Holistic Formation

“Holistic Formation” is a term used to describe the growth and transformation that is needed in the lives of spiritual leaders in order to have healthy personal lives, family lives, and ministry lives. It involves focusing on the following areas in a way that all are integrated and none are ignored or neglected:

Click on the circles below to find out more info on the specific type of formation.

Holistic Formation

Spiritual Formation (Heart)

Missional Formation (Will)

Relational Formation (Social)

Emotional Formation (Feelings)

Mental Formation (Mind)

Physical Formation (Body)

The Whole Leader

The problem of formation is both simple and complicated to understand. In its simplicity, this issue continually manifests itself as the church at large in North America is in decline and struggles to reach its surrounding culture. It is our view that this decline is directly related to the lack of formation in the lives of leaders. Leaders must have something to give, and the less formation that takes place in their lives, the less they will have to give. The problem becomes more complicated when dealing with specific areas of formation that are lacking or absent, for this can be different for each and every leader. The strength of formation, however, comes not from a mere understanding of different areas in which we are formed, but seeing all of these areas integrated and functioning in the life of a leader. This is what is meant by “holistic formation.”

The concept of holistic formation is a distinct approach which differs from more traditional forms of discipleship training, leadership development, therapeutic intervention, or change management. Actually, holistic formation can be a synthesis and redefinition of the best parts of several approaches to growth and change. There is no shortage of resources today addressing needs that a spiritual leader might be experiencing. What is lacking, however, is an integrated approach that exposes un-health and develops the potential for more complete change and growth. It is far more common to find approaches to change that focus on one or two issues at best, and naively or even intentionally ignore the impact that other areas might have on the issues being examined.

We need to begin with a basic understanding of some definitions. The designation “holistic” has become increasingly popular over the past decade. It is an adjective relating to “holism,” emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. It is characteristically concerned with wholes rather than analysis or separation into parts.This adjective is also used in highlighting the organic or functional relation between parts and the whole. Today there are holistic approaches to many aspects of life and health. While fields such as education and medicine have been considering or dabbling in more holistic directions for quite some time, it has been rare to find this same commitment in the church or in areas of spirituality and leadership. “Formation” is the act of giving form or shape to anything; a forming; a shaping. Of particular focus is the manner in which a thing is formed; its structure; its construction; the conformation that takes place; and the form that results; as, the peculiar formation of the heart.

The intense need for a holistic formation is being felt in many spheres and arenas. For many years pastors and other church leaders have been wandering deeper and deeper into a segregated wilderness, rampant with the wild beasts of modernity and the dangers of reductionistic methods and models. More recently, cries for something more have begun to raise up and be heard in the larger context of spiritual leadership. Books are being written that address formation in new and more integrated ways. There is a renewed interest in Hebrew or eastern approaches to learning and education which, by their very nature, take more holistic approaches. Some churches are moving away from the standard fare of functioning as purveyors of religious goods and services. Christians, disillusioned with a church that seems more concerned with its growth than their growth, are seeking alternative approaches to spirituality, healing, community, and mission.

In the area of spiritual formation, authors and mentors such as Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and Eugene Petersen are providing holistic perspectives and offering well-balanced insights. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard examines the six basic aspects of a human life: thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences), feeling (sensation, emotion), choice (will, decision, character), body (action, interaction with the physical world), social context (personal and structural relations to others), and soul (the factor that integrates all of the others to form one life). In what he has called the single most important truth in the book Willard states:

It is the central point of this book that spiritual transformation only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of grace from God. Such transformation is not the result of mere human effort and cannot be accomplished by putting pressure on the will (heart, spirit) alone.

It is clear that to Willard “each essential dimension of the human being” is important and all are involved in the process of spiritual transformation. Another example of a holistic cry comes through the writings of Richard Foster. In his book Streams of Living Water, Foster explores six great traditions of the Christian faith: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and incarnational. This moves in a direction of kingdom focus and away from the segregated traditions which typically characterize various denominations, tribes, and associations of churches.

In the area of emotional formation, a passion for holistic understanding can be seen in new approaches to counseling and inner healing. Professional therapists and psychologists used to corner the market in the realm of “soul work” and dealing with emotional issues. Today, there is strong movement into areas such as spiritual direction and the importance of relationships to emotional healing. One example is Christian psychologist Larry Crabb who has moved in a direction asserting that spiritual direction can replace standard therapeutic models and methods. In integrating the emotional with the spiritual, Crabb wants Christian counselors to recognize that “what lies at the root of a person’s non-organic struggles is the lack of experienced communion with God.” A movement away from symptomatic solutions toward more integrated systems approaches can be experienced in both personal and corporate areas dealing with emotional and relational formation.

One of the strongest cries coming out of the emerging postmodern generations is the cry for relational formation. Divorced from other areas of life formation, relational drive can lead one into areas of enmeshment, codependency, transference, and many other relational pathologies that leave a person in a worse state than what existed before. Holistic approaches to relational formation provide the context for balanced growth in all areas of life. One example of a holistic relational approach is participation in holistic small groups. International researcher Christian Schwarz discovered that for life in small groups to have a positive effect on both quality and numerical growth within a church “they must be holistic groups which go beyond just discussing Bible passages to applying its message to daily life. In these groups, members are able to bring up those issues and questions that are immediate personal concerns. Holistic small groups are the natural place for Christians to learn to serve others – both in and outside the group – with their spiritual gifts.” Hence, holistic groups become not only the environment for relationships to be established, but the place for emotional process to take place through relational sharing, and missional involvement to become a reality through serving and using spiritual gifts. The integration of all of these will hopefully result in spiritual transformation in the lives of those involved.

In mental formation, we come to see how powerful and influential our mind really is. For the way we think about things, impacts all of our other bodily responses and reactions. This is of most importance in the way we think about God, and how often God is present in our thinking. For if we have wrong thoughts about God, it will produce wrong responses in our lives. And to the extent God is present in out thinking, we can say that our mind is being formed toward greater Christ-likeness. Our mental formation is also our greatest defense against the sinful tendencies that wage war within our bodies.

We must also pay attention to our bodies, for they are the personalized power packs that God has given us to serve him. Thus, our physical formation is not to be taken lightly. Followers of Jesus who might never think of putting garbage into their minds, are too quick to ignore and neglect that trash that goes into our bodies. There is a contemporary Gnosticism that takes place when we ignore our bodies as something less than spiritual. This neglect most often takes place in not getting sufficient rest, poor nutritional habits, and lack of proper exercise. A commitment to holistic formation means that we see how important our bodies are in allowing us to live the life that Jesus intended for his followers. The greater our physical formation, the more normal and natural this becomes.

Missional formation might seem somewhat more elusive, as involvement in mission has traditionally been relegated to a task as opposed to a means of personal spiritual transformation. Thanks to growing movements such as the Gospel in Our Culture Network,missional formation is becoming actively integrated into the life of the church and individual followers of Jesus. The Gospel and Our Culture Network has two fundamental aims: to provide useful research regarding the encounter between the gospel and our culture, and to encourage local action for transformation in the life and witness of the church. This type of transformation cannot take place in the life and witness of the church without growth and understanding in other areas of formation. For the gospel to truly penetrate culture with the power and authority Jesus instilled in it requires that this gospel touch every area of life in ways that its transformational power and presence are unmistakably obvious.

It is important to both understand and feel the sense with which the tide is rising. Narrowly focused approaches to life and ministry have left both the church and its leaders in places of confusion and disillusionment. A movement toward holistic integration, even in its most basic forms and understanding, can begin to prepare spiritual leaders to surf the waves of the rising tide and at the same time become positive sources of influence in the lives of those they lead.

So what is meant by “holistic integration?” As defined earlier, “holistic” emphasizes the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts. It is a way of looking at life and reality that is more concerned with wholes rather than an analysis or separation into parts. In a psychological sense, “integration” is “the organization of the psychological or social traits and tendencies of a personality into a harmonious whole.” It is also “the act or process of making whole or entire.   The challenge of integration is a large one. The challenge is comparable to a puzzle where one is not able to assemble the pieces because they all look the same. Holistic formation is helpful here because the various pieces are, in fact, very different.

Dallas Willard states that “the whole person, and the various basic dimensions of the human self are not separable parts. They are aspects thoroughly intermingled with each other in their natures and in their actions.” Hence, it is crucial to understand that these dimensions of the human self (spiritual, emotional, relational, mental, physical, and missional) are not separable and are intertwined with each other.

In a certain sense, holistic integration is an oxymoron. That which is “holistic” stresses the whole and cannot even exist without the parts being present. “Integration” assumes that two or more parts can be brought together, and thus tends to emphasize the parts. In certain instances, the higher the need for some form of integration, the less chance it will might have of being holistic, because there has been so much focus on one or a few areas of formation to the exclusion of others. In an holistic approach, the whole requires that all the parts be present. So there is an inherent tension in the concept.

It is a common assumption today that there can be formation in incomplete form. Both spiritual leaders and followers of Jesus need to see the vision of their wholeness in him. Once again, Willard helps to explain this dynamic when he says:

The first main element in the transformed social dimension is for individuals to come to see themselves whole, as God sees them. Such a vision sets them beyond the wounds and limitations they have received in their past relationships to others. It is this vision of oneself from God’s point of view that makes it possible to regard oneself as blessed, no matter what has happened . . . Our life in him is whole and it is blessed, no matter what has or has not been done to us, no matter how shamefully our human circles of sufficiency have been violated.

One cannot be a spiritual leader if he or she restricts the ministry just to the spiritual life. Many years ago, pastors ministered to the whole person, but ministry today has since taken on a very narrow focus. Many spiritual leaders have taken on the role of “specialists,” focusing more on skill sets and business type ministry. Pastors are called to minister to the whole person – spiritual, emotional, relational, mental, physical, and missional. Donald Hands and Wayne Fehr founded the St. Barnabas treatment program, an ecumenical hospital community where the clinical and spiritual are integrated. In their book Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy, they draw on their experience as ministers combined with over ten-thousand hours of group and individual spiritual direction and psychotherapy to over three-hundred clergy with emotional and addictive disorders. In the final chapter of their book titled “Toward Healthy Integration,” they describe what an emotionally healthy spirituality for clergy looks like. It involves an integration of the several areas dealt with in their book: intimacy with self (emotional formation), interpersonal intimacy (relational formation), and intimacy with God (spiritual formation), all in the context of the church’s mission to a suffering world (missional formation).

One of the most effective ways to view integration is see it as the pursuit of “wholeness.” Each of the areas of formation under examination has a commitment toward wholeness. In spiritual formation, God desires the wholeness the people he created as sin is effectively dealt with and grace is applied to the life of spiritual leaders and offered to those they lead. Wholeness gradually becomes a reality as people continue on a pilgrimage toward becoming like Christ, applying spiritual disciplines for the purpose of learning and experiencing greater wholeness. In emotional formation, integration is psychotherapeutic language for the journey toward wholeness that all are invited to take through self-examination and experiences in counseling. In relational formation, wholeness is both the purpose for and the result of moving out of isolation into authentic spiritual friendships with others who, in a sense, complete the unfinished parts of oneself. In mental formation, wholeness is the result of a mind that is renewed and focused on an accurate understanding and passion for who God is, what he has said, and how the power contained in his word is able to transform are very actions as we live out this wholeness day to day. In physical formation, we learn to submit out fallen human bodies to the principles that God put into place such as proper rest, nutrition, and exercise. As we are stewards of our bodies, God is able to use them with greater effectiveness and we live literally in a bodily wholeness that is incarnational. In missional formation, the purpose of the gospel is understood to create wholeness. As people are encouraged to live in the reality of the kingdom of God, they are being urged to both live their lives in wholeness and to make this message of wholeness available to others.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition [book on-line] (Houghton Mifflin Company, accessed 22 March 2003)  available from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q= holistic; Internet.

WordNet  1.6 (Princeton University, 1997, accessed 22 March 2003) available from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=holistic; Internet.

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary [book on-line] (MICRA, Inc., 1998, accessed 23 March 2003) available from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=formation; Internet.

Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2002), 41.

Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998).

Agnieszka Tennant, “A Shrink Gets Stretched – Why psychologist Larry Crabb believes spiritual direction should replace therapy” (Christianity Today, May 2003): 58.

For example see Henry Cloud, Changes That Heal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).

For example see Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation – Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985).

Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development (Carol Stream, IL: ChurchSmart Resources, 1996), 32.

See www.gocn.org.

From http://www.gocn.org/about.htm; accessed 17 June 2003; Internet.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fourth Edition [book on-line] (Houghton Mifflin Company, accessed 15 January 2004) available from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q= integration; Internet.

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, [book on-line] (MICRA, Inc., 1998, accessed online 15 January 2004) available from http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=integration; Internet.

Ibid, 34.

Willard, Renovation, 194.

Hands and Fehr, 66-68.

Also Read:

By Michael Bischof:

Beyond Spiritual Formation: How Holistic Formation Counters Consumer Christianity
How to Be “Perfect”


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