An abbreviated version of this article was published on the Transforming Center’s website: What does transforming leadership look like for Pastor Noah Filipiak? Here is the full version:
I love seminary.
I have one seminary degree and look forward to going back for more.
With that said, my experience in a Transforming Community has been the most important ministry leadership training I have ever received. It’s not that it’s a competition between the type of things you learn in seminary and the type of things learned through the Transforming Community, it’s just very noticeable which ones are more emphasized in the Church today (and in my own ministry leadership life up to this point). Noticeable due to the amount of pain and personal struggle I and so many other ministry leaders have endured in our untransformed selves.
I’ve seen the same concept true at the gym. You often see people at the gym, usually fellow men, who are incredibly muscular. Muscles on top of muscles and they are straining to build even more muscles. I often wonder if these are NFL players or ditch diggers or some other occupation where this sort of strength would be beneficial. Obviously the strength isn’t there for pragmatic reasons. Meanwhile, as a former college track and cross country runner myself, I rarely see these muscle-bound titans hop on the treadmill or exercise bike. Lots of muscle is great, but if it’s the only thing that’s ever focused on, a person can spend all that time in the gym and still be a very ineffective athlete. After all, it’s pretty hard to be athletic if you can’t breathe! There’s nothing wrong with being a bodybuilder or doing a lot of strength training, it’s just caused me to notice an interesting parallel to ministry training.
Just like respiratory and cardiovascular health are essential to an athlete, soul-health is essential for ministry leadership. In my ministry tradition, people skills, good theology and a strong mind from seminary have been emphasized far and above emotional and soul health. As I’ve struggled through 11 years of church planting, I’ve faced near breakdowns in almost every area: emotional, psychological, spiritual and sexual. It doesn’t really matter how “good” you are at preaching, how many people like you, or how good your theology is if you are on the verge of a nervous breakdown or a divorce or walking away from your faith altogether. The circumstances aren’t always this dire, but the truth remains: people skills and head-knowledge, while important, are not sufficient to be a healthy ministry leader. Not only are they not sufficient, without the compass and boundaries of soul transformation, they are bound to be the very engines that end up propelling a leader right off the cliff.
For years, I struggled with being a human doing rather than a human being, struggling with performance-driven leadership and a performance-driven relationship with God. Always more to be done and nothing was ever good enough. Church planting was the perfect environment for this virus to prosper. Entering the blogging and author world was even worse! I wanted freedom from this slavery so badly and could preach sermons and write articles about it, but had no equipment, rhythm or methodology to actually internalize it. There was no pathway for this truth to get from my head to my soul. My background told me if I just thought about this truth harder (it’s God’s Word after all!), it would eventually become reality. It wasn’t becoming reality, no matter how much I prayed for it or read about it in Scripture. Like a praying invalid unaware there was a hospital in town (or possibly just unwilling to go), I began doubting that my cycle of performance-driven identity could ever be broken.
What good is all that muscle if you can’t breathe?
The same goes for a seminary degree, witty preaching, a growing church and correct theological categories. They won’t do you much good if you are suffocating.
In fact, when your motivation for having all that muscle is to somehow please God by it, working harder and harder to get even stronger is actually what will end up doing you in. It almost did me.
I knew there was freedom in the gospel of grace, but kept feeling more and more I could only have this if I left vocational ministry. As I was explaining this struggle to a pastor friend, he handed me a copy of Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry by Ruth Haley Barton. Like a ventilator, this book pumped fresh air down my muscle-bound windpipe in a way I hadn’t experienced since my pre-church planting days.
Ruth didn’t just teach about the truth of the gospel’s freedom, she showed me practices, rhythms and boundaries I could put in place to actually get to live in it! Like the free sample cart at the grocery store, I was hooked. The discoveries I found in a book weren’t enough once I discovered I could be led in this path for two years by Ruth and many others who have been on the road much longer than me. Not merely teaching me about breathing, but helping me learn to do it myself!
I am so grateful for the Transforming Community and can’t imagine where I’d be without it. I’m not fully out of the woods yet and know I’ll be on this path for the rest of my journey with Christ on this earth, but I’ve found the path and I’ve found many guides.
It’s only natural in a church tradition where leadership development happens almost exclusively in the mind, that this emphasis would trickle down into our congregations as well. Going through the Transforming Community has opened my eyes to the many ways my beloved congregants are stuck in the same ruts I have been. They learned their patterns from me, after all! Now that I have gone through this transformation process, I can guide my church through the same rhythms and paradigm changes that have brought me so much freedom. One of the most notable issues my people face is how they interact with Scripture. In a tradition that values theology so much, it’s not surprising that we approach the Bible like it’s a textbook. And in a tradition that also cultivates performance-based faith, it’s not surprising that “doing devotions” often feels like plowing through this textbook with great strain, like a marathon runner grinding through that 21st mile. You can only do The One Year Bible so many times though before the whole approach goes stale (but you dare not admit this to anyone). What’s sad is as much as “daily devotions” or a “quiet time” have been emphasized in my tradition, we don’t know how to spend time with God. When I first started teaching my congregation how to spend 30-minutes of solitude time with the Lord each day, they instinctively thought I meant they need to read their Bibles 30 minutes a day. Clock in, grind, clock out; and now God is appeased and pleased. Not only is it about appeasing God, but also the silly bicep measuring and bench press competitions that go on endlessly. As if knowing every nook and cranny of history or Greek and Hebrew nuance was a way to win this game show, when we still are living without the ability to apply what the text is telling us.
Another instinct that’s been hard-wired into us is that prayer time is merely request time. That 10 minutes of prayer is meant to be 10 minutes of laying our requests out before Santa Clause—that’s a lot of time to fill with requests! I’m not knocking where people are at in my church, but it does show how much we’ve all been missing out on. We know a lot about God, but do we know how to spend time with Him? I love watching the lightbulbs go off in people’s eyes when I explain to them how spending regular solitude time with the Lord, soaking in his love, will fuel them for everything else in the Christian life. For the first time, their engine is becoming relational (and supernatural!) rather than based on human striving. As an 11-year veteran of church planting, concluding my Transforming Community experience is like beginning a whole new chapter of ministry at my church. We’ve seen God do a lot of amazing things over the past 11 years, but now we have a brand new playground to explore and enjoy for the next 11, a playground where the pressure is on God (I think He can handle it…) and off of us. Praise be to God!
I recommend the Transforming Community more than I do any other ministry training, seminary course or conference available to a ministry leader. It’s not that strength training is bad, it too is essential for athletics, but what good is it without also being able to breathe, stretch and run? To be honest, most of us have already had more than our share of head-knowledge and skill training and even if you haven’t, those things can wait. The health of your soul can’t.
I’m reminded of a line from the old hymn “What a Friend We have in Jesus,”
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer!
I forfeited so much peace and bore so much needless pain over the years. Not because I wasn’t praying, but because I didn’t know how. It’s beyond words to have found a path of discipleship where I get to truly experience the closing line of that hymn:
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.