, just a series of activities to check off my to do list. My relationship with Jesus was all about doing things for Him, not about being with Him. And to be honest I wasn’t being transformed into His image. I was not spiritually healthy. But God, in His kindness, helped me begin to see the importance of caring for my soul.
Over the last 5 years or so, I’ve begun a journey to tend to my soul. This journey has led me to incredible life-giving moments and experiences with God, but also to some very low times of recognizing my own patterns of sinfulness. However, I am incredibly thankful that God has given me eyes to see myself at the soul level. And He’s also given me a passion to help other leaders care for their own souls.
I don’t think any of us set out to lose our souls, but sometimes before we know what’s happening, we’ve lost our way. Perhaps we start thinking that our ministry for God can replace our relationship with God. Or maybe we start to think that spending time in ministry somehow “counts” for spending our own time with Jesus. And some of us might think we can continue to be effective in ministry even though we have no margin in our lives.
We have an enemy who would like our souls to wither away. He will do anything to distract us from our relationship with Jesus. He might even use our ministries to pull us away from the Lord. He would love nothing more than to infect the Church with unhealthy leaders. But the Church is too important to let our leaders lose their souls. And I believe the Church is in danger if we, as leaders, don’t start to recognize the slow fade of our souls, our signs of burnout, and learn to live within healthy limits.
I’ve just recently begun to notice some of these signs in myself. I now know when I start to get easily irritated with people it’s a signal to me that I need to tend to my relationship with Jesus. And when I start to over-react or start taking things way too personally, it’s a signal to me that I’m getting too tired and I need to tend to my soul. I’m also learning more about fatigue. I think while we’re here on earth, we probably will always have some level of fatigue. Ministry is hard work, and it can wear us out. But there is a difference between being tired and finding ourselves in a deep soul fatigue. This soul fatigue is what leads to burnout. It’s a kind of tired that doesn’t go away after a few nights of extra sleep or after a week’s vacation. It’s the kind of tired that affects your relationships and your ministry. For the sake of the kingdom, it needs to be addressed before you burn out.
Whatever your signs or signals are, it’s important to notice them. It’s also important to give our souls a regular check-up. A few years ago, I read a quote from Dr. Robert Mulholland and since reading it I’ve used this as my soul check-up. In his book, Invitation to a Journey, he says, “If you want a good litmus test of your spiritual growth, simply examine the nature and quality of your relationships with others. Are you more loving, more compassionate, more patient, more understanding, more caring, more giving, more forgiving than you were a year ago? If you cannot answer these kinds of questions in the affirmative, and especially, if others cannot answer them in the affirmative about you, then you need to examine carefully the nature of your spiritual life and growth.”
What might your signs or signals be? If you can’t identify them now, I invite you to spend some time asking God to open your eyes to see what they might be.
What if you do notice some of these signs in yourself? What if you discover that your soul is unhealthy? Where do you start? I believe we start with caring for our own souls. You may be thinking that sounds selfish, but it is anything but selfish. We cannot care or minister to others if we’re not healthy or if we lose our souls.
Two and a half years ago, I began a two-year experience where I took time to deeply and intentionally care for my soul. I traveled to Chicago for quarterly, three-day retreats. During this life-changing experience, I learned how to create sustainable, spiritual rhythms or practices in my life that fed my soul and deepened my relationship with God. Here are just a few things I’ve learned on my journey into soul care.
Begin with Desire
You may be thinking, “What does desire have to do with soul care?” It has everything to do with it! Our deepest longings and desires fuel what we do in our everyday lives. If we have a strong enough desire for something, our actions and behaviors will begin to follow. If we have a deep desire to be with and experience God, then we will do what we can to be with and experience God.
I’ll admit I was a little hesitant to think about my desires. I grew up thinking that desires were bad. I think this was because most of the time desire was talked about it was referring to sexual desire. What I’m talking about here are your desires regarding God. What are your desires when it comes to your relationship with God? When you think about your relationship with Jesus, what do you most want?
On one of the first retreats I attended, we took time to think about our deepest longing and desires. I remember our speaker, Ruth Haley Barton, talking about God as our ultimate, orienting reality. I immediately knew that was one of my deepest and strongest desires. That desire became my new starting point and it’s the desire I come back to regularly. I want to build my life and activities around practices that will help move me toward that desire. One of the best ways I’ve been able to keep my desires in front of me is with my Rule of Life.
Rule of Life
Don’t let the word “rule” throw you off. A Rule of Life is simply a list of intentions you would like to live by. It includes regular patterns, behaviors, and practices that we can submit ourselves to in order to intentionally bring us into deeper relationship with God, so He can transform us. It is not meant to be something legalistic, but it’s meant to keep us on track with our intentions. As leaders, it’s vital to create healthy rhythms of work and rest. My Rule of Life reminds me of those rhythms. A few things I include in my rule of life are reading scripture, keeping a Sabbath, silence and solitude, and quarterly days of retreat. These practices have been most meaningful to me, so I’ll unpack them a little for you. But remember, we are all created uniquely and differently, so some of these may work for you and some of them may not. I encourage you to take time to discern what practices would be most helpful to you.
God gave Sabbath to the Israelites for a reason; He knew they needed a day to stop working to just be with Him. He has given it to us as well, and it’s a gift! We desperately need a day to stop striving, to stop working, to stop worrying … a day to trust God enough to hold everything while we stop … a day to truly rest in God’s presence. Instead of filling this day with more work, more stress, more anxiety, what if we thought about Sabbath as a day to be with God while we do what we love and what fills us with joy?
Solitude and Silence
Silence gets us away from all the noise; solitude is a way to withdraw from the people around us. We are constantly inundated with noise, information, and technology. All of these things can be good, but too much is a distraction from God and is not healthy for our souls. I wonder sometimes how we hear God at all with all the noise and distractions around us! I’ll admit when I first started practicing this, it was really hard for me to quiet my mind. I started with small amounts of silence (like five minutes). I built up from there and now enjoy spending longer amounts of time in quiet with God. What would it look like for you to practice a few minutes of silence a few times a week?
It’s good for our souls to get away from the fast, regular pace of life, to get out of our normal routines to spend longer periods of time alone with God. For all you extroverts out there don’t start to panic! These days of retreat don’t have to be scary! When I first started practicing this, I didn’t think I could make it an entire day. But I did. And now, I long for these days away with God. What would it look like for you to try one day of retreat in the next few months?
Reading Scripture Meditatively
Studying Scripture is so important. We need to know what the Bible says so we can do what it says. But that can’t be the only way we engage Scripture. What if we read it slowly and thoughtfully, pondering it like a love letter from God, so that it sinks down from our heads into our hearts? If reading Scripture does not have some formational effect on our lives, then we might be reading it the wrong way. What would it look like for you to read the Bible this way, rather than rushing through it just to gain information?
These are just a few ways I care for my soul; there are so many other ways that might be meaningful for you. What’s important is that you take time to notice the condition of your soul and talk to God about what rhythms would be healthy for you. Don’t put this off. Take time to do it now so you can lead from a healthy place, so you can sustain ministry for the long haul, and so you won’t lose your soul in the midst of ministry.