Finding our way by developing spiritual fortitude

1001 New Worshiping Communities launches series beginning with the wisdom of experience articulated by the Rev. Dr. Brian McLaren

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Brian McLaren

LOUISVILLE — For church and worshiping community leaders, the Way of Spiritual Fortitude is apparently paved with good intentions, including intending to regularly practice self-care in the midst of long hours doing ministry that can be as demanding as it is draining.

Cue the Rev. Dr. Brian McLaren, an author, speaker, activist and public theologian who spent 24 years as a church planter and taught college English before that. On Wednesday McLaren opened The Way of Spiritual Fortitude, the first of four online seminars put on 1001 New Worshiping Communities and hosted by the Rev. Jeff Eddings, 1001’s associate for coaching and spiritual formation. More than 80 church leaders were in attendance. Watch their conversation here.

“Your work,” McLaren assured those in attendance, “is super close to my heart.”

Eddings got the discussion going using imagery from Martin Laird’s book, “An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation.” Laird posits that each person is a mountain and that everything that happens to us is just so much weather on the mountain. “The mountain has no opinion on what the weather is weathering,” Eddings said, inviting those tuned in to sit for two minutes reflecting on “your own mountain-ness. Remember we are God’s beloved.”

McLaren recalled the early days of his ministry. He was jogging and listening to a cassette tape his Walkman when he heard this statement credited to Abraham Lincoln: Even if I lose every friend on Earth while I’m president, I will still have a friend inside me. A “wave of emotion” overcame McLaren as he heard “a coup d’état” of voices inside him telling he was working so hard he hadn’t been a friend to himself.

Not long after that, his young son received a cancer diagnosis. The boy later made a complete recovery, but after McLaren and his wife got the news, elders from his church plant paid a call. “Brian,” they told him, “your job now is to be there for your son, wife and kids. Do as little as possible for this church. If you don’t take time away from the church, you will be hurting this church and your family and yourself.”

“Ministry can be a workaholic experience,” McLaren said, “and it shouldn’t be.”

A friend and mentor told McLaren to acquire some non-utilitarian friends, people who enjoyed his company and he theirs, people who asked for nothing else in return. “A blessing in my life has been being able to find a couple of friends like that, mostly outside the church,” McLaren said.

The Rev. Jeff Eddings

In his quest to use a term beside self-care, Eddings came up with spiritual fortitude, which he defined as “the mental, emotional and spiritual strength to bear pain and encounter adversity or temptation with courage by nurturing resilient spiritual practices where we learn to love ourselves, that we may then love and care for others.”

“We aren’t just here as servants of a congregation. We actually matter too,” McLaren told the leaders in attendance. “If we are preaching abundant life for others, we have to make sure we are experiencing that too.”


“Let’s bring Jesus into the conversation,” Eddings suggested. Jesus issued multiple calls for his followers: Pick up your cross and follow me, leave everybody and everything behind — “and there’s this invitation to abundant life,” Eddings said. “It feels like a tension to me.”

One problem, McLaren responded, is “we hear too many preachers selecting certain parts of the gospel and leaving other parts out.” The people closest to Jesus worried about his mental health, McLaren said. On other occasions, “there are times when Jesus has the least amount of messianic complex you can imagine. Everyone is looking for him, and he’s away in solitude, getting away from the expectations of others.”

“Jesus gives us permission to be very human,” McLaren said. “There are seasons when life is very hard, and there are seasons when we can get the heck out of Dodge and be good to ourselves and take care of ourselves.”

Jesus assesses what he needs, McLaren said. In Mark 1:35, Jesus arises early one morning, heads to a deserted place, and starts praying. “We may hear about that and think, ‘Oh no! That’s something else I fail at,” McLaren said. On other occasions, Jesus would work from early morning to late at night, concluding, “This isn’t draining me. It’s filling me,” according to McLaren.

“Sabbath is a commandment that made the top 10,” Eddings said. “We don’t do that well.”

McLaren recalled a diagram offered by the late pastor and philosopher the Rev. Dr. Dallas Willard. The diagram included a small circle inside a larger circle. Both were surrounded by a large egg.

The egg is one’s life, McLaren said. The larger circle represents ministry and the smaller circle is one’s job, which is what we get paid for. “Almost all of us have a ministry larger than our job,” McLaren said. The egg is all the rest — our marriage and family, our friendships and hobbies. The problem comes when the smallest circle, our job, takes over first our ministry and then our life. “If you live this way, it will be bad for your church,” McLaren said. “You’re over-functioning.”

Each of us must “give ourselves permission to be a growing Christian,” McLaren said. “One thing to say is, ‘My theology is changing.’ That can be a hard place to be when you are a pastor. They expect you to have it all together, or you expect that.”

In a question-and-answer session following the conversation, McLaren discussed his next book, “Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned.” The book will be published in May 2022.

“We are to the point,” McLaren said, “where Christianity is doing some nefarious things in some of its forms. White supremacy has been the standard operating procedure in which American Christianity has been conducted.” The book will offer “reasons to break up with Christianity,” as well as reasons to stay. It concludes with “how are you going to live?” McLaren said.

Therese Taylor Stinson

“Our job is not to get back to the 1950s or 1980s,” McLaren said, naming eras some cite as golden eras for the Christian faith in this country. “Our job is to face reality.”

Eddings added this thought: “My hope is we can begin to learn to be a friend to ourself so we can follow Jesus more faithfully.”

At 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Oct. 27, Therese Taylor Stinson will be featured during the second installment of The Way of Spiritual Fortitude. Taylor Stinson will speak on contemplative spirituality. Register here.

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