The soul-damaged leader

Some years ago, I met Steve, a soul-damaged pastor. As we talked, he recounted an all-too-familiar tale: he was experiencing opposition from certain key leaders in the church. There had been a church split, with those who had left now presenting themselves as super-spiritual, with an air of ‘We love you and there are no problems’, which only made the rejection felt worse. He felt beaten-up, alone, isolated, misunderstood, bitter and increasingly cynical.

I tired to support him as our relationship developed over the next couple of years, but in the end the unresolved pain got too much for him and he finally informed me that he had resigned from being a pastor and was no longer attending church. This tale of a soul-damaged pastor is far from isolated – I have met may over the years. Soul damage is all-too-common for leaders and can have a devastating impact.

Because leadership is a calling that has the potential to isolate, many leaders don’t feel able to be honest and open, even with their peers. As such, they move from grace to performance orientation, from community to isolation, from a genuine relationship with Jesus to something that looks good on the surface, but is, in fact, just faking it. The longer this goes on, the less able the leader feels to ‘come clean’ and admit their ‘soul damage’. How does this soul damage happen?

Here are what probably constitute the top ten reasons:

  • Discouragement

Complaints speak louder than compliments. 15 compliments are outweighed by one complaint.

  • Failure

Many leaders have difficulty in recognising success. They tend to compare themselves with others.

  • Loneliness

People look to you and lean on you. This can create a sense of isolation – you don’t know where to turn to.

  • Moral failure

Rising from isolation, moral failure among leaders is rampant.

  • Financial pressure

Certainly pastors are not well compensated. This makes it hard to continue.

  • Anger

Particularly towards God, when we have tried our hardest and things don’t seem to be working out.

  • Burnout

Leadership is constant pressure, continual expectation, daily challenge. This can easily lead to exhaustion.

  • Physical health

Overwork leads to a simple lack of care for the body. Poor diet and lack of exercise lead to ill health.

  • Marriage/Family problems

Too often leaders ignore the need to care for their family in the face of ministry pressures.

  • Too busy/driven

A lot of people simply work inefficiently and overcrowd their diaries. They haven’t learned how to say ‘no’.

I have to be honest and say that I have battled soul damage over the years. My top three reasons for experiencing soul damage are:

  • Fatigue

We grow weary of making decisions, taking stands, processing information, fulfilling ‘to do’ lists, fulfilling others’ expectations…

  • Opposition

For every decision we make, stand we take, change we introduce, battle we fight, we encounter opposition. Opposition from those who fear change. Opposition from those who feel left out of the loop. Opposition from those who dislike being told.

  • Sense of insignificance

Satan: “IF you are the Son of God, turn these stones in to bread…IF you are the Son of God throw yourself down from the Temple.”. A sense of insignificance really stems from a lack of rock-solid identity in Christ.

How do we spot ‘soul damage’?

  • Things seem to bother us more than they should. Little things like washing up not done, clothes left lying around, the milk has run out because your spouse forgot their promise to buy some more. These become (in our minds) big indicators of massive character flaws!
  • We find it more difficult to make decisions – even small ones.
  • Impulses to find comfort in destructive things are harder to stand against – such as eating, drinking, spending money.
  • You find yourself more attracted to short-term gains that will leave you with long-term problems.
  • Your judgement will suffer.
  • You will experience less courage. ‘Fatigue makes cowards of us all’.

How does a leader (in particular) compensate for ‘soul damage’?

  • A move from grace to performance.
  • A move from full engagement to ‘not fully present’ where you seem continually preoccupied.
  • A move from community to isolation.
  • A move from joy to judgement

To tend the soul, your soul needs REST. ‘If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart in a while’ (Vance Havner)

To tend the soul, we need to establish a ‘routine of rest’. We tend the soul through coming into a ‘sabbath rest’; that is to say, we recognise the danger of allowing our soul to become damaged and we seek the Lord who ‘restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3, ESV)

REVIEW – Am I displaying signs of ‘soul damage’? Is my soul in a healthy shape or not? I need to review the signs of ‘soul damage’ listed above and honestly ask myself if I am exhibiting any of these tendencies. Jesus heard the following words from his Father as soon as he was baptised and they formed the bedrock of how he saw himself, his ministry and his mission. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11, NLT)

  • To what extent are these words a present, motivating reality in your life? Have they ever been? Are they an increasing or a diminishing factor in your life?
  • Am I more at peace today than I was before, content to know that, while this leadership role requires my best, I am loved by and believed in by Jesus Christ? Or is there a rising sense of the need to perform, a growing sense of performance orientation within me?

What step will you take towards soul restoration in this area?

ESTABLISH HEALING ROUTINES – “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, whose thoughts are fixed on you.” (Isaiah 26:3, NLT). See Luke 4:42; Mark 6:45-46

  • Reviewing my spiritual practices – my quiet times with God, the content of my prayers, the regularity of my Bible reading, the priority I give to forgiving people rather than holding on to and rehearsing grudges and going over the conversations that were damaging and unfair, how healthy is my soul? Are the spiritual routines in my life healthy, promoting healing, or are they contributing to further soul damage?

What step will you take towards soul restoration in this area?

SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD – what does seeking first the Kingdom mean? Putting Jesus first, prioritising relationship, trust, obedience. John 14:1 – “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.”

  • Are the spiritual routines in my life more geared to firefighting, preparation for the next event? Have my prayers become routine, praying the same things for the same people? Have they lost their fervency? Do I spend more time praying for things rather than seeking to draw close to Jesus? Seek first the Kingdom and all these things will be added to you. Do I genuinely seek first the Kingdom ( a relationship with the King), or do I seek first (prioritise) ‘all these things’?

What step will you take towards soul restoration in this area?

TRUST – Leadership is partnership, with Jesus Christ being the senior partner. We only effectively lead when we acknowledge the Lordship of Christ in the area of our authority (see 1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

  • Have I tended to assume an unhealthy sense of responsibility in my leadership role?
  • Reviewing the faith-goals that I am setting, would I be able to fulfil those goals without the intervention of God? Have I set goals assuming that divine intervention would be nice but not to be relied upon?

What step will you take towards soul restoration in this area?

 When the

call comes
for ‘season
change’,
will you be
ready?

What is The Soul?

The soul is the core of our being – the ‘real us’. Our soul is our character, which develops as it interacts with God, the world, or satan. It is not immortal, and can be killed (see Matthew 10:28).

Soul in Old Testament

Old Testament: ‘nephesh’ (used over 750 times), meaning to breathe or have life. The nephesh departs at death (see Genesis 35:18). Nephesh can be variously described as: a soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, passion, appetite, emotion. Both human and animals can have a nephesh (e.g. Genesis 1:21)

soul in New Testament

New Testament: ‘psuche’ (used over 100 times) – broadly comparable to nephesh. Both words can also mean ‘life’ or ‘living being’.

Soul and spirit

Whilst the soul (nephesh/ psuche) describes the human being, the spirit is different. In Hebrew, the word is ruach (meaning wind, breath or sprit), and in Greek it is pneuma. God is able to look into the ruach of a person and to examine his or her inner motives (Proverbs 16:2). This implies that the “spirit” of a person is synonymous with the “place” of a person’s innermost thoughts.

It is there that a person’s search for and communion with God occurs. The psalmist says: “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you” (Isaiah 26:9). Interestingly, both the “soul” and the “spirit,” or the psalmist’s whole being, are involved in the desire to know God.
When pneuma refers to the human “spirit” it is that which makes the human being a living person (Luke 8:55). Death results in the release of the “spirit” to God (Matthew 27:50; Acts 7:59). The pneuma represents an individual’s deepest thoughts and emotions (Mark 2:8; John 11:33; 1 Corinthians 2:11). The “spirit” – in conjunction with the “body” (soma, 1 Corinthians 7:34), the flesh (sarx, 2 Corinthians 7:1) and “soul” (psuche, 1 Thessalonians 5:23) – represents the whole person. The pneuma is the realm where relations between God and a human being can take place (Philippians 3:3). Pneuma is used almost 40 times to describe that aspect of human personality or self through which these relations are possible (Romans 1:9; 1 Corinthians 5:3-5). Coming to faith is sometimes seen as a revival of the human “spirit” (Romans 8:10; 1 Peter 4:6). A person’s “spirit” can be united with the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:17) or remain a “spirit of slavery” without it (Romans 8:15).

Have a blessed Christmas and I pray that during this season you find REST for your soul!