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Part Two: The Power of a Well-Timed Pause

“Spiritual leadership springs forth in grace from our very desire for God’s presence. This does not take effort or striving.  It takes courage, a kind of showing up, attentiveness.” –Gerald May


Moses remained in a solitary, non-public existence for a long time. It was as if—in some deep and fundamental way—he just let go. He let go of his dreams of fixing anything, helping anyone or being a leader at all.  He humbly received the gifts he was given, he accepted a simple means of supporting himself and his family, he owned his own stuff, he let the chaos settle. 

Things went along fairly uneventfully for about forty years and Moses became pretty quiet on the inside until one day, as he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he ventured out a little further than usual and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And it was almost like God had been waiting for this moment—waiting for Moses to settle down and become quiet enough so that God could address him directly. Up to this point, God’s presence in the story had been strongly implied, but no action or word had been directly attributed to him. But now that God had a saner and more honest person to deal with, he could take a more direct approach!

Paying Attention to All Things Burning

It was an angel that caused the initial commotion we now refer to as the burning bush—or more accurately, the bush that was burning but was not consumed.  Because Moses had slowed his pace and actually had some time, he was able to “turn aside and look at this great sight.” And here is one of the most striking phrases in the entire Moses narrative:  When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush.” 

It seems that there was a cause and effect relationship between Moses’ willingness to pay attention and God’s willingness to speak. At last, all other voices had quieted down enough so that Moses could recognize a new Voice calling to him from the burning bush in the middle of his own life. Finally, he was ready to recognize God’s initiative in his life and receive what God had to say.

The practice of “turning aside to look” is a spiritual discipline, which, by its very nature sets us up for an encounter with God. Elizabeth Dreyer, in her book Earth Crammed with Heaven, makes this provocative statement: “In a profound way, our intentionality is a key ingredient determining whether we notice God everywhere or only in church or only in suffering or nowhere. It all depends on how we choose to fashion our world.”

A Key Discipline for Discerning Leaders

These days there is so much vying for our attention—such a glut of information and stimulation—that it is often hard to know what to give our attention to. Should I take that class, read this highly recommended book, attend that conference, subscribe to this magazine or newsletter, interact with this blog, listen to that podcast, watch this Netflix series, search the Internet just a little more…? When we do not exercise some discretion about what we give our attention to, we find ourselves literally spinning from one worthy-of-attention thing to another, not knowing what to choose.

Learning to pay attention and knowing what to pay attention to is a key discipline for discerning leaders, but one that rarely comes naturally to those of us who are barreling through life so fast, our eyes fixed on some far-away goal or the next hill we want to take.

One of the downsides of visionary leadership is that we can get our sights set on something that is so far out in the future that we miss what God is trying to say through some aspect of our life as it exists now. We are blind to the bush that is burning in our own back yard and the voice of God trying to speak to us within it. 

We squander the gift of this day just as it is, these people just as they are, the uniqueness and the sweetness (even the bitter sweetness) of this particular place on the journey—just as it is. We rush past the voice of God calling to us in our own wilderness places.

A Burning Bush Moment for Us All 

Recently, I had a burning bush moment—a moment I am still paying attention to.  It came while reading the newspaper, of all things! I had been suffering (along with everyone else) the progressive revelations about various high-profile leaders in the secular and church worlds who have misused their power with those subordinate to them in work and ministry environments. 

I, along with so many others, have experienced a full range of emotions—everything from anger to grief, disbelief to disillusionment, confusion to fear to dread. For many women, old memories are being stirred up and unresolved issues and situations are resurfacing; for many men, primal fears have been reignited and new fears have been planted. What’s a transforming leader to do? 

I have one answer to this question right now, and that is:  Pay attention. Alone and together.  I am convinced that the #MeToo#ChurchToo movement is a burning bush moment for all of us and as painful as it is, God is in it, God’s got our attention,  and now he has something to say.

“I Must Turn Aside to See This Great Sight!”  

There is no doubt that the stories being told and the allegations being brought forward by those who are finally speaking out have caused quite a commotion. But God started speaking to me through this commotion in the most ordinary way.  

It happened as I was reading the newspaper one morning (and yes, I still read a real newspaper). There was a small article in the lower left hand corner of, like, page 5 and the title was “Church withdraws from Willow Creek Association summit.”  One of the reasons the article caught my attention is that this church, Christ Church of Oak Brook and Downers Grove (IL), happens to be a church I know very well—many of their staff and elders have been or are with us in Transforming Community, I have preached there and consider their senior pastor Dan Meyer to be a valued ministry colleague. 

The bush was burning and I said, “I must turn aside to see this great sight!” What I read was one of the most spiritually helpful things I’ve read so far about all that is happening right now—particularly in the church— and it ministered to me down to the bottom of my being. 

In a statement posted on the church website, Dan said that his church “is taking a purposeful pause” from this annual two-day Leadership Summit given what has taken place in recent days.  He writes, “Both the Christian and the American traditions have seen the value of stopping normal activities to observe a moment of silence…or to lower a flag to half-staff…or to issue a collective cry of lament—in the face of significant crisis, turmoil, or loss.”  

A Sacred Pause

The statement went on the say, “We believe that the stories of the women that are now being told are deserving of this pause to listen, reflect, and change.  We feel that unless we stop to listen, some stories that need to be heard will not be told and we as a community will lose the opportunity God has given us to become more compassionate, just, and holy.”  And I’m sitting alone in my house shouting, “Amen, brother!  Preach!”

What was so soul-stirring for me is that this was not framed as a boycott or a strategic tactical move; this was a sacred pause created for a spiritual purpose—to listen and pay attention to what God has to say in and through this commotion.  

Friends, this is what we need!  We simply cannot go on with business as usual. We are in the midst of a kairos moment. A potentially healing moment. A fullness in time in which God is trying to get our attention about something that has been broken between the brothers and the sisters in the family of God.  We cannot afford to just walk on by. Principalities and powers are being dismantled—principalities that have lived and flourished within unhealthy dynamics of gender, sexuality, power, and celebrity we rarely speak about openly and honestly. 

The good people who have brought their experiences and questions to the fore have served us painfully but well.  

The Power of a Good Question 

In the realm of spiritual transformation, the questions we are willing to ask ourselves are more important than the answers we think we know.  Why?  Because the answers we think we know are like closed rooms with no possibility for fresh air; but a good question, on the other hand, throws open a door or a window for some new wind of the Spirit to blow through.  

Taking “a purposeful pause” when there is something significant happening that needs our attention is the right thing to do. And we need some good questions to work with in the pause—questions that can help us make the best use of this time we are in.  Here are some initial questions that could open a door or a window for some new breath of God to breathe life and healing into Christ’s body—the church. Reflect on them alone and together as we pause and pay attention to this particular moment in the unfolding story of Christ’s church:

  • Why does it often take so long for stories regarding the misuse of power and sexuality to be told?  (If you really want to know the answer to this, ask any woman why she has not told the truth about her experiences in the church and other well-established systems and then listen. Try putting yourself in her shoes.)
  • Why are the particular stories coming out right now actually being heard now?  
  • Why was the first response to concerns brought by dearly-respected leaders in Christ’s church (who, by the way, had nothing to gain personally and everything to lose) met with accusations that they were colluding to bring another leader down at the end of his career so he could not finish well? (Now go back to the first question and ask again why those who have experienced the misuse of power don’t tell their stories.) 
  • What are relationships between women and men like in our community specifically?  How do the theological positions we hold regarding male and female contribute to this experience?
  • Who holds positional power and spiritual authority in our community—women or men?   Do men and women share power or does one gender or the other hold all the power? 
  • What is the relationship between power and sexuality?  Do we know how to acknowledge and talk about power as a “thing”? Do we provide opportunities to talk about sexuality and power in relationships between men and women in ways that are healthy and non-fear-based? 
  • How do systems collude to make chronic misuse and abuse of power and sexuality possible?  (For a wonderful treatment of this topic, see Betrayal of Trust by ethicist Stan Grenz.)  Approach this question with curiosity and openness, care and concern, rather than defensiveness, reactivity or fear. Are there safe places and processes in place for both women and men to talk about what they are experiencing within the system? 
  • Do we cast a clear vision for how women and men can be together and minister together that moves us beyond “the Billy Graham rule” to something that is more like relationships between brothers and sisters in a healthy family? (For a Biblical, theological and practical reflection on this question, see Equal to the TaskInterVarsity Press.)

Shimmers of God’s Grace

What an extraordinary opportunity we have now to pay attention to really important matters within the Body of Christ!  There is no question that this is a burning bush moment for us all. Yes, it is dark, and uncomfortable, and painful but there is also a shimmer of God’s grace, alerting us to the possibility that God is at work doing something we could not have predicted.

For us as leaders to take time to turn aside and look is no small thing. To create opportunities for the kind of healthy conversations that move us forward in new ways will take a bite out of other organizational priorities; but let’s not rush past the place where God is creating a stir so he can get our attention. 

If spiritual leadership is anything, it is the capacity to see the bush burning in the middle of our own lives and having enough sense to turn aside, take off our shoes, and pay attention! Amid the welter of possible distractions, an essential discipline for leaders is to craft times for quiet noticing in which we allow God to show us those things that we might otherwise miss. We need time for the chaos in our souls to settle a bit so that we can turn aside to look at the great sights in our own lives and seek understanding about what they mean.

And then, when there are implications for the communities we serve, we need to create space for a communal pause and have the needed conversations.

Perplexed but Not Given to Despair

One of the most soul-strengthening things that can happen to a leader in the crucible of ministry is to know that God is at work—even when it’s disturbing and uncomfortable—and to hear a Voice speaking that is not our own. The practice of paying attention to all things burning gives us an opportunity to hear God calling us by name once again, putting his finger on places in our lives—alone and together—that need transformation.

The practice of paying attention awakens us to the extraordinary even in the midst of shock and despair. We are perplexed, of course, but not given to despair because God is at work—even in this!—offering us an opportunity to learn and transform and move in new ways. As we live our lives in response to the One who is calling to us out of the burning bush in our own lives, we discover we are standing on Holy Ground more often than we think!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. For more on the practice of paying attention, see Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, InterVarsity Press, 2018. This article is not to be reproduced without permission.

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Ruth Haley Barton

(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, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

9 Comments

  1. Casual Summer Friday | Paracletos on June 1, 2018 at 3:47 am

    […] calls it when we “turn aside to see a burning bush.” Though written with leaders in mind, every missionary you know would benefit from Ruth’s thoughts. Make sure they get a […]

  2. Rick McCall on May 29, 2018 at 11:11 am

    Your words and context brought much clarity to this situation for me and the importance of the conversation about transparency regarding abuse in the church. It is long overdue to turn aside and notice. And then to do something about it and not just continue to wring our hands until it fades from our consciousness. Again.

    Thank you for your courage and eloquence in not letting the topic be again swept under the rug, as it has been for centuries. I can’t imagine a better opportunity than right now for an honest consideration of what next steps would look like to begin the process of reversing this curse on humanity in general and the church in particular.

    • Ruth Barton on May 30, 2018 at 6:40 am

      Thanks, Rick, for your courage in writing. For this issue to be dealt with fruitfully and effectively, we will need both women and men to bring their voices and their influence. On matters this painful and complicated, it often feels easier to hang back and not say anything. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation.

  3. Cheryl Baird on May 28, 2018 at 7:21 pm

    This beautiful piece of writing is exactly what this tired pastor needed to hear. Thank you for speaking with conviction and purpose on this crucial topic.

    • Ruth Barton on May 30, 2018 at 6:34 am

      So glad!

  4. Lydia on May 25, 2018 at 7:42 am

    Amen.
    I have lived my 43 years of marriage with a partner who has experienced abuse, as a young teen, in the church. I have experienced the difficult, soul shattering fallout of the response of the church when approached with the story about 20 years after it happened.
    The pastor continued to minister until his death, my husband struggled daily, and I found solace in God alone. The struggle is cruel and real.

    It’s a welcome read this morning to learn that a church is taking a pause. May this wake up all congregations to pause and notice that a shift is needed in their response to the issues of power that exist in the church.
    I pray that healing continues for all victims and church leaders are courageous enough to pause and respond in humility to the suffering of so many in their congregations and world around them.

    • Ruth Barton on May 29, 2018 at 7:59 am

      Amen! I join you in this prayer.

  5. Rev. B. A. Kenley on May 25, 2018 at 7:02 am

    I so appreciate what Dr. Barton has to say here, and the way she said it. By lifting up a colleague’s approach to the #MeToo #ChurchToo movement with a purposeful pause, allowed those of us to see it who do not read Chicago newspapers. This provides us all with a God-honoring approach. Dr. Barton’s questions can engage both women and men in conversation around this sensitive and often uncomfortable topic. They will allow sincere church members to examine, question and reform maladaptive structures of power, making transformation possible. I, too, have seen God’s Hand in this movement and I am grateful to Dr. Barton for creatively and wisely opening a way forward. May God bless you.

    • Ruth Haley Barton on May 25, 2018 at 9:15 am

      Your tender response brings a tear to my eye–perhaps because it lets me know we are in it together as we try to pay attention and find God’s way forward. Thank you.

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