“Slow down and pay attention”: Sounds like something we can remember our elementary-school teachers saying, or maybe our parents when they were teaching us to drive. But in a fast-paced society filled with distractions and obsessed with instant gratification, it might just help point the way to spiritual renewal.
That’s what Bart Scarborough thinks, anyway. And as founders of Ancient Way Farm, a retreat in Ellerslie, Georgia, he and his wife Victoria have created a place where church leaders, as well as those not employed in ministry, can find the peace and stillness conducive to spiritual formation, free of both the distractions of the outside world and the pressures of leading a congregation.
Scarborough knows those pressures because he experienced them himself for 25 years as a staffer with the Christian organization Young Life. When the pace and stress of work began taking a heavy mental and physical toll, he and his family decided to do a “reset,” spending more than a year touring the country in an RV, reading and reinforcing their familial bonds. Being able to unplug and both live and pray at their own pace guided the Scarboroughs to their new mission—giving other stressed-out ministers the chance to find similar peace and serenity, for at least a few days at a time.
“It came from being on the road and reflecting on our life and story,” Bart says, “but it also came from remembering friends we had known and stories we’d heard of famous people in ministry who’d fallen away from the Lord, and thinking, ‘Man oh man, I wonder if there’d been a place where they wouldn’t have burned out, would they still be in this situation today?’ ” The decision wasn’t an easy one, just as their decision to put their lives and careers on hold for their RV sabbatical hadn’t been, either. “But the Lord is the one who made it very clear—he just kept opening doors and opening doors and opening doors.”
What does restoration mean to you?
The first thing that comes to my mind is John 15, where Jesus tells us to abide in Him. But I love Eugene Peterson’s translation, where he says that word “abide” means making your home in God’s love. To me, restoration is that idea of making our home in God—making our home in His love, allowing God to restore our souls.
Talk a little about the life experiences that guided you on the path you’ve taken.
Being in vocational ministry for a quarter of a century, I had seen a lot of others experience—and had experienced myself—a lot of the burnout, the hustle and bustle, the highs and lows that a lot of folks both inside and outside of ministry were dealing with. Maybe it’s just part of trying to stay sane in this crazy, busy world. And I’d seen a lot of people fall away from the faith, fall way from their first love.
We really left the staff at Young Life because I was having some memory issues. Like two years of my life, all of a sudden my memory was gone. I couldn’t remember conversations—if you called me and said, ”Let’s talk about such-and-such,” a week later I wouldn’t even remembered that we’d talked to each other. So we just decided that we needed an extended sabbatical, a year’s leave of absence or something. We sold our home and our cars, and we bought an RV and we traveled around the country for 16 months. We saw 48 states, 27 national parks, we went to Mexico, we went to Canada, we read a bunch of books out loud together as a family—the idea was to pull together, unplug, get off the grid for a little while, and “reset” as a family. And that’s what we did, and it was the best thing we’ve ever done. It was just so good for our souls, so good for our marriage, our family, it even helped my memory.
But as we were doing that, early on in our journeys, we just felt the Lord really putting this idea on our hearts: What if we had a place where people could come and unplug for a bit, a place where people could come and follow Psalms 46:10—where they could “be still and know that He is God”? What if we could have a place where people could receive restoration, they could slow down enough to listen and pay attention to the God who loves them?
We tend to want to think of people in the ministry and the clergy as people who are very happy, who love what they do, and we don’t like to think of people getting “burned out on the Lord”—but ministry can be a very pressure-packed, competitive field, just like everything else these days.
And that’s why we felt equipped to do this work, because we’d been there. We realized people in ministry are some of the loneliest people, because everyone thinks they’ve got their act together, they can’t have any problems, they’re so holy and godly and all these things. But that’s just hogwash—we’re people too, and we struggle with all the same things. It’s just that you feel like you can’t ever talk about it, you can’t be real about it, you can’t confess those things to anybody. There aren’t many safe places for people in ministry to “fess up.”
How is Ancient Way Farm a response to that? What do you see as your mission?
It comes from Jeremiah 6:16: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and then you will find rest for your souls.” Rest for your soul, doesn’t that sound good? That verse had kind of been our family verse for a few years, and as we were thinking more and more about this next venture, that verse made us decide, “OK, I think this is what we can do.” We can try to encourage people to stop for a minute, look, pay attention, be observant, ask for the ancient way, ask for the old way—and we’re really kind of saying that’s the way of Jesus.
What we’re trying to do is maybe remind people, or tell them for the first time, that Jesus had this really healthy rhythm. We see it all the time in scripture: The whole town is gathered at His door and He’s healing everyone—He’s really giving his life away. But then the next day He’s gone off to the mountaintop to be with the Father. Or He’s going to the olive grove, to the desert, just to refresh so that He can have strength for the next group of people. It’s a healthy rhythm, but in our culture, we have decided, “No, we are limitless, we can just go nonstop.” But that’s not how we were designed, and it’s not how Jesus modeled living. We want people to stop and pay attention to Jesus’ life, and then to walk in that path, not run around like a chicken with your head cut off. Then you will find rest for your souls. That kind of rhythm, slowing down and paying attention, is really the idea that got the ministry started.
That idea of emphasizing quietness and solitude really does run counter to how many of us live our lives these days. Everything is so busy and chaotic and pressure-packed, and even when you’re trying to find quiet moments with God, you find prayer having to compete with a lot of other things.
It is very hard. Our culture certainly doesn’t look favorably on rest, stillness, quiet, listening, paying attention—those things are kind of foreign, maybe even “Eastern-sounding” or something. That’s not what we do here in America. But again, those aren’t Eastern ideas, those are Jesus’ ideas. Figuring out how to begin to implement those kinds of things in our Western lifestyle is one of the things that we talk about and do here at Ancient Way Farm.
You’ve talked about giving people “tools” to take away with them to continue their spiritual growth. Describe some of the things you talk about with them.
One of the things we talk about is that, as a ministry, we want to be intentionally small so that we can be really intentionally relational with each guest. So it’s almost like every retreat is different, every retreat is really personal and unique. Every retreat is individualized for that specific person and the needs they’re coming with. Some folks really long for a couple days of solitude, and we’ll be engaged with them but not see them much; some retreatants will really want some spiritual conversations, and they’ll have a lot of deep questions that they’re just wanting a spiritual friend to talk about with. But maybe our “sweet spot” is having a combination of those things, plus some other spiritual formation practices—things like slow readings of the scripture together, taking walks, having times of directed prayer. There are different practices of spiritual formation, of growing in our “Christ-likeness,” that we can do with folks. But really it depends on who’s coming and what they’ve got brewing under the surface, and a lot of times we don’t know that until they arrive.
Even the smaller, individualized mission of your ministry goes against a lot of what’s become standard or customary in this country. Everything’s got to be bigger and better, and when you see a megachurch on every corner, consciously or subconsciously, it starts to give you this idea that you’re not really communing with the Lord unless you’re doing it with 5,000 other people.
My wife gave me a little card with this quote: “The life of the soul is a slow growth.” That’s not to take away from the community and the corporate worship and those kinds of things, but we often we think we need to have a big mega-splashy thing that’s going to affect a whole bunch of people. At Ancient Way we tend to be on the opposite end of that spectrum, thinking that it’s a slow growth and that individualistic kind of time is so important.
On our website, I think it even says one of our principles is we have no growth goals—our growth goal is we want to see the kingdom of God grown up in people’s lives. That’s our growth goal, not the more American kind of growth idea where you want to be as big as possible.