Pioneering is a tough job, but someone has to do it!
This is a continuation of another post I wrote about physical health. This article will address another important factor in pioneering and frontline ministry, emotional health.
Sustainability, healthy boundaries and intentional spiritual disciplines precede and undergird any conversation about keys to effective pioneering. My goal in these writings is to mimic the outline that Jesus offers in his Great Commandment: heart, soul, mind, strength and neighbor.
Today I offer a reflection on the soul.
About the Soul
The soul is a dimension of our humanity that eludes a simple definition.
The Biblical witness offers an extended and fascinating vision of the soul. For our purposes, we will simply say God makes us a “soul” in the act of creation. “Then the Lord God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life, and they became souls” and Jesus tells us the purpose of our soul is to “love God” with all of it (Genesis 2:7; Mark 12:30).
For Christians, we believe God is a relational God who created us to be in a harmonious relationship with Godself and each other. So, our central claim is that Jesus, who is mysteriously somehow fully-human, fully-God, comes to rescue us from ourselves, show us the way, and now as the ascended Lord, fills our souls with the deepest truth, and infuses us with divine life.
Jesus in his risenness, is now everywhere, all around us, all the time, and the soul is created to live in communion with him.
The problem with pioneers is the double-edged sword of our drivenness. That same hardwiring that pushes us into new frontiers to seed the Gospel in untapped host cultures can also push us beyond God’s will. We can become so busy working for God that we forget to walk with God. This leads to burn-out.
But burn-out is impossible when we yoke with Jesus, who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Here are seven keys you may consider to sustaining soul health as a pioneer:
1. Syncing Our Soul with the Rhythms of God’s Soul
Did you know God has a soul?
God’s soul can be “pleased” and “take delight” (Matthew 12:18). The human soul can be truly healthy, only when it is synced with the soul of the creator. We don’t have to guess what the rhythm of God’s soul is either; he put flesh on in Jesus.
Jesus lived a rhythm of advance and retreat. That life was founded on sabbath, prayer, and meditation.
Most pioneers need to slow down.
I don’t know any pioneers who have the opposite problem of not doing enough, it’s usually us doing too much. But Jesus changed the whole world at about three miles per hour, the pace a human being could walk.
He regularly went to be alone with God. He rested, he had fun, went to parties, and took vacations. I think the prayerful scheduling of our time, putting margin in our calendars for encounter, and maintaining sabbath rest at least one day a week, all help us sync our soul with God’s soul.
2. Feeding the Soul Through Communication with God
The one thing we can never do too much of is prayer and meditation.
One of those great two-word Bible verses affirms this: “pray unceasingly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Again, looking at the rhythm of God’s soul revealed in Christ, Jesus prayed a lot!
Intentionally developing practices of prayer and meditation are crucial to the health of the soul. These are means by which we communicate with God. It is helpful to understand this is a two-way street. We want to talk to God, but we also want to listen. Both really require a deep stillness of the soul.
We turn off our minds long enough so that our souls can speak and listen. We should find some part of our day where we can hit the pause button on our busy lives.
3. Knowing How to Clean the Soul
One of the marvelously profound clichés we throw around in recovery programs, is “we are only as sick as our secrets.”
Secrets in the soul keep us sick. They are like poison, that slowly kills us over time. The Scriptures are quite clear about the power of confession, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
This is part of the magic that I believe happens in an Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery meeting. The Biblical principle of confession is taking place. People are being brutally honest with themselves and with each other. I love that I have a place I can go to and just be real, talk about my struggles, and get them out of my head.
Most pioneers that crash and burn don’t have that kind of place. We accumulate those “little” sins in our souls. We convince ourselves they are no big deal, or even worst, that we are above the rules.
We need a soul janitor. We need at least one person we meet with regularly who we can tell everything. We need a best friend. We need a janitor of the soul. Someone outside the people that you serve, where you can cleanse the secrets of your soul. John Wesley kind of figured this out with societies, classes, and bands. Safe groups where people could get real and talk about “how goes it with your soul?” The healthiest pioneers I know meet weekly with a person or group who help them clean up the mess in their souls.
The health of the soul is a journey, not a destination. We never arrive. As Christians, we take this journey through a series of mentoring fellowships we call “discipleship.” A one on one relationship of mutual blessing, and an exchange of soul. I often ask the pioneers who I work with if they have a soul janitor. I also ask them who is discipling you? And then who are you discipling? God’s grace flows powerfully in and out of the soul through these relationships.
4. Maintaining Soul Community
One of my mentors once told me, “lone wolves become wolves.”
How is it that people called to be with and love on people, can shift to preying upon them? A soul that is rooted in community grows in healthy soil.
It easy for pioneers to be around people all the time, and yet internally isolate. The chameleon-like ability to fit into various networks and micro-communities to seed the Gospel, can lead to the splitting of the soul if we are not careful. It is also easy to be so busy planting, organizing, and leading community, that we never stop to participate in one for ourselves.
Find a nurturing community of love and forgiveness.
The spiritual journey is not one that can be made in isolation. The human soul needs authentic community, no leader is above that need. We need others who are on the same path, who can teach, guide, and encourage us along the way. Maybe this means finding the right church or group of people who you can grow comfortable enough with to express your soul.
Pioneers must have a home base. Being out on the move all the time is not sustainable. The spiritual journey is not one that can be made in isolation. The human soul needs authentic community. Sometimes being a pioneer can feel like we are spiritually homeless.
5. Enlightening the Soul through the Study of Scripture
The soul, left to its own insatiable appetite for more, can be a dark place.
Almost all spiritual paths have sacred writings that we interpret as inspired guidance from God. Many of those writings contain the spiritual progress or regressions of soul travelers for thousands of years. We can draw strength and direction from those texts. I believe one of the primary vehicles God uses to engage our souls, is the Bible.
The word is a “light unto the path” of the soul (Psalm 119:105), it is “a mirror” that shows us our soul as it really is (James 1:23), it revives the soul (Psalm 19:7), and introduces us to the one who is the “living word” God made flesh, light incarnate (John 1:1). Just like most living organisms, a soul cannot live without light.
We can sometimes get so consumed studying the Bible to share with others, we stop engaging it for ourselves. We cast the light into the souls of others, while ignoring the darkness of our own. We hold up the mirror for others to behold, without looking at ourselves. This proclivity is death-dealing to the soul of the pioneer.
Studying the Bible is one of the most soul-nourishing activities that we can regularly engage. It is one means of communicating with God, and God communicating with us.
6. Knowing Our Need through Fasting
Another countercultural concept, denying yourself what our world celebrates as necessities can be a soul nourishing practice. While fasting is probably a least favorite activity of many pioneers, it causes the soul to come alive in new ways.
The world tells us to consume as much as we like, but developing the soul requires a process of self-denial. It doesn’t always have to be food, we can give up other things we truly enjoy for set periods of time. Perhaps taking one day a week to drink only water, not use social media, abstain from television, etc. The soul is awakened to our deep need for God when we fast.
7. Giving It All Away
One of the most powerful images for the soul is that of a stream. A stream must have a healthy inflow and a healthy outflow. If a stream is all outflow, it dries up, if it’s all inflow, it becomes stagnant. The grace of God that flows into our being flows out of our doing.
We are called to help other people. No spiritual path is complete if we are not somehow blessing our neighbors. The journey of the soul towards health is all about balance. We must give it away to keep it. Grace flows in and then flows out through relationships.
We also emphasize helping people in need: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, providing drink for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the inmate, and standing against oppressive empires in non-violent ways to lift the downtrodden. Make sure you are finding ways to do those things; it will be a blessing your soul!
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.