Part 3: Silence and Word, Stillness and Action

Editors note: As we head into the fall ministry season we offer you part three of an eReflections series to encourage you to pay attention to the spiritual rhythms that will strengthen the soul of your leadership. Click on the link to read part 1, part 2, part 4, and part 5 of this series.


“Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech. One does not exist without the other.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I don’t know about you but there are times when I can literally feel it—deep in my bones—that if I do not shut my mouth for a while, I will get myself in trouble.  This trouble will come either because I am tired and lacking in the energy to be disciplined in my use of words or because I haven’t been quiet enough in God’s presence for my words to be connected with any sense of what God is saying in the moment. There are times—especially when I am in the middle of speaking five times in a row or have been with people way too much—that I feel like crying out, “Somebody please stop me!”

The Scriptures describe the futility of undisciplined human verbosity by pointing out that “in the multitude of words there is much transgression.”  (Proverbs 10:19) This is a truth that could drive us ministry folks to despair given the incessant flow of words from our mouths, pens and computers. Those of us who deal in words are at great risk of misusing words and even sinning with our words due to the sheer volume of them!

Practicing Restraint

The rhythm of silence and word is the only cure for this desperate situation. In silence our speech patterns are refined because silence fosters self-awareness that enables us to choose more truly the words that we say. Rather than speech that is motivated by our subconscious need to impress, to put others in their place, to compete, to control, to manipulate, to put a good spin on things…we are able to notice our inner dynamics and make choices that are more grounded in love, trust and God-given wisdom.  As Bonhoeffer puts it, “There is a wonderful power of clarification, purification, and concentration upon the essential thing in being quiet…Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid.  But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.”

Silence gives us a way to practice restraint when everything in us screams to fly off the handle.  The Psalmist says, “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your bed and be silent. Offer right sacrifices (in other words, stay faithful to your spiritual practices) and put your trust in the Lord.” (Psalm 4:4)  These are times when the most heroic thing a leader can do is to remain in that private place with God for as long as it takes to keep from sinning. In this place we consciously trust ourselves to God rather than everything else we could be doing in the moment.

Waiting for God to Act

Practicing rhythms of silence and stillness help us learn to wait on God—which doesn’t come easily for those of us who are so busy trying to make things happen. A major discipline of leadership is to learn how to wait and recognize God’s direction in our lives and in our world before taking action ourselves. Moses learned this lesson so well in his forty year experience in the wilderness that when the challenges of leadership came fast and hard, his first response was to be still and wait until he recognized God’s way forward even in the midst of danger and uncontrolled panic.

In Exodus 14, the Israelites found themselves trapped between the Red Sea that was in front of them and the Egyptians who were pursuing from behind; Moses’ ability to take decisive action in this impossible situation emerged from a clear sense of what he had heard from God. Through Moses, God instructed the Israelites to move forward as Moses lifted his staff and stretched out his hand over the water so that the water would divide. It was the exactly the right thing to do but it was something none of them would have thought up on their own.  If Moses had not practiced orienting himself to God’s voice speaking deep within and had not been disciplined enough to wait on taking action until God’s guidance was clear, there would have been a completely different outcome.

Staying in Rhythm

The key to the efficacy of the rhythm of silence and word, stillness and action, is holding them together in a beautiful tension.  If we pray and never do anything, God’s will will never actually be done. If we keep doing things but shun silence and stillness, chances are our actions will be less than what is really needed.  This is polarity management and it leads us to embrace yet another great paradox of leadership: the more we are called upon to use words, the more silence we need.  The more active leadership required of us and the greater the need for decisive action, the more we need to cultivate stillness—the capacity to wait on God long enough to receive God’s clear direction for whatever is facing us. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still. And then out of the stillness, you get up and do whatever God tells you to do.

Continue to part 4

©Ruth Haley Barton.  Not to be used without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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[…] Writings of Ruth Haley Barton on Solitude and Sacred Rhythms, such as this article  […]

I started reading this article today and found it very helpful so far. I may not be a church leader but it’s helping me be a more effective mate for my husband in our home. Thank you!

We are blessed that God can use our resources to help you. Even though our strategy involves helping leaders attend to their souls, our desire is that churches and Christian organizations become communities of spiritual transformation. May God use you in your setting.

A word to you pastors: share these ereflections and other resources of the Transforming Center with your lay leaders.

I am one of the lay leaders in our church’s women’s ministry, and just today I was struggling with one of those decisions we all know so well: there’s a need in the Body, I’ve got the skill set, but I’ve got so many other ministry commitments that taking this one on too would be a joyless task. Receiving the word to “wait” after a long afternoon of wrestling and dead-ends was like waking up from a bad dream. Of course it was time to cease struggling and wait upon God. The reminder came like a kiss of the Spirit.

I am so grateful to be part of this community. I have been practicing spiritual disciplines for some time now, but never before in connection with my various leadership roles. If more lay leaders were acknowledged as leaders, and taught the means and importance of leading from a well-nourished soul, I am certain there would be more flourishing ministries and far less burnout.

Thanks Sande. Great word. There are now two more ways to share the work of Transforming Center. You can like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@TransformingCnt)

I am so grateful this landed at the right time for you. Thanks for your encouragement to pastors to share this with their lay leaders who also carry so much leadership responsibility in the church and need spiritual resources as well.

It’s a paradox that a leader would write such an article. “The World” is most likely to confer the mantle of leadership on those persons who talk most and loudest and most glibly. Unfortunately organized religion and most adherents have followed blindly into that trap. The article could be developed into a semester-long divinity school requirement, including extensive practice.

Yes, and the practice would be the most important part!

As a leader I have allowed my first reponse to be driven by my need to “say something”. What I am learning to do is practice postponement. Waiting in the moment before I speak gives me opoportunity to notice what is stirring inside me and to hear the whisper of God’s voice. The greatest aid to cultivating the first response of “postponement in the moment”, for me, is time alone with God waiting in His presence! Moving from the space of waiting into the place of leadership activity helps me lead with words informed by God.

I love hearing about the practice of postponement. I’m sure you have never regretted it! 🙂

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