Soul Searchin: What is your Soul Trajectory?

by Lance Witt

“The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception” Proverbs 14:8 (NIV). One of the crying needs of ministry leaders today is to “give thought to their ways”. In the grind and pressure of daily ministry, it is easy to be consumed with driving the car without giving thought to where it is going.

We tend to give lots of attention and focus to where the church car is headed but not as much attention to where the “personal” car is headed. Most every church or parachurch ministry I know will take a couple of days annually to retreat and talk about plans for the future. Goals are established, initiatives are considered, resourcing is allocated, and course corrections are made. These leadership gatherings are crucial for the future effectiveness of the ministry.

As important as it is to plot the trajectory organizationally, it is just as important to do so personally. As a leader I must regularly pull back from the daily grind and give thought to “my ways”. My first calling is not to pay attention to the ways of the organization or the ways of the staff, but rather to pay attention to “my ways”.

If I could plot the trajectory of my soul, my inner life, where is it headed? If my soul stays on the path it is on, where does it end up ten years from now? Twenty years from now? After my ministry role is gone and I no longer hold an organizational position, what will I be left with? Where you end up is largely determined by how well you manage what is going on inside you.

A lot of ministry leaders I know are “dead men/women running”. They are a flurry of activity and they are working hard. But, on the inside, they are empty and joyless. If I were to plot their trajectory, they are headed for burnout, disillusionment, or cynicism.

Let me use a true but tragic story to illustrate. On October 25th 1999, a twin-engine Lear jet taxied down the runway in Orlando, Florida on its way to Dallas. At Gainesville, the plane should have changed course to head toward Dallas. But, it veered off course, heading toward South Dakota. Repeated attempts to contact the pilots were met with a deafening silence from the plane. Five fighter planes from Florida and Oklahoma were dispatched to go after the plane and make visual contact.

Two F-16’s finally were able to get to the plane and pull within 50 feet of the Lear jet. The pilots reported that they were unable to see inside the plane because the windows were iced over. Ultimately, the plane flew on autopilot for 1400 miles, over a period of 4 hours, and finally crashed into a grassy field going 600 miles an hour.

All six passengers were killed, the most famous being professional golfer Payne Stewart. It was a bizarre and tragic event. Suppose for a moment, you had been standing on the ground as the plane flew overhead in the clear autumn sky. It’s travelling fast and straight and as far you know it’s on course. But, the reality is that something was desperately wrong on the inside and it was headed for disaster.

That story serves as a poignant picture for the lives of many ministry leaders. They are soaring through life at breakneck speed. They seem on course and are cruising on autopilot. Outwardly, they seem to have it all together, but on the inside there is a crisis. Something is wrong and things are not as they appear. They are headed for a crash.

Henry Cloud has written a great book called Nine Things You Simply Must Do. These 9 axioms are life lessons that Cloud has learned through the years. One of his “Nine Things” is a principle called Play the Movie. Every scene in a movie is moving toward a final scene. There is a plot being developed. And, the final scene is being shaped and determined by earlier scenes. So, I need to determine what kind of final scene I want and then develop a plot that gets me there.

We tend to look at life as a series of disconnected scenes. What we often fail to realize is that what I am doing today was shaped by what I did yesterday. What I will do tomorrow will be informed by what I do today. And, I am writing a scene now that will influence the final scene.

More than ever, it is imperative for leaders to take time away for thinking and reflection. The knee jerk reaction for most of us is to say, “That sounds good, but I just don’t have the time.” In order to maintain my sanity and some semblance of spiritual health, I have to make time for personal retreat.

“When there is no time to do it, that’s when you most need to unclutter the calendar and go apart to pray. When the gridlock in your schedule relentlessly forbids, it is the time you most need retreat.” (Emily Griffin quoted in Ruth Haley Barton’s book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership).

Leaders who stay spiritually healthy for the long term are those who learn the sacred rhythm of advance and retreat. There are times when we are focused on the mission and taking the next hill for Christ’s kingdom. But you can’t stay on the front lines all the time. You have to rest and regroup. In fact, the fiercer and the more intense the battle, the more often you have to retreat.

For me, times of retreat have had two powerful benefits:

Replenishing my soul

Something happens inside me that is hard to explain. When I pull away from the demanding routine, it is so life-giving. Ministry has a way of draining you. The task is never done. The needs never go away. But when I get alone with God, He refills me. When I first started practicing this, being alone and being quiet was not enjoyable. Even though my body was on personal retreat, my mind was full throttle. I thought about all that I needed to do. But, over time, I have learned to slow my spirit and I now realize the world can get along just fine without me for a little while. I am learning to “be” with my heavenly father and the result is that my soul gets replenished in the process.

Recalibrating my perspective

The other huge benefit I have experienced in personal retreat is a perspective shift. As I ponder and pray, God regularly reminds me of what is really important. And, He regularly convicts me about getting so worked up over things that just aren’t that important. During personal retreat it is as though I have removed most of the white noise from the world and I can be quiet enough long enough to hear God’s voice.

So, how about it? Schedule a 24 hour personal retreat. I promise, it won’t kill you, the world will manage without you, and you will be healthier for it.

Lance Witt is Lance is the founder of Replenish Ministries, an organization devoted to ministering pastors to help them become healthy, holy, and humble. He also serves as the Pastor for Strategic Development at Thomas Road Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.

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