How to Pastor Through Change Soulfully and Spiritually

By John Starke

Most pastors who remain at a particular church for more than five years will experience change. Change can come in different forms:

  • change in location
  • change in roles,
  • change in direction,
  • change in leadership.

Any number of things can occur. Or it could be that you come into a church that recognizes it needs significant change in any number of areas in order to survive in the future. 

Change is inevitable and so most pastors spend the majority of their time thinking about everything that needs to happen in the church and not much time is spent in thinking about what needs to happen in them. 

Change is inevitable and so most pastors spend the majority of their time thinking about everything that needs to happen in the church and not much time is spent in thinking about what needs to happen in them.

My own story is a mix of several difference changes and transitions in my congregation under my leadership. Being in a setting that demands thinking and dreaming about the future could be or needs to be, takes a kind of fire in the belly; an energy that enlivens us to engage what our circumstances give us. We call this “vision.” You are taking what currently is the status quo and communicating what could be! 

Many pastors learn how to nurture our dreaming and our vision, but what is being nurtured when after several months, our prayers aren’t answered? Or in the midst of change, what inside us is being nurtured for betrayal? Or maybe, even, less dramatic: what is being nurtured in us to be patient with our dreams? Many pastors have theological categories for difficulty, but even the most rich theologies of suffering doesn’t supply the pastor for the emotional health for the heartache of unanswered prayers and betrayal. 

Pastoring Soulfully and Spiritually

David Benner in his book, Soulful Spirituality, shows that Scriptures uses two concepts that guide us through the mountain tops and valleys — soul and spirit. The way the Bible describes soul and spirit demands imaginative language. 

He describes spirit and soul as ways of living, not parts of self. He resists separating parts of our self — body, soul, and spirit — but sees us fully together:

  • We are a body, we don’t have a body.
  • We are a spirit, we don’t have a spirit.
  • We are a soul, we don’t have soul. 

But the language the Bible uses for spirit is the dynamic of a person — the energizing, vitalizing, and enriching part of us. When Jesus died, he gave up his “spirit” (Mark 15). The spirit ignites and moves. It’s the fire in our bellies. It’s the energy we need to engage with life and all that life gives.

An enriched soul allows us to hold all the unanswered prayer, the betrayal, or the loss and not be overwhelmed. To be steady, sure footed, even joyful.

The language that the Bible often uses for soul is what contains and directs our passion. Read the Psalms, and the soul, if it’s enriched, will help us bear what is intolerable in the world. There will always be plenty of pain, danger, and heartache. The soul is what makes it possible to face the obvious lack of fairness in the world. An enriched soul allows us to hold all the unanswered prayer, the betrayal, or the loss and not be overwhelmed. To be steady, sure footed, even joyful.

Benner says, “While the soul makes its home in the deep, shaded valley, spirit seeks a place in the bright light on the mountaintop. . . The soul is at home in the mundane details of filly existence while the spirit pursues cosmic heights.” 

Nurturing the “fire in the belly” for what the church might be can make us unready for heartache or disappointment. And disappointment can quench the spirit out of any pastor. Pastors need resources to nurture a spirit that gives us an enriched imagination for the future. But we also need resources for a soul that channels our dreams, is patient with mundane times, and can give meaning to heartache. Even more, how do pastors nurture their soul and spirit?

How do we do this? 

A few suggestions that we’ll develop further at The Soul of Eldership:

  • Rediscover the Psalms. 
  • Find a spiritual director
  • Rediscover the Sabbath
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