By Carolyn Porterfield
Six months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution seemed all but lost. General George Washington didn’t have enough troops and some of them were ending their time of service. Resources were scarce. The winter weather was brutal. The enemy was powerful, well trained, and better equipped than the colonial army.
Thomas Paine wrote these words to describe the situation, “These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in the crisis, shrink from the service of his country.” (from GoodReads.com)
The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot only served when things were going well, and they were on the winning side. But when hard times came and the war seemed lost, they were nowhere to be found.
The last year has been a time that has tried our souls. A pandemic that is yet to end, racial unrest, a contentious election, and a winter storm in Texas and neighboring states like we have not seen in decades, have tried us. We acknowledge the physical, psychological, and emotional toll these months have taken. But do we consider the spiritual toll to our souls?
Leaders, in particular, are hardest hit. They feel the weight of responsibility to care well for those they lead while sometimes neglecting themselves in the process. But wise leaders know the health of their souls is critical to their effectiveness.
In his book, A Work of Heart, Reggie McNeal describes leaders who lose heart. I have experienced times in leadership when those words were true of me. I realized that not only did I lose but so did those I was leading. I also knew this was not what God wanted for me.
As followers of Jesus, we are not intended to lead from our strength. Jesus extends this invitation to our weary and tested souls: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29, NIV).
Try an experiment. Get a small glass jar and put some dirt in the bottom. Fill the jar with water and shake it. What do you see? The dirt fills the water. Now, let the jar sit for a few minutes. What changes do you notice? When the jar is allowed to sit for a few minutes, the dirt sinks to the bottom. There is space to see something other than the dirt.
So it can be with our souls. We allow the “dirt” of life to fill our souls which blocks the presence and voice of God. There seems to be no space for Him because family, work, ministry, and more have seemingly crowded Him out. We need to make space in our lives for the one who cares for us. In solitude and silence the things of life settle which opens space for God.
Ruth Haley Barton speaks of solitude and silence in her book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. She describes solitude as a place of rescue from the relentless striving we often feel as leaders. You know what I mean. The work is never done. I must keep pushing to meet all the deadlines. I’ll attend to my soul when I get this project finished. But, if we are not careful, the next project comes along, and I still neglect my soul.
During these days that try our souls we need to be rescued. So much pressure has been put on leaders to figure out how to survive and even thrive during this past year. That is exhausting work. Our souls need solitude so we can reengage with the one who loves us and calls us to Himself.
Find a space where you can be alone, even if it is a closet. Take deep breathes to calm your mind and relax your body. Invite Jesus to meet you. Enjoy His presence. Release yourself from the pressure to find right words. Just be with Him.
Solitude is accompanied by silence. We are often uncomfortable with silence in our noise-filled world. However, it is necessary in order to hear God’s voice. Again, Barton offers sound wisdom in her description of silence. In silence, we stop talking. In essence, she says we give up control and allow God to be God. He tells us to be still and know that He is God. This helps put life in proper perspective. We begin to realize that is possible to be set free from the heavy demands and expectations put on those who lead.
Did you catch it? Our souls need to be rescued from relentless human striving. While it may be hard, we can give up control and let God be God. As a mother consoles a crying child, so our loving Father holds us when our souls have been battered, and we feel empty. He opens His arms to us. In silence and solitude, we rest in Him. No words need be spoken. Instead, listen.
As we rest and listen, He makes Himself known. He reminds us that we are His beloved children who have been the recipients of His mercy and grace. He tells us we are not alone. He will never leave us or forsake us. We don’t have to figure out next steps because He has gone before us and will instruct and teach us the way we should go. He will make the rough places smooth and turn dark places into light. These are the things He will do for us.
The times in which we live try our souls as leaders. But now is not the time for “summer disciples” or “sunshine leaders.” It is time for leaders to act with confidence. That is possible, as we care for our souls and become the leaders God intends us to be.
Carolyn Porterfield, CLLI Board member and faculty, has served in leadership positions for over 40 years. She writes from her own experience as one who is still learning to care well for her soul.