Fifty-five years ago, nearly half of Americans smoked and only 100,000 regularly took a jog.
Then, in 1968, Dr. Kenneth Cooper wrote his groundbreaking book, Aerobics, clearly laying out the case for aerobic exercise by explaining the benefits. Cooper, at the time a physician in the U.S. Air Force, wrote the book and his wife, Millie, typed the manuscript. The book would go on to sell 30 million copies and be translated into 41 different languages.1
Since then, our entire world has experienced a complete transformation around exercise and health: Only 15 percent of Americans now smoke and, in the United States alone, nearly 60 million people participate in running, jogging, or trail running, while 110 million Americans walk for fitness.2
Dr. Kenneth Cooper normalized the need for aerobic health and exercise. We now wear devices that monitor our activity, have memberships to gyms in an attempt to stay fit, and assume this as a common priority, even when it is inconvenient, time-consuming, and often painful. We have a societal assumption that exercise is good for you, important for your health, and something we should all be participating in.
The same needs to happen around the immense priority of caring for the soul.
The evidence of soul disease is often hidden by our busy schedules and lack of time to take a breath and look around.
The evidence of soul disease is often hidden by our busy schedules and lack of time to take a breath and look around. We’re so busy that we don’t recognize just how unhealthy our own souls are, much less the souls of those around us. We plow through our work responsibilities, leaving just enough time to monitor the important relationships in our life and, if we’re lucky, get a few hours of sleep. Rarely do we recognize the true state of our own souls.
But it turns out that our lack of soul health is rather apparent, if we’ll just take a moment and look around. Take the role of pastor for example.
“New Barna data shows that pastors’ confidence and satisfaction in their vocation has decreased significantly in the past few years, and two in five (41%) say they’ve considered quitting ministry in the last 12 months.”3 In addition, 40 percent of pastors now show a high risk of burnout – that number was only 11 percent back in 2015.4
This isn’t just the normal “wear and tear” of vocational living: When 40 percent of any occupation is considering quitting, something is very, very wrong. Imagine if 40 percent of firefighters would quit this year, or 40 percent of EMTs? 40 percent of teachers? Now imagine if the 40 percent of pastors who are thinking about leaving would go ahead and do it. We are standing at the edge of a precipice, and the health of the entire Church is at stake.
Churches and organizations everywhere are bleeding for the lack of soul care, but what is the normal response to someone who seems like they might quit? We offer more money, or a “better” (busier) position. Rarely is the health of someone’s soul addressed.
CEOs and their executive teams aren’t immune from the same phenomena – 40 percent of executives say they feel overwhelmed by their work.5 And the economic costs are staggering: Turnover of only one employee costs the company 1.5 to 2 times their wages, and depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion every single year.
The human costs are even worse than the economic costs. Only 44 percent of adults under 30 are “highly satisfied” with their work.6 The National Institute of Health estimates that over 21 million U.S. adults have a major depressive episode each year.7 Anxiety disorders are currently affecting over 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.8
We continue to struggle mentally and emotionally, especially as leaders.
“A wise person sees trouble and changes course, but the foolish keep going and suffer for it.” – Proverbs 27:3
Proverbs 27:3 says, “A wise person sees trouble and changes course, but the foolish keep going and suffer for it.” We can all clearly see the warning signs now. But how do we recognize burnout, flameout and drop out before they happen? And is there anything we can do in order to head these problems off at the pass?
The answer is, yes, there’s something we can do about it, and prevention (and healing) begins with soul health.
We recently invited our Soul Care community mailing list to respond to an assessment on Soul Health, a series of questions that, based on the respondent’s answers, places them in one of three broad categories: Flourishing, Strengthening, or Healing.
Those in our audience who landed at the top range of the Soul Health Index, the Flourishing category, are likely to have taken ownership of their own soul health. Their experience of their work is more life-giving, and they have solid spiritual practices and relational support in place. Perhaps they meet with a mentor on a regular basis or at the least maintain important friendships where they can be completely honest and open to feedback. They might be the kind of person who spends time thinking about their inner life and how to keep their soul healthy in the midst of things that compete for their time and attention. Maybe they’ve been through a “garden of desolation” experience and their life has been transformed.
Those in the Strengthening range (61 percent of our responders) is where most of us have landed. Not crashing and burning, but neither exactly flourishing. This group probably has some areas of their life where their soul feels worn down and weary, and depending on their trajectory, they could be either heading upwards towards greater soul health, or perhaps declining towards burnout or soul disease. If you find yourself here, it is a good time to take on practices that will strengthen your soul, building a kind of internal muscle that will serve as a foundation to open your soul to God in a way that will contribute towards flourishing.
Finally, the Healing category is when someone’s soul is truly suffering from a deficit of the things that support a life of wellness, meaning, spiritual vitality, and purpose. For the very few (4 percent) of people who self-reported in this range, our hearts can only go out to them and the painful place they must be in. Likely in severe isolation, possibly in a traumatic work environment, they are weary much or most of the time and likely approaching experiencing burnout. They feel lost in their own life and aren’t sure where to go from here.
Some key highlights of the assessment results from our online community were:
- Both for those who were struggling spiritually, as well as those who reported doing well, we still observed the presence of grieving, fatigue, and stress. Life is still life, for everyone.
- We did, however, observe marked differences in the levels of flourishing in work, relationships, and overall well-being between individuals who indicated they were struggling spiritually and those who were not.
- Those who have taken ownership of their soul health also exhibit a lower risk of burnout, flameout, and drop out and scored significantly higher in many areas of flourishing.
As a leader, have you seen the toll taken by burnout, flameout, and drop out? How are you helping your people identify where they are in the journey to soul health?
Will you consider adding soul health into the mental inventory you take of your organization and begin to care for the overall flourishing of every person you cross paths with?
In recent decades, the long-held relationship between the interior character of a leader and the potential they could bring into the world have been detached from one another. Collectively, somehow, we have come to believe that – as long as the external results appear successful – the interior character of a leader simply does not matter. The interior formation of a leader has everything to do with what he or she might accomplish in this world.
Dallas Willard and Gary Black, Jr. address this in their book, The Divine Conspiracy Continued:
Leaders can serve the public good well, only if those individuals’ routinely act in ways that supremely promote the specific public good for which their particular leadership position exists. Further, leaders make a positive impact, only if they are prepared to sacrifice their own personal gain, monetary or otherwise, for that good. Last, leaders serve the common good only if they are appropriately vigilant in ensuring that members of their own peer group overwhelmingly conform to this moral ideal even when self-sacrifice is required.
Do you have the kind of personal soul health that allows you to act for the public good of your organization, sacrifice your own personal gain, and ensure that members of your peer group also conform to this ideal?
That kind of action and life as a leader requires a serious, ongoing connection with God, which gets invariably threatened by the pace of life, the isolation, and the demands of leadership. If you do not intentionally build that kind of interior life to support your leadership, you simply cannot fulfill the full potential of your vocation or enjoy much of life along the way.
Many organizational leaders in the last 20 years have begun caring for the physical well-being of their people. They’ve instituted new ways of encouraging physical activity and provided tools and resources to that effect.
It is my firm belief that in the coming years, the same shift will occur when it comes to encouraging the soul health of those we work with. Organizations will begin providing the tools and resources that are necessary to ensure the people in the organization aren’t only successful in their jobs, but that they are flourishing in all areas of their lives. They do not take responsibility for the wellbeing of their team’s souls… that’s up to each individual person. But leaders can commit to their own spiritual vitality and then build environments that are alert to the whole-person realities of flourishing, alert to the deep relationship between spiritual wellbeing and vocation, and alert to what may threaten all of it.
How important is this to “mission success” in your work? And for the success of your family, marriage, and your own walk with God? Might it be time we slowed down to assess, and ask ourselves and those around us, how are we, really?
The first step is to simply care. We can often lose that amid our busyness. Yet, I believe it’s high time to care once again, even if it involves sacrifice.
Now is the time to get ahead of this curve, to assess, and then address the soul health of yourself and those around you.