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Spring 2005 · Vol. 34 No. 1 · pp. 43–53 

The Heart Rediscovered: Hope for Leadership Transformation

Wendy J. Miller

If you wonder what all this emphasis on spirituality is about, you are not alone. For a decade and more now some new words have been entering our vocabulary: spiritual formation, spirituality, spiritual direction, soul care, spiritual disciplines. These terms are not really new, but represent a reclaiming of focus and practice which was common in its deeper meaning to the early disciples and to the early church. They became lost over time, however, as rationality and empiricism began to dominate how one knows, discerns, and judges truth.

The true work of pastoral ministry is soul care.

With the rise of universities in Europe at the turn of the first millennium, theological training began shifting from its foundation in a life of prayer and faithful practice within the church to an academic discipline in the university curriculum, no longer holding a vital connection with a life ethic. Rational, empirical ways of knowing began discarding the validity of experience, spirit, feeling, and intuition, judging them as weak and unreliable. A gap emerged between the empirical, rational school of thought and the experiential, spiritual, more heart-centered way of knowing.


The term heart also became misused and came to be understood as the seat of the affections, which in turn were considered untrustworthy. Within the Christian tradition we thereby lost this word’s moorings in the Hebrew understanding of the heart as the entire interiority of who we are: soul, spirit, will, mind, and being. 1

Spiritual experience, on which our Hebrew and Christian narrative and faith is based, was swept into the category of “weaker” and “untrustworthy” ways of knowing, resulting in a profound loss of spiritual discernment in the church in general and in the training centers for pastors in particular. One of the signals of this gap in our knowing, our believing, and our practice is an inattentiveness to the presence and work of God in our own individual lives, in the life of the congregation, and the world beyond. If we do experience something spiritually, we hesitate to talk about it because we may be judged as being overly emotional or mentally incompetent.

A middle-aged seminary student, who was also serving as pastor in a local congregation, asked if he could meet with me for spiritual direction. After some initial conversation, he finally shared the reason for his coming. “I’m afraid you are going to think I am crazy or something,” he said, “but something’s happening to me as I lead worship.” I waited, allowing the silence to offer him a space to be with his fear and with his experience. Slowly, hesitantly, he continued. “It’s when I’m about to pray—as I invite the congregation to pray—that’s when it happens.” Another long pause. “I don’t know what’s going on. . . . Whew! Why is this so hard to talk about?” His body language echoed his interior struggle as he dared to find words to describe his experience: “As we turn towards prayer, my attention is drawn upwards. It’s as if someone lifts my face to look up. There’s light there. I can see it—kind of floating in the air above the people. . . . Am I going crazy?”

He is not alone. Scores of persons have expressed that same fear and difficulty to me, of being judged as mentally incompetent if they admit having some kind of spiritual experience. No, he is not crazy. God is giving him the experience of seeing spiritual realities, the presence of God’s Holy Spirit present with the people of God as they gather to worship and to pray. However, rather than feeling comforted and companioned—part of the way in which Jesus says the Holy Spirit is present—this pastor is afraid and puzzled.

Again, he is in good company. Zechariah was also afraid and unbelieving when the angel Gabriel appeared to him at the time of prayer in the temple (Luke 2). Although Zechariah still carried the needs and prayers of the people into the presence of God, he was not ready for God to show up and be present to him. Nor are we. Our human experience of unbelief, something we have all inherited since Eden, blinds and limits us and is further compounded today by our rational, empirical ways of knowing which judge spirituality to be nonsense, an empirical term, but in our more popular understanding, “stupid” or “crazy.” 2


A tragic result is that for centuries pastoral training has not included courses in prayer or spiritual disciplines, or in listening to persons’ need for and experience of God. It has only been in the last few decades that our schools for training in ministry are paying attention to spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Ten years ago it was rare for students to sense that they needed spiritual direction. Today there is a broader and deeper sense of this need. Pastors and other servants of God are also expressing their need for spiritual guidance and for soul care.

Individual pastors—pastors in small and larger groups—are admitting how weary they are in ministry. A pastor sank heavily into a chair in my office and wondered out loud if he would stay in the ministry another year. A painful experience in a former congregation drained his energy and clouded his vision. A woman, new in a pastoral position after graduating from seminary, worried continually about whether her ministry would be good enough. She spent long hours perfecting sermons, creating the flow of worship services, writing personal notes to persons who visited the congregation. The attendance grew, but she could not embrace the blessing. Rather, she became ever more troubled and anxious.

On another note, a pastor of a large, growing congregation stopped in to see me. From certain perspectives it would seem that his long-term ministry in that church was successful. But David felt uneasy and discontent on a deeper level. Finally, he said: “I want to stop running the church and to start pastoring the people.” This was not the lament of a man who, as lead pastor in a large congregation, felt a lack of close contact with individual members. David’s dis-ease emerged from another level. He was gifted in administration, preaching, teaching, and pastoral care and well trained. It was not a matter of another degree to add to the master of divinity he already had. Rather he desired to reclaim his identity as a pastor: one who attends to the cure of souls.


Eugene Peterson speaks eloquently to pastors who are discovering this desire within them.

The primary sense of cura in Latin is “care,” with undertones of “cure.” The soul is the essence of the human personality. The cure of souls, then, is the scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane. It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential. 3

However, pastors also need to return to the center, to concentrate on the essential in their own lives. Ministering persons also need soul care. Counseling can play an important role in helping men and women to get in touch with the deeper personal issues they bring with them into ministry, issues which, unattended, drain off energy and create deep fissures of loneliness and anxiety within the individual. However, attending to the soul is also vital.

Many pastors admit that in their seminary experience little or no attention was paid to their spiritual formation. The practice of spiritual disciplines was foreign, and listening to the God who had called and gifted them was a rare occurrence. Each one felt it was somehow up to them to be a successful and competent pastor. Peterson owns that pastoral life includes institutional responsibilities but points out that in our consumer, business-driven society, pastoral work has become defined by those tasks. Job descriptions for pastors usually omit attention to prayer and soul care completely. The priority becomes to run the church well. And in so doing, we lose our soul. 4

As I respond to this felt need in the seminary and among the many pastors with whom I meet, I am aware of a certain hesitancy to embrace the new wave of spirituality which is sweeping its way across our society, including the church. We need to rediscover a foundational ground which holds steady and gives us space and place to explore this rather unknown territory for ourselves. Only then can we attend to the soul care and spiritual formation of the congregation and be awake to the ways in which God is working in persons’ lives in the world. The Gospels can be such a place, and the person and work of Jesus is our foundation.


Since spiritual formation is an experience of being formed by the Spirit of God, rather than something that happens by gathering more and more information about it, I would like to invite you on a pilgrimage of sorts—into the Gospel narrative. There are a number of invitations embedded in the Gospel texts which call us to enter into the story and be present to what is happening—as if we also were there alongside the early followers of Jesus. 5

Jesus’ Invitation

Early in his ministry Jesus invites his followers to join him for a time of retreat. Simon Peter remembers this time apart and recalls it in his narrative which comes to us through Mark’s Gospel. Commentators on the Gospels often speak of Mark’s Gospel as a narrative of action, a Gospel which does not take time to dwell on the advent or birth narratives, nor does it include long sections of Jesus’ teaching. Hence this Gospel has a reputation (in our thinking) that we should be on the move, preaching the good news. However, if we pause to notice where the Gospel story begins, Simon Peter is drawing our attention to a deeper level of attentiveness. He begins his narrative, and calls us to be present, in the wilderness of Judea. A voice is sounding, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3 NRSV, passim). No city here, no synagogues, no roads, no restaurants. Just open, barren space. We tend to pay attention to the words being spoken: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

But we fail to notice where we are standing. This is where John the Baptist waited, listened, and received from God what he was to say and what he was to do. It was because of this listening that he could recognize Jesus’ arrival at the River Jordan. It is in this wilderness waiting and listening that we meet and are met by God. Out of these encounters we are given ears to hear and eyes to see God’s presence and work in us and around us. This is a place for spiritual formation. How might this formation happen? Simon Peter remembers how Jesus tended to spiritual formation in his life and leads us further into the narrative.

Read Mark 3:13-18 slowly, prayerfully:

Jesus went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Allow yourself to enter into the event; to be on the mountain. This is the place where Jesus comes to pray, where his followers found him early one morning when the multitudes were clamoring for Jesus to be there for them. This is the place where Jesus invites his followers to come, to be with him, and to receive soul care and direction for their lives as he sends them out.

Coming Away

Spiritual formation for servants of God happens as we pay attention to God’s invitation to come away. For Simon Peter it meant leaving a successful, multi-staffed fishing business and taking time to be in retreat. As a pastor you may feel weary, stressed, and overworked, but experience guilt about taking time to be in prayer. After all, there is no space given for it in your job description, and the needs of the ministry are many and never-ending. Peterson recommends that we enter our time for meeting with God in our appointment calendar; people everywhere understand and accept schedules—especially those already marked in a date book. In this way we can respond to Jesus’ invitation to come, to make a place apart for shorter and longer times of prayerful retreat.

The words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28 may be helpful as you come into his presence:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

As you approach Jesus, what you are carrying with you? Let it down and notice how Jesus attends to what you have been carrying, and to you. Be still. Listen. Notice how Jesus is with you, meets you, and offers you soul care.

No lecture here. No condemnation. Rather, Jesus offers you rest.

Being With

In this mountain retreat Simon recalls the naming: first an inward naming, then an outward naming for ministry. One of the ways in which Jesus tended to inner transformation was to follow the Hebrew tradition of giving his followers a nickname. To Simon he gives the name Peter (a rock), and to James and John he gives the name Sons of Thunder. Simon thinks he is already a rock, Peter. But as he continues to follow Jesus and spend time with him, he gradually comes to own areas of sinking sand and weakness within his soul and being. Jesus begins by reassuring Simon of his strength and potential, but at the same time is inviting Simon’s attention to his need for spiritual formation. Only later—after fear had driven him to deny the very Jesus he loved—could Simon stand before Jesus and say, “Lord, you know everything [about me]; you know that I love you” (John 21:17).

James and John, brothers and followers of Jesus, are called to pay attention to how they lash out in anger when they do not get what they want—even using religious language to mask their selfish rage. In the face of rejection, these two men remember wanting to command fire to come down from heaven and consume those who would not accept them (Luke 9:51-56). In naming them Sons of Thunder, Jesus begins the work of spiritual formation in their lives, an inner work of spiritual attentiveness, self-awareness, and change.

Simon the Cananaean is invited to reflect on his beliefs as a Zealot—a freedom fighter and terrorist—and to examine his hostile attitude towards persons like Matthew Levi, the former tax collector who sided with Roman occupation forces in order to get a job.

As we wait in the presence of Jesus and spend time being with him, he will discern and name that to which he is desiring to attend within us. We may feel fearful and guilty as we become aware of what Jesus sees within us. But Jesus is kind, merciful. Hear his words in Matthew 11:29-30:

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 light.

Along with naming what is within, Jesus also names gifts and strengths, and gives direction for the outward journey of ministry. He sends his disciples out to proclaim the message, to have authority to cast out demons, and to heal (see Mark 6:12 and Matthew 10:1). In the world we are to communicate the good news in life and word, to confront evil, and to be a presence for healing. Our lives and practice of ministry will be formed in the likeness of Jesus’ ministry and call:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

We are to announce that God has come near; God is here.

For Your Reflection

  • How is God calling your attention to rhythms of your life: rest, prayerful solitude, and work of ministry?
  • Where are those places of prayerful retreat for you?
  • What do you sense is being named within you as you spend time with God?
  • In what ways are you responding to God? Resisting?
  • How would you describe your sense of outward naming, the call of God on your life to serve within and/or beyond the church?
  • In what ways does your ministry bear the likeness of Jesus’ life and ministry in Luke 4 (above)? How do you help persons recognize and respond to God coming near?

On the Outward Journey

Simon Peter invites us to be present as Jesus continues to call their attention to certain areas of needed change and spiritual formation. His narrative includes stories of his—and their—experience as they responded in obedience to Jesus and as they struggled to grasp what it meant to know Jesus as Messiah.

Enter the narrative in Mark 6:33-44 prayerfully. Allow yourself to be fully present in the scene among all who are gathered. John also offers us his memory of this event (John 6:1-14). This is one of those paradoxical experiences of being told to go on retreat and then being confronted with the crowd. Jesus does not dismiss the crowd, nor does he tell the disciples to find another place of retreat. Moved with compassion, he spends the day ministering to the multitude. When we are tired we tend to see the crowd as an interruption which gets in the way of our plans and agenda. We tend to be task-driven rather than aware of God and people.

But Jesus sees the crowd as sheep without a shepherd. Jesus is that shepherd and responds by healing the sick and teaching. Unless we immediately think that continual ministry is what this story is about, rather than our needing times for prayer and retreat, we are mistaken. There are many other times in the Gospels when Jesus goes on retreat and takes the disciples with him. The transformative work of God in this Gospel narrative centers in on learning to rest and trust in God when faced with the impossible.

As the day goes by the disciples become anxious. Finally they interrupt Jesus as he teaches and remind him, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late.” It is time for the crowd to leave and find themselves something to eat. But Jesus replies, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:35, 37).

“Running the Church” Mode

Peterson notes that if we are in “running the church” mode, then we are supposed to take charge and to take responsibility for “finding the way” and “for getting things started.” Philip tries to take charge by doing a quick head count of the crowd and then figuring how much it would cost to feed them all. Andrew goes to look for food among the crowd and returns with a boy’s lunch. Although both of these disciples are being obedient, they are functioning out of their human, rational ways of knowing and doing, and so come to a dead end when their attempts at finding a way to feed the crowd are insufficient to meet the need before them. In John’s account of this narrative, he lets us in on the inner work that Jesus is about. Jesus already knew what he was going to do (John 6:6). As Jesus tends to the cure of souls within the disciples, he helps them develop an awareness that God is present and at work. God is already taking the initiative; he is getting things going. 6

Within the work of ministry we are continually challenged with what seems to be an impasse, a human impossibility. These experiences of impasse should come as no surprise to us, although usually they do. The Scriptures are full of impasse stories, from cover to cover. At such times Jesus desires us to learn that God is good at seizing the initiative. Then we learn to trust, to rest, even in the midst of the humanly impossible in ministry. This is one of the spiritually transformative moments Simon Peter invites us to experience.


This kind of transformation happens as we learn to move past our “take charge” response, to acknowledge our emptiness and poverty, and to wait for God’s response. Moses and the people waited at the Red Sea. Hannah wept out her heart prayer for a child at the place of worship. Paul learned in all things to be content while imprisoned and chained to a Roman guard, to see his anxiety as a doorway through which he could move into prayer, and to discover the presence and help of God. Thus worry became transformed by peace, the peace of God which transcended human understanding.

Pedro remembers shivering in fear in his bedroom at night. His father had been abducted a few weeks before by a group of men who were against both the government and Christian believers. Ten years old, he could not sleep. In the darkness of his bedroom he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder and heard his mother’s voice telling him to go with her. Taking Pedro by the hand she led him out of the house and into the dark silence of the night. Pedro became aware that he was climbing up a nearby hill, his mother’s warm hand still holding his.

Finally they reached the top of the hill where she told him to sit down beside her and then to look up at the sky. There, above him, he could see the stars hanging like bright lanterns from the black ceiling of heaven.

“Pedro,” his mother said quietly. “See that light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never put it out.” As Pedro continued to gaze at the stars and allowed his mother’s words to sink deep into his heart, he felt a blanket of peace wrap around his inner soul. Now he could sleep. God would hold him, and God would hold his father whom he would never see again in this world.

For Your Reflection

Look back over your own experience of ministry. Pay attention to those times in your life and ministry when your expectations were challenged, when situations seemed impossible.

  • What were your responses?
  • Are you a “take charge,” “get things moving” kind of person?
  • In what ways do you wait and listen, allowing God to draw you to a deeper level of attentiveness of God’s way of taking the initiative and getting things moving?
  • In what way do you seek to become aware of what God is doing in the hearts and lives of persons within and beyond the congregation, and to learn to move with God in the work of soul care?


One of the ways we can be companioned in this ongoing adventure of life and ministry is to receive spiritual direction. Just as Jesus served as spiritual director to those who followed him, so they in turn direct our attention to Jesus, thus serving as our gospel companions on the way. A spiritual director can help guide our attention to the presence and initiative of God in our own lives.

In such regular conversations we can open our attention more fully to who God is for us and what God is naming within us—for the inward and the outward journey of ministry.

This deep and prayerful listening helps us in turn to listen for the God-presence within the congregation and to direct people’s attention to who God is for them, and what God is doing in their lives.

Then we are returning to our true work of soul care. Jesus says that his father is at work and that he, Jesus, does the works of his father in heaven. In the same way, we learn the art and develop the gift of spiritual discernment—seeing God at work and colaboring with God. This changes how we see and do ministry. We stop running the church and begin tending to the cure of souls.


  1. Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1980), 94.
  2. Wendy J. Miller, Jesus Our Spiritual Director: A Pilgrimage Through the Gospels (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 2004), ch. 2, “Recognizing the Way Our Map Is Drawn.”
  3. Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1989), 66.
  4. Ibid., 67-68.
  5. Miller, ch. 3, “Paying Attention to Story and the Great Story.”
  6. Peterson, 69.
Wendy J. Miller is Campus Pastor and Assistant Professor of Spiritual Formation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She earned master’s degrees in Church Leadership from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and in Sacred Theology from General Theological Seminary, New York.

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