A Powerful Model for Leadership Transformation: A Two-Year Experience of Spiritual Formation for Leaders

Wheaton, IL–First there were 12. Then 25, then 38—and now 70. Those numbers testify to the quiet-but-steady growth of a spiritual transformation movement specifically designed for those who serve in demanding roles as pastors, spiritual leaders, and business leaders.

The initial group of 12—the first Transforming Community TM—was formed in 2002. They gathered for eight quarterly retreats over the next two years for the purpose of deepening their intimacy with God, experiencing deeper levels of spiritual transformation and as a result, seeing what He would do through them in the congregations and ministries they served. The results were both tangible and dramatic, and by the time the second Transforming Community was formed in 2005, another 25 church leaders, denominational executives, Christian business and para-church ministry leaders had signed on.

Mostly through word-of-mouth, awareness was growing about how God was using these unique communities of pastors and leaders to transform hearts, renew minds, strengthen souls, and rekindle a passion for God’s work in the world. The third Transforming Community was larger still, with 38 men and women committing to the two-year spiritual journey, agreeing to set aside specific times to spend together, away from their daily routines. During these gatherings, they could let down their guard and find a safe place to learn and experience spiritual practices that open hearts, minds, and souls to God.

A Proven Model for Leadership Transformation

Today, 70 diverse leaders from across the country are engaged in the fourth Transforming Community. Hosted and led by the Transforming Center headquartered in Wheaton, Illinois, each community is comprised of pastors and Christian leaders from across the country that are committed to a “two year experience of spiritual formation for leaders in community.” Each community is taught and led by Ruth Haley Barton, Rory Noland and Rev. J. Taylor Haley and a team of six to eight leaders who have completed the Transforming Community experience.

“We believe that people change incrementally…over time…with others…in the context of spiritual disciplines that open us to God,” explains Ruth Haley Barton, founding president, spiritual director and lead teacher in the Transforming Center. “Being part of a Transforming Community involves all of these critical factors.”

Incremental Change

Each one of quarterly retreats begins on Sunday evening with dinner and ends at noon on Tuesday. Each involves substantive teaching, fixed hour prayer and worship, extended times of solitude, structured large and small group experiences—following what the Transforming Center has found to be a powerful model for spiritual transformation among Christian leaders.

Each retreat focuses on a particular spiritual discipline, providing Biblical and theological foundations plus practical guidance for experiencing that discipline personally, in community and in their leadership. Based on the books Sacred Rhythms, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership and other writings on the spiritual life, leaders experience a step-by-step learning process that incorporates a variety of key spiritual disciplines. “Whatever disciplines we teach,” Barton says, “we offer the opportunity to practice, helping leaders develop a holistic approach to spiritual transformation in the context of their lives in leadership.”

Community with Other Leaders

Another key component of this experience is significant engagement with other leaders in community. This includes large group teaching, conversation and worship plus group spiritual direction that is experienced in small groups of 5 or 6 that remain consistent throughout the two years.  As one pastor explains, “The small group component of Transforming Community gave me the opportunity to know and be known at a deeper level.”

“One of the great benefits of the community,” adds Barton, “is that leaders don’t need to be ‘on’ for anybody during our times together. We are a group of peers and we intentionally ask participants to leave job titles, the size of their church, or extent of their ministry at the door. When we first gather, we invite leaders to introduce ourselves to each other by describing the spiritual desire that is drawing them to a more intentional integration of their spirituality and their leadership rather than according to their roles and accomplishments.” This makes the Transforming Community the safest place many leaders have to speak honestly about the challenges of spiritual leadership.

Solitude and Silence

Participants report that one of the most valuable aspects of the Transforming Community experience is four hours of solitude and silence every Monday afternoon. Even though some are initially uncomfortable with this much time in solitude, they find that this extended time alone in God’s presence provides a much-needed opportunity for rest, reflection, and conversation with God.

While this is likely more quiet than the average pastor might experience in a number of weeks, or even months, over time this becomes the part of each retreat they look forward to the most. “This time to rest in God’s presence and listen,” Barton explains, “allows God to touch our souls in a very personal way and strengthen us for what he’s called us to do.”

A Compelling Need

With schedules that hardly allow time for rest and reflection—to say nothing of committing nearly three days, four times a year, to be on retreat—why are so many pastors and ministry leaders making the commitment to be a part of a Transforming Community?

“They come,” says Barton, “out of a hunger to find something fresh and authentic between themselves and God. Often they are at the end of their own inner resources and at the end of what seminary training and even their own denomination or tradition has to offer them.”

In some cases, it’s not until the community is fully underway that they realize how deep their need has been for a fresh encounter with God. Rev. Dr. David Hughes, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, signed on because the chair of his church’s personnel committee saw how a just-completed capital campaign and building project had left him depleted. Out of concern for his long-term health and sustainability in ministry, the chair person insisted that he join.

Somewhat cynical when he first learned of the Transforming Center, Hughes comments, “I had tried lots of programs that promised spiritual transformation, but had experienced limited results. It became easier just to believe that spiritual transformation wasn’t possible—at least not at the ‘soul’ level where we conduct the real business of our lives. Such disillusionment is why I, and many others in ministry, live on the edge of despair without really knowing it,” he adds. “Like the psalmist, our souls are privately downcast and disturbed. We are desperate for hope in a world of hype—hope that our churches might be something other than black holes that consume all our energy, hope that our own spirituality could be something other than the dry, dusty deserts they have become.”

An Oasis in the Desert

For David, the Transforming Community has been a “deeply replenishing” experience. “Each of the retreats,” he adds, “has been outstanding, ushering me into intense experiences of solitude and community. I always leave feeling my thirsty soul has been rejuvenated.” In fact, he found the quarterly retreat rhythm and the safe place in community to be so essential to his well- being as a pastor, that he signed up for a second round!

Another pastor admits, “Ministry had taken a toll on me, physically, emotionally and spiritually. God brought the Transforming Community into my life at just the right moment. I am not sure if I would still be in ministry today if I had not had a fresh experience of God’s transforming power in my heart and soul.”

“The Transforming Community has been ministry-saving and life-changing,” another leader agrees. “I am healthier in all ways and have hope again in ministry. I know myself more and know God more. I feel more at home with myself, the good and the bad. I am learning to embrace my limits, to rest in God’s love and to not be defined by what I do, but whose I am. I am, by God’s grace, a recovering workaholic and people pleaser!”

The Best Thing You Bring to Leadership

With extensive experience in caring for the souls of pastors and leaders— and an acute awareness of the unique challenges facing those who are called to ministry—the Transforming Center provides leaders with the time and space to give God their undivided attention and to give God full access to their souls.

Leaning into her own personal experience of a life-time in ministry and what she’s witnessed in the lives of others, spiritual director, author and teacher Ruth Haley Barton explains, “It is possible to be outwardly successful in leadership and yet to be slipping away from your connection from the One who actually called you into ministry in the first place.”

“We all enter into ministry because we want do to something good in the world. We want to make a difference. But sometimes the work becomes more important than our relationship with God. It’s very subtle when that happens. We work around the clock. We burn the candle at both ends, and eventually we wake up one day and we realize how depleted we are. Our spiritual life has become a performance and we have lost our private place of intimacy with God because we are constantly giving everything we have to others in the form of ministry and public prayer.”

Regaining intimacy with God and their joy and passion for ministry is what pastors and others have found in Transforming Community—and what they are taking back to the congregations and ministries they serve. They are discovering that the best thing they have to bring to leadership is their own transforming selves!

A Certificate in Spiritual Transformation is awarded to each participant upon completion of community commitments. For those whose denominations or organizations encourage continuing professional education or would like to document their continued development as a spiritual leader, 45 Continuing Education Units (CEU) may be awarded for participation in a Transforming Community. Details are available from the Transforming Center.

Learn more about the two-year Transforming Community experience at http://transformingcenter.org/in/leadership-formation/index.shtml

 

Nancy Langham

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