Lent for Leaders: With God in the Wilderness

“We have to fashion our own desert where we can withdraw every day, shake off our compulsions, and dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord.  Without such a desert we will lose our own soul while preaching the gospel to others.  But with such a spiritual abode, we will become increasingly conformed to him in whose Name we minister.”  – Henri Nouwen

There has never been a season in my lifetime when leadership has seemed more significant to the outcome of life in our human community. At this moment in our history the leadership landscape is particularly bleak; yet it is into this moment in our weary world, that Lent comes to our beleaguered souls.  It almost seems cruel because everything already seems so weighty in our world and on the surface, Lent feels like more weight than we can bear.

But here’s the thing: if we can approach Lent as a season of transformation for us as leaders and listen to its deeper and more nuanced invitations, we might find it to be exactly what we need at this time. Here are three Lenten invitations I am encouraging us as leaders to listen to as we approach this season.

First of all, as leaders can we enter into Lent not just as a season for leading others but as a season of returning for ourselves—that is, returning to God with all our hearts?  (Joel 2:12)  Rather than relying on patterned responses and old coping mechanisms for dealing with the challenges of leadership at this time, could we return to a posture of active waiting and listening and depending upon God?  During Lent can we resist the temptation to sink into despair, to hide from God, believing that we and our world are beyond help?  Can we return to a place of fervent prayer for all that is wrong in our world, and to a place of active trust that our help does indeed come from the Lord who made heaven and earth and everyone in it?

Secondly, can we fashion our own wilderness so that what happened to Jesus in his wilderness experience can happen in us as well?  Lent is patterned after Jesus’ experience in the wilderness immediately following his baptism, and God’s affirmation of his beloved-ness. (Luke 4:1-13) Like Jesus, we too must face the subtle temptations related to leadership so we can be “cleared out” of false drives and motives in order to bring what is good to the world around us. As Parker Palmer says, “A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him- or herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”

It has always been so interesting to me that, after Jesus is affirmed publicly for ministry, the Holy Spirit does not drive him to seminary, or to a celebration party, or to interviewing and connecting with important people, but to the wilderness where he faced his own temptability.  Jesus’ ministry on earth was very short, so perhaps one such experience was enough for him.  But for me, and perhaps for all of us, I need Lent to come around every year so the Holy Spirit can drop the plow and help me dig a little deeper into my own patterns and motivations to see what still needs transforming! And then as we open ourselves to this kind of Spirit-guided reflection about our own leadership, can we incorporate practices that will help us transcend the false self and lead from what is truest and best within us?

Lent is about so much more than giving up chocolate or that glass of wine with dinner!  It about facing our own very personal temptations so we can incorporate practices and disciplines that correspond to God’s intention that we transcend them.

And thirdly, can we open up and allow God to strengthen us?  Can we dwell in the gentle healing presence of our Lord and let God’s angels minister to us? Luke’s gospel tells us that when the devil had finished every test, he departed; but both Matthew and Mark tell us that angels came to wait on Jesus, strengthening him until he emerged from that wilderness experience filled with power of the Holy Spirit. (4:14) Friends, if there has ever been a moment when we as leaders need to fashion our own wilderness so our motives can be purified for God-ordained ministry, the time is now.  If there has ever been a moment when we need to be able to “see through” to what is really going on spiritually so we can reject the temptations of the evil one, the time is now.  If there was ever a moment when we need to be strengthened by the angels of God in the wilderness places of our lives, the time is now. And if there was ever a time when the world needs leaders to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in order to carry out the purposes for which we have been anointed, the time is now.

This Lent, may God grant us the courage and the will to fashion our own wilderness, to face what we need to face, to say no to every temptation of our false self, and then to emerge strengthened for what is ahead.

Click here to view the lectionary readings for the Season of Lent (Cycle C) of the Revised Common Lectionary.

©Ruth Haley Barton. 2022. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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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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Dear Ruth and all – Thank you for expending so much time and insight planning and producing the blogs and podcasts. The Lenten series of podcasts is extremely timely. I am confronted and comforted simultaneously. What a brutal initiation into ministry! Jesus wilderness temptations were uncomfortable and daunting – yet necessary. I sense that I’m in a season of letting go and stripping away. As we spend time with Jesus in the wilderness I feel like he is also spending time with me in my own wilderness, which until now just seemed like a wasteland rather than a proving ground. I just inserted the link to this page in my blog because it is impacting me so strongly. I’ve been blogging about liminal spaces. Wilderness, it seems to me, is the quintessential liminal space.

Learn to pronounceThank you.

I have believed for years that Jesus went purposefully into the wilderness to wrest control of the planet from Satan himself. Adam had ceded control, and Jesus had to take it back. Satan had tried to kill him as a small child through Herod, then lost track of him. When Jesus was baptized by John, it was announced to all of the spiritual realm who he was and where he was. His identity and location were no longer a mystery. Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world because, at that moment, they were his to give — he owned them. This contest in the spiritual realm was epic. From this moment on, Satan had an opponent he could not defeat. His days were, and continued to be, numbered.

Thank you for this Ruth. I have a few questions, please. First, how do we allow our motives to be purified practically? Is it through confession when the motive becomes apparent? How do we make the exchange of the false drives in us so that we are transformed to be able to lead? And finally, how do we know what our God-ordained ministry is? Thank you for sharing any wisdom.

These are great questions Danielle, and I hope you are listening to the podcast season as I believe she intends to cover topics like these. Also, this is a shameless plug for podcast patrons, but Ruth takes and answers question submission on special “Ask Ruth” episodes. These would make great submissions!

Thank you for replying! I will try and listen. I am in Germany and we are helping refugees right now from Ukraine. We lived for many years in Russia, have family and friends in both places, and are involved in this spiritual fight. Please pray for those on the ground in Poland receiving refugees and the people of Russia who are already paying for the choice of their government.

Yes, these are great questions and the book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership is really my attempt to begin addressing them–especially chapter 2 (“What Lies Beneath”) and chapter 3 (“The Place of Our Own Conversion”). Your questions really take us the heart of the spiritual journey and it’s not possible to adequately address them in the comment section of a blog post 🙂 so I hope you can grab the book and work through it slowly. Please know that as we continue to pray for the terrible and important fight in the Ukraine, we will pray for you as you care for refugees in Jesus’ name. God be with you and give you strength.

You’re so welcome, all! Grateful to know we are journeying together in this important season!

Yes Jesus, I agree with this invitation. Please protect us from despair, let us put our hope in you. Lead us each into a wilderness time. Please clear us out, purify us. Plow up the unplowed ground. Strengthen us with the filling of your Holy Spirit. Give us eyes to see through the temptations to the true spiritual realities. Amen and Amen.

Thank you for these great invitations. I am excited to journey with you in Lent through the podcast.

Love this, thank you Ruth

Thank you Ruth. Your words are always so timely for me. Thank you for your sensitivity to the Spirit’s prompting in the ways you shepherd those who lead.

So good to hear from you, Gary! Glad this landed in a timely way for you. Blessings….

Thank you! This was exactly what I needed! I will look for you on Patreon!

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