Wheaton Transforming Center helps clergy reconnect with themselves
Ruth Haley Barton grew up as a pastor's kid and went into ministry right out of college.
She enjoyed her position as a church staff member, but by her early 30s she was feeling she had hit a spiritual wall.
Exhausted, she knew her lifestyle was not sustainable. Even more dismaying, she saw herself becoming more selfish and performance-oriented.
"That was alarming to me," Barton said, "that a person could be a Christian that long, be involved in the church as I was, be in ministry, teaching every week, but not changing in those deepest and most fundamental places."
Convinced she had tried everything Protestant, evangelical tradition had to offer, Barton began to look for other means to restore her connection with God. Her search led her to a spiritual director who pointed her to ancient Christian disciplines that included solitude and silence.
Barton eventually became a spiritual director herself and founder of the Transforming Center in Wheaton, a nonprofit group with the mission of strengthening the souls of pastors and Christian leaders, along with the congregations and organizations they serve.
The author of several books, including "Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry" and her latest work, "Pursuing God's Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups," Barton will speak at a Ministry Development Series sponsored by Johnsen & Taylor bookstore at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16, at 261 Town Square, Wheaton.
The series, which runs Aug. 14-16, is free.
Many religious leaders charged with nurturing the souls of others find ministry is often hazardous to their own spiritual health, Barton said.
"In most cases, it happens so subtly that pastors don't realize it's happening until they're pretty far into an experience of being disconnected from God in their own spirit," she said.
A research project at the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute for Church Leadership Development found more than 70 percent of the pastors followed over 18 years felt so stressed and burned out that they regularly considered leaving the ministry, and nearly 40 percent did so.
Other studies cited by the institute indicate high incidences of depression, moral failure and divorce among clergy.
Such statistics do not surprise Barton, a wife, mother and grandmother. Ministry can be a fishbowl existence for pastors and their families, she said.
"Even though it's usually unspoken, there are expectations for the spouse," she said. "Children of pastors in particular can see more of the seamy side of church life, the politicking and posturing."
More than most professions, ministry can lack boundaries, she said.
"Pastors get phone calls all hours of the day and night. There are expectations they are available," she said.
Although Barton encourages pastors to develop mutual relationships with staff and leaders within their congregations, she said they also need close relationships outside their own churches. They need people who will let them be themselves and will support them if their relationship with the congregation they are pastoring comes to an end.
Path of renewal
For the past 10 years, Barton has provided an environment in which mutually supportive relationships among Christian leaders can occur with a two-year program called Transforming Community.
Sixty to 70 pastors and Christian leaders commit to participate in nine quarterly retreats that begin Sunday evenings and run through Tuesday afternoons. Retreat members meet in small groups and have spiritual directors and a psychologist available to them.
But at the core of the retreats is learning the spiritual practices that will renew their own lives, including time set aside for solitude and silence.
"In most cases, God does not compete with the noise and busyness of our lives. In most cases, he waits for us to create a space for him," Barton said. "When we stop and create a space for God, God is very faithful to enter that space."
Barton acknowledges the silence can be disconcerting at first and it might seem nothing is happening. But she said participants often find when they do return to their normal lives, they have an inner calmness that wasn't there before.
"Start with even 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly, alertly, receptively in God's presence," she said.
The silence opens the door for prayer to unfold, Barton said.
"It begins by saying something true to God and then God responds," she said. "Prayer is the basic currency of our friendship with God."
Barton also emphasizes that Christian leaders need to use Scripture not just as a tool to prepare sermons and teaching, but to let God speak to them through it. Quoting from Psalm 139 ("Search me, God, and know my heart"), Barton said self-examination in God's presence is another key spiritual practice.
"We cannot even know ourselves completely," she said.
Christian leaders need to practice discernment by seeking God and his wisdom in making decisions, she said. Finally, they need to establish a rhythm of work and rest by recognizing that they cannot be available 24/7.
"Because Sunday is a work day for them, it's very hard for them to find a day of Sabbath for themselves where they can be completely unplugged," Barton said.
At the end of the two-year retreat program, participants have incorporated spiritual practices in their own lives and clarified their sense of God's purpose so their ministry has more focus, she said.
"One of the forces of our depletion is that we just keep trying to meet every need ... and there is no end of need," Barton said.
Retreat participants experience a renewal that enables them to be better leaders, she said.
"The best thing you can bring to leadership is your own transforming self," Barton said.
Gene Frost, head of Wheaton Academy in West Chicago, said the Transforming Community program taught him the relationship between his physical health and his spiritual health and the need to live a more balanced life. He enrolled after meeting Barton at a weekend retreat. He recalled that he had come to the retreat armed with a notebook, expecting to fill it with information, but instead found a much more restful atmosphere.
"It was totally disorientating, but in a very good way," he said. "Ruth is really emphasizing a much needed counterbalance to the busyness we can get ourselves into."
A new approach
The Rev. Ron Mangin, Wheaton campus pastor and soon-to-be senior pastor of Blanchard Alliance Church, enrolled in the Transforming Community program four years ago while on sabbatical after 35 years of ministry.
Mangin said he was looking for a way to refresh his soul and found it in spiritual practices that went beyond his previous use of prayer and Bible study.
"It changed me by exposing me to a whole array of other ways God speaks to us," he said. "Being at the retreat showed me the value of other practices."
Since completing the retreat program two years ago, Mangin said he has taught the spiritual practices to members of his own congregation in retreat and small group settings. The reception has been positive and people are freed from playing church while hiding their inner selves, he said.
"Our whole emphasis and focus of ministry has shifted ... to one of spiritual formation," he said. "Anyone who is with God intentionally finds his presence is transformative."
Gregg DeMey, teaching pastor at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church, had a similar experience after participating in the Transforming Community four years ago.
"It was more dramatic and positive than I would have guessed," he said. "Without the daily exercise of quieting and silence, my other spiritual practices aren't as they should be."
With his encouragement, DeMey's wife and six other staff members of his church also have since participated in the Transforming Community retreats."I am an unabashed salesperson and promoter of this," he said.
DeMey said he attended the retreats with six other pastors from his denomination, and in the process formed a much closer bond with them, as well as with a few other participants in the retreats. Away from the pressures of ministry and the need to be an example to others, they could be honest about their weaknesses and failures, he said.
"You can simply be a soul that's seeking," he said.
Barton said Christian leaders from many denominations have attended the retreats and found the contact with clergy from other traditions beneficial.
"They love the diversity," she said. "They find that to be wonderfully stimulating and sharpening."
Transforming Communities is in the midst of its sixth retreat series and a seventh is being held on the East Coast. An eighth will begin in the Chicago area in January. For information, contact transformingcenter.org.
If you goIf you go
What: Ruth Haley Barton speaks as part of a ministry development series
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 16
Where: Johnsen & Taylor bookstore, 261 Town Square, Wheaton
Info: (630) 653-5900