Enhancing Character Development through Soul Care

Dan and Sue Wicher

As Richard stood staring out his office window, he knew something was wrong. His enthusiasm for ministry that had accompanied him for nearly thirty years was gone. He was tired, spiritually dry, and growing bitter about his situation.


Soon after making the move to the home office a decade earlier, Richard realized that the title ‘executive director’ principally meant ‘fund raiser.’ But, his organization was in need of much more than money. As with most traditional North American mission agencies entering the twenty-first century, his was working its way through deep organizational change. Richard had spent several years contending in the stressful whitewater that so often accompanies major transitions. 

Richard was suffering from burnout. It was obvious that he had not adequately cared for himself. There was no mentor, no margin, and no genuine accountability in his life. Some might even go as far as to say that he only had himself to blame. After all, CEOs should know better. 

But, is it completely fair to say that this missionary-turned-mission executive was the only party responsible for what was happening? Granted, Richard’s lack of self-leadership led him down this road, but another question (and one which is seldom asked) is legitimate: How could the mission have allowed Richard to ignore his self-care? Where were the checks and balances? 

While this true story did not end in tragedy, it does leave us with a couple of sobering questions: First, how many missionaries in our ranks are struggling, and as a result, are discouraged, unable to perform at the top of their game, feeling trapped, or may even be teetering on the brink of personal disaster? 

Most agencies do well at providing pastoral and professional care for workers when the bottom falls out of life and ministry. But, how do we help people avoid these sinkholes? What can and should mission agencies do to help their members redeem the circumstances they face, so that instead of suffering, they might benefit from the formative opportunities embedded in life’s challenges? Building organizational resilience—equipping people to effectively care for themselves and those around them—is a challenge. It is tough to do because it demands growing their character. 

The Importance of Character and Character Development

The character1 and character development of workers is critical to all organizations, but particularly to those that are at their core Evangelical. There are several reasons for this. First, ministry flows out of character. Stating it from a relational perspective, Dallas Willard makes a memorable statement: 

The people to whom we minister and speak will not recall 99 percent of what we say to them. But they will never forget the kind of persons we are….The quality of our souls will indelibly touch others for good or for ill. So we must never forget that the most important thing happening at any moment, in the midst of all our ministerial duties, is the kind of persons we are becoming. (Willard 2002)

Second, character development is critical because character stabilizes a person and makes him or her resilient even in the harshest of circumstances. Cross-cultural ministry is hazardous work. As Eva Burkholder reminds us, “Missionaries are exposed to high levels of stress, multiple cultures, expectations of various groups, loss and more loss, conflict, compassion fatigue, financial pressures, little rest (because of workaholism) and spiritual warfare” (2015).

Resiliency is important because, more often than not, ongoing pastoral care is not readily available to workers.

Perhaps the most compelling reason why agencies must help promote development is because human nature is resistant to change. Regardless of the benefits and despite God’s instructions for us to mature, by human nature, we resist growth (see Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:15-16; 2 Peter 1:4-11; Rom. 7:14-20). 

Speaking anecdotally about spiritual growth, Jim Adams, former rector of the Central American Theological Seminary, commented, “Motivating people to try harder doesn’t work very well.  We might stress passages like Ephesians 3:14-20, Colossians 1:15-20, and, of course, John 15 as invitations to life and fullness in Christ, but even so, some people don’t get it.” 

Missionaries desperately need God’s grace and all the Spirit-guided human encouragement that can be marshalled to nudge them forward. 

There are many ways and means to develop the people of our organizations. One approach gaining the attention of agencies because of its biblical foundations and balanced emphasis is Soul Care. 

Understanding Soul Care 

Soul Care is a lifestyle of regular ongoing, non-crisis activity that promotes growth and development of the whole person into maturity. This lifestyle is ordered and regulated by the individual worker as led by the Holy Spirit. While training and community help to support one’s growth, Soul Care is essentially self-leadership.  

Modern Soul Care initiatives maintain a balanced approach. As Keegan Williamson rightly points out, 

Jesus…grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men (Luke 2:52). Christ‘s development was holistic in that he grew intellectually, physically, spiritually and relationally. If we are to be Christ-like, each of these areas must be developed and nurtured. (2009, 7)

While these dimensions may be grouped in different ways, Kelly O’Donnell suggests three basic categories, namely master care (spiritual), self-care (physical and emotional), and mutual care or caring for one another (social) (2002, 16-17). Burkholder breaks these categories down as follows:

  • Master care involves those spiritual activities that keep us close to Christ and growing in him. This may include the daily, weekly, and/or annual practice of certain disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, meditation, scripture memorization, and other spiritual practices. Some refer to these divine appointments as ‘God’s time.’ 
  • Self-care is care for the physical, intellectual, and emotional parts of our being and involves the development of self-awareness, knowledge, skills, self-discipline, and the practice of activities that nurture us. Self-awareness deals with our identity, personal calling in ministry, thinking patterns, and emotions. Self-discipline is primarily focused on our physical health. This includes things such as sleep/rest, fitness, diet, and time management. Life-giving activities are those things that we enjoy doing. 
  • Mutual care is caring for one another. In a way, one’s practice of mutual care reflects the effectiveness of his or her Soul Care. Steve Hoke contends that the more effective we become at leading ourselves, the more selfless we become: 

Healthy self-leadership provides the perspective from which we become more other-centric rather than self-centered. By tackling some of the challenges that tend to derail or distract us, we become better equipped to lead from our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. (2014, 115)

Creating and maintaining a new rhythm in life that promotes good spiritual, emotional, and physical health is the goal of Soul Care. One must not think of Soul Care as a ‘spiritual charging station.’ Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We’re instructed never to ‘unplug’. Soul Care is abiding in Christ. 

Setting the Scene for Soul Care—What Leadership Must Think About

Before launching a character development initiative within an organization, leadership needs to wrestle with several questions:

1. What’s our developmental bias? The organization’s commitment to the task (work) and its commitment to the people performing the task (workers) must be determined. The fundamental question is: How much emphasis do we place on the work and on developing the workers?

2. How intentional will we be? Here, intentionality is defined as the priority that character development is given and the resolve with which leadership will act. The more intentional leadership wants to be, the more it will promote development through its policies, structures, communications, investments, and expectations of member participation. See Figure 1.

3. Are we grace oriented? Character development within an organization must be driven by the gospel. Alex Galloway of Church Resource Ministries commented, “If the culture of the organization is not grace-based, no one will come forward with the realities of their sinfulness/brokenness in need of shaping, molding, healing, sanctification…”  

4. Will we trust the missionary body? Except in instances of moral failure or when the law is broken, confidences must be maintained. Care givers (team leaders, pastoral care staff, team members, organizational leaders, etc.) should be afforded the freedom to maintain confidences without the fear of reprisal from mission administrators. A healthy level of trust needs to exist between mission leadership and those who offer care.

5. How long is our commitment? Does our development strategy include stewarding workers as long-term ministers of the gospel? What happens long after Soul Care is launched?

6. Should we separate member care and Soul Care? Some argue for the separation of the Soul Care function (preventative) and the member care function (restorative) in order to preserve funding for training and development. Not all agencies can afford this. Burkholder commented that an effective member care department should be working toward and/or spending the majority of its time in prevention and thus reduce the need to simply react to urgent needs.  

Leadership’s role in establishing Soul Care within the agency is critical. Mere approval will not have the force necessary to dislodge deeply-rooted habits. The board and executive leadership need to speak with one, enthusiastic, and united voice and back up words with actions if the organizational culture is to change.

Figure 1: Levels of Intentionality within Agencies

Intentionality, defined as the priority that character development is given within the organization and the resolve with which leadership acts, can be categorized into levels. Levels from 0 to 3 express activities that indicate low to high agency intentionality, respectively.

LEVEL 0 - Leadership RELEGATES the responsibility of personal character development to the individual worker. The members are entirely on their own.

LEVEL 1 – Leadership RECOMMENDS resources to the missionary body by highlighting inspiring testimonies, promoting prayer, and suggesting outside literature, webinars, conferences, retreat centers, etc. 

LEVEL 2 – Leadership KINDLES character development by supplementing  LEVEL 1 activity with sponsored regional workshops or online courses that offer skills training and tools.  The mission encourages its workers to include goals that promote personal growth in work plans. Scholarships are made available for personal development.

LEVEL 3 – Leadership FUELS character development by initiating and sustaining a movement within the organization. Actions may include budgeting funds, assigning staff for oversight, and/or reordering organizational structures. In addition, goals that promote personal growth are expected in ministry plans (i.e., personal self-assessments, accountability partners, reading, retreats, etc.).

 

Three Approaches to Building a Soul Care Movement

The end goal of establishing a Soul Care movement is to shape the mission’s culture by establishing a community of like-minded people who are committed to a life-long pursuit of Christ-likeness. Supported by colleagues, missionaries within the movement strive to continually learn and grow and mentor others toward maturity, independent of coaxing or incentives from outside sources.

Three different approaches to launch movements, each representing different levels of intentionality, have been observed. 

First, as part of its ongoing professional development program, one agency offers Soul Care training to regional and local mission leaders via a series of INTERACTIVE WEBINARS. This strategy first asks leaders to put Soul Care into practice and then disseminate the principles to the missionaries under their charge. This approach has both economic and logistical advantages. Furthermore, modeling of the Soul Care lifestyle piques interest and motivates members to learn and practice the principles.  

A second and more intentional approach involves an organizational STRUCTURE CHANGE. By dividing the membership into teams consisting of at least three missionary units each, another agency asks teams to form goals which center on building community and promoting personal growth. Team leaders meet annually for training, and work plans require establishing personal goals reflecting Soul Care values. Changes in organizational structure can be hard to implement, but the advantage is the entire membership is regularly challenged to give attention to personal growth.

The third and final approach to be highlighted here has a strong RETREAT emphasis and integrates four components, namely an annual retreat, local or regional events, mutual accountability, and personal assessments.2 In this case, participation is open to all members in a given area.

The principle objective of retreats is to enable the missionary to step away from the usual hectic pace of ministry to rest, reflect, and interact with co-laborers. During the retreat, each attendee writes (or revises) a personal development plan, a guiding document that includes goals for holistic growth. This plan will be consulted regularly as it guides and tracks the missionary’s intentional growth path for the coming year. 

Between retreats, events are scheduled a couple of times a year by the local or regional Soul Care community. These informal get-togethers will often emphasize one of the major Soul Care tenants: master care, self-care, or mutual care. The most profound and personal communication within this approach is between colleagues who agree on terms for mutual accountability. 

This more comprehensive approach places members in community where personal growth and accountability are regularly emphasized. 

These approaches demonstrate the diversity with which agencies are applying Soul Care principles to develop character within their organizations. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to Soul Care. The right approach for any mission will fit its unique calling, ethos, and circumstances. 

Culture change (that is, a change in ethos of any organization) takes time. From the date of commencement of the more intentional approaches, leadership should expect it will take three to five years to see tangible results and eight to ten years for Soul Care to permeate the organization. By then, the mission will consistently reflect values that promote growth. 

Much of the initial pushback by membership to a Soul Care initiative can be averted by inviting the missionary body to help identify the methods, resources, and tools that would best fit their context before an approach is finalized. 

Catalyzing Soul Care

To catalyze Soul Care within an agency, leadership must consider current organizational realities, assess the resources that could be employed, and think through a course of action for the organization.

Counting the Cost 

Benefits of a Soul Care program must be weighed against the price of implementation and assessed in light of current organizational realities. Timing, funding, and capacity are all critical to a successful launch. 

Funding is always a challenge, but becoming Christ-like is a New Testament mandate, thus a compelling case for support can be developed for potential donors. Today, qualified trainers who are experienced at equipping believers in Soul Care are available, and online resources are being developed.

Resources

As with most new initiatives that require training, one first looks to existing mechanisms or structures within an organization to transmit information. Local and regional gatherings and annual assemblies are already part of most agency calendars and could be considered as convenient settings for initial Soul Care training. Since the vast majority of missionaries have Internet access, equipping and/or follow up could also be provided online. As described above, live webinars have become common for delivering specific content.

Member care and spiritual formation practitioners who may be available to advise agencies on Soul Care include Eva Burkholder (Christar), Alex Galloway (Church Resource Ministries), and Keegan Williamson (Camino Global). In 2010, Camino Global established a Soul Care movement for its missionaries and Latin American leaders called Seek First and Buscad Primero (in Spanish). Seek First and Buscad Primero create a culture in which leaders who are pursuing Christ-likeness support one another in community. 

Suggested Plan for Soul Care Implementation 

Having defined what Soul Care is and explained what is necessary to launch an initiative, a three-step plan for implementation within a mission agency is recommended as follows: 

First, executive leadership must make a formal decision regarding character development using a Soul Care approach and commit to organizational change. 

Second, a point person who will coordinate the effort must be identified and appointed. This person will assist the executive director, or his or her delegate, to implement the initiative and champion the cause.

Finally, resources must be secured. For example, the coordinator needs to mobilize consultants to help plan a strategy, draft funding proposals, identify trainers and materials, and organize tools and events.

Inherent Threats to Agency Character

As we work to advance the collective character of our agency, we must beware of, avoid, and/or eliminate the threats that loom within the missions enterprise today. The first is the pressure to lower entry requirements

Today, there is ever increasing pressure to adjust policies and requirements to ease the entrance of new staff. Many of these changes are appropriate and wise; however, care must be exercised to assure biblical principles regarding God’s leading and spiritual readiness of workers are not compromised in the process. Turning a blind eye to character issues can cost the mission far more than the temporary gains are worth.

Another potential threat to agency character is tolerance for the sinful behavior of our peers. Simply put, agencies often lack the resolve to confront workers biblically. Tolerance for sinful behavior in ourselves or in co-workers squelches personal development and disparages efforts to promote character development. 

The third and possibly most serious threat to agency character is our fear of being vulnerable. We fear revealing our weaknesses and sin to others; therefore, we hide who we are and project a false image. 

Once again, Galloway recommends that from the very beginning, when new staff are brought on, there needs to be an understanding of the issues or struggles they have not as a means of screening, but as a means of knowing how best to join the Lord in the work he’s doing in them. This is a critical connection point for ensuring Soul Care. There needs to be an expectation and organizational culture that everyone is caring for their souls—a task that is impossible on our own. We need people, teaching, and resources to intentionally foster Soul Care.

Conclusion

The character of God’s emissaries plays a critical role in the spread of the gospel. The quality, duration, and scope of ministry of an individual, team, or organization is shaped by the inner workings of the person or group of people as a whole. 

Few emphases will have greater return on investment within an agency than enhancing character development. Soul Care works in sync with God to help grow his people. It stewards the resources with which the organization has been entrusted and solidifies the future of the ministry by providing biblically-grounded leaders to guide it forward. 

God expects us to grow. That which affects our ministry so formidably should be valued and intentionally nurtured. As those who send, equip, and mobilize missionaries, we all need to contemplate how we personally model character development and assess what is being done in our sphere of influence to assure that it remains a priority among all believers, and especially active missionaries.

Endnotes

1. Character consists of one’s unique cognitive, emotional, volitional, and relational virtues. It is the moral and mental features that define a person, whether good or evil. The term also means “moral strength,” which scripture regards as something to be highly valued. It is easier to describe the impact that character has on others than to define the essence of what it is.

2. Seek First/Buscad Primero, a ministry of Camino Global, is a redemptive approach to personal and professional development seeking to build communities of leaders that are committed to remain faithfully engaged in their pursuit of Christ-likeness.  

References

Burkholder, Eva. 2015. Aspire Webinar—Soul Care: Essential for Leadership.

Hoke, Steve. 2014. Leading with a Developmental Bias. Common Ground Journal. Spring:115.

O’Donnell, Kelly, ed. 2002. Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Willard, Dallas 2006.  Personal Soul Care from: The Pastors Guide to Effective Ministry. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press.

Williamson, Keegan. 2009. The Soul Care of Missionary Personnel in CAM International: A Manual for Developing and Leading a Soul Care Training Conference. Doctoral Thesis. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

 . . . .

Dan and Sue Wicher have served under Camino Global as church planters, equippers, and mission mobilizers since 1984. Dan served as president of Camino Global, formerly CAM International, from 2000 through 2011. They are graduates of the State University of New York and Moody Bible Institute. Dan completed graduate work at Columbia International University in 1983, and earned a DMin from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2008. The Wichers currently serve in Madrid, Spain.

EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 3. Copyright  © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  aAll rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

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