Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Can Contemporary Leaders Endure the Crucible of Isolation?

Written by: on March 2, 2017

Shelley Trebesch—Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader



Shelley Trebesch’s expertise in organizational leadership development is reflected in her professorship at Fuller Theological Seminary, and her role as consultant, mentor, and seminar leader to Christian organizations around the world. In this work, she demonstrates the necessity for Christian leaders to experience periods of isolation focused on God, allowing Him to shape and transform their lives, their ministries, and their relationship to Himself.


Trebesch defines the isolation process in Christian leadership development as, “The setting aside of a leader from normal ministry involvement in its natural context usually for an extended time in order to experience God in a new or different way.” [1]  She identifies two basic ways isolation experiences are initiated—voluntarily or involuntarily. “Voluntary Isolation refers to isolation experiences which are basically expected, which happen to a leader by his or her choice, which the leader usually has some control over and which usually involve expected shaping activities.” [2]   Leaders may opt to enter voluntary isolation as a “self-choice for renewal; self-choice for education or training; or self-choice for social base purposes in which the presence of God is practiced in the mundane routines of the day.” [3]   “Involuntary Isolation refers to isolation experiences which are basically unexpected, which happen to a leader not by his or her choice, which the leader usually had little or no control over and which usually involve negative shaping activities, ” [4] such as “sickness or injury; imprisonment; organizational discipline; and war or natural disasters.” [5]

During voluntary and involuntary isolation, Trebesch relates, “leaders undergo four processes: stripping; wrestling with God; increased intimacy wit God; and release for the future.” [6]   Stripping the leader of their ministry identity is usually the first step in the isolation process. Trebesch asserts that “The Lord removes the various identities that ministry places upon a leader and strips the leader down to the core of who he or she has been created to be, the identity the Lord places in him or her.” [7] The stripping process uncovers the leader’s deep need for God as they question their values and who they are.  For leaders who are willing to go through this process, an honest wrestling with God occurs next.

In the wrestling state, leaders turn to God for answers to their identity questions.  They realize that all life culminates in an honest, intimate, relationship with God. “During this time God affirms leaders for who He has created them to be, not for what they can accomplish in ministry. This severs the ties to having identity through successful ministry, and leaders realize satisfaction in being in the presence and loving arms of Jesus.” [8] For a Release to look toward the future one must wait until God leads him or her out of isolation, so as not to hinder the refining/transforming process.  At the proper time, the Holy Spirit permits exit from the isolation period and a return to ministry.

According to Tresbesch, “Isolation produces three kinds of transformation: (1) inward transformation; (2) spiritual transformation; (3) ministerial transformation.” [9] Leaders undergo inward transformation through the brokenness experienced in isolation.  Spiritual Transformation is evidenced in leaders who have a deeper, more intimate relationship with God and engage in life and ministry with true spiritual authority.   Ministerial Transformation results in leaders who listen to the voice of God and trust God’s leading in the isolation process.  “These transformed leaders turn to the true Source and Sustainer of ministry—Jesus Christ—trusting in His creativity to inspire effective fruitful ministry.” [10]


This small book offers a wealth of information about staying attuned to God’s purposes. It  reminds leaders that the sovereign God is in charge of all ministry. He molds, shapes, and transforms leaders to be all that He created them to be to carry out His agenda in ministry and not their own.  He sometimes has to place leaders in the crucible of isolation to refine and transform them and rid them of the dross that hampers His ministry manifested by human leaders.

The practical value of this book for leaders is Trebesch’s assumption that 95 percent of leaders will likely experience a season of isolation; it has happened to leaders in the Bible and throughout history. So, Trebesch has done a thorough job in preparing leaders for its occurrence by providing them with the tools to understand its purpose and process.  It is essential to know that God is behind the isolation process and He will empower leaders during the difficulties of isolation and bring them out of it in due season. The primary purpose for the isolation process is for leaders to develop a deeper relationship of intimacy with God and be transformed by Him as He frees them from the things that prevent them from being all they were created to be.

Additionally, Trebesch informs leaders how to heighten their development in isolation, by being proactive in embracing all that God has for them while in isolation.  That means determining in advance to go deep with God and know His purposes during isolation. It entails being honest with God regarding the burning questions of the heart during seasons of isolation. Examining motivations for ministry and barriers to its fruition.  Trebesch advises leaders to also, “Use the isolation period to reflect on your spiritual gifts and natural abilities—Who is God creating you to be as a leader?” [11] She encourages leaders to go deep into God’s Word and reflect on who He is.  Listen for the voice of God. Be aware of God’s presence continually and have hope in Him. She emphasizes that it is important to seek God and seek transformation while in isolation.  Set goals for personal growth and spirituality while in isolation.  Trebesch’s book is valuable for all leaders sincerely seeking God’s transformation in their lives and ministry.


  1. Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader (Altadena, CA.: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 10.
  2. Ibid., 32.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 30.
  5. Ibid., 31.
  6. Ibid., viii.
  7. Ibid., 36.
  8. Ibid., 42.
  9. Ibid., 49.
  10. Ibid., 54.
  11. Ibid., 59.



About the Author

Claire Appiah

10 responses to “Can Contemporary Leaders Endure the Crucible of Isolation?”

  1. Does this book help you look back at your own history at all? If so how?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Trebesch provides a very thorough and realistic account of the isolation process in this book. Therefore, it definitely helps me to look back at my own experiences in isolation. I concur with everything she says about the purpose, process, and end result of the isolation experience. In this book, Tresbech highlights the conclusions that the Holy Spirit had already revealed to me about isolation experiences and He continues to expand on those revelations as time goes by.

  2. Pablo Morales says:

    You presented a detailed summary of the book. I was left wondering, how did the book speak to you as a leader?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Thanks for your question about how the book speaks to me as a leader. Trebesch’s book made me realize that isolation experiences are natural phenomena for leadership. It comes with the territory so to speak. Rather than trying to avoid them or get out of them prematurely, it is vitally important that I embrace the experience humbly as God ordained for His purposes of perfecting, correcting, equipping, and transforming me for service that meets His standards and is in accord with His agenda. Perhaps by choosing voluntary isolation from time to time, there might be less cause for God to take me into an excruciating period of involuntary isolation. What do you think?

  3. Marc Andresen says:


    Since isolation often involves pain, why do you think God chooses to work in our lives in this way?

    Is there one thing you can share that God has done in/for you in a time of isolation?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      You note that pain is a component of the isolation process and ask why I think God works in this way? I think there is a natural human tendency to draw near to God or call out to God when we are in pain or a crisis. (Remember during the height of the 911 crisis, how Americans acknowledged God and sought His blessings for America) God usually gets our full attention under those circumstances and we invariably develop utter dependence upon Him. I think part of the pain of isolation is when God reveals to us who we really are from His perspective, not the persona we portray to the world or believe ourselves. That is a painful experience we cannot endure to remain in; we are humbled. We desire to draw closer to God, to hear His voice, to understand how and why He wants to transform us. We desire our lives and ministries to conform to His ways and agenda.

      After undergoing the four stages of stripping, wrestling with God, increased intimacy with God, and the release toward the future in my greatest period of isolation, the net result was spiritual revelation, transformation, and empowerment. A heightened love for God and His values/laws lead me to stricter obedience in everything He mandates. Being involved with ministry was not even on the radar at that time. But, the cumulative impact of that experience was so great that I am presently in this Dmin program to prepare myself for the service He created me to do.

  4. Claire,

    Thanks for your insight. How have you been able to grow within isolation? Staying Christ centered and growing even though being alone is difficult, so what have you learned?

    How have you heightened your relationship with God during these moments when it is not easy? Have you ever seen where people don’t make it out of the time of isolation?

    Last but not least the author pointed to the importance of staying in community even though in isolation. I believe this community of higher education has been very helpful in doing that for me. Has community helped you through isolation in the past?

    Thanks again for your insight and thoughts.


    • Claire Appiah says:

      Thanks for replying to my blog with these serious considerations.
      My first and greatest period of isolation occurred a short time after I became a Christian. How I grew in isolation was from making a lot of mistakes. Instead of being Christ-centered, I was self-centered, on the magnitude of my personal problems. Instead of considering what God wanted me to get out of the isolation experience, I focused on what I wanted God to do to get me out of the experience. I eventually began to doubt the Bible and everything I learned about the Christian faith. I was something like those cross-pressured individuals Taylor speaks of in Secular Age. I was not embracing Christian theology, but at the same time I could not go back to a completely former state of unbelief. However, I continued to read my Bible, listen to Christian radio, and attend a church occasionally. Seeking to know God and His purposes in my life, desiring to be obedient to His ways, and to have an intimate relationship with Him was sufficient for the Holy Spirit to “enlighten my understanding” and set the stage for my spiritual transformation and eventual release from isolation. What I’m finding out is that this transformation and enlightenment are ongoing processes throughout life—in and out of isolation.

      Yes, I have seen people who did not make it out of the time of isolation. They appear to be bitter towards fellow humans and God. For most of them and for me, community has not been helpful in a time of isolation. I was at a place in life that I had to rely totally on God for everything and not look to humans for anything. What God had to reinforce for my understanding in insolation is that He is a sovereign God. He created all things and controls all things; everything and everyone is subject to Him. My duty is to approach God in a spirit of humility and submission; to understand His purposes for my life and ministry through an intimate relationship with Him; and to obey Him in all that He ordains and commands me to do.

  5. Phil Goldsberry says:


    You hit a thread that I have asked others in the cohort, let me quote something you said:

    “That means determining in advance to go deep with God and know His purposes during isolation. It entails being honest with God regarding the burning questions of the heart during seasons of isolation.”

    How do we prepare ourselves and how do we prepare others to be in the right frame of mind BEFORE the isolation? On a couple of my personal isolation journeys, I was at a good spot with God but they still caught me by surprise.


    • Claire Appiah says:

      Thanks for your question about how we can prepare ourselves and teach others about being in the right frame of mind BEFORE the isolation. The thing about involuntary isolation is that we don’t often see it on the horizon of our experiences; they come unexpectedly and are generally beyond our control. Therefore, we need to prepare ourselves and others in advance by learning all we can about the isolation process that God ordains to bring about spiritual transformation and refinement. We need to understand its potential emotional, psychological, and spiritual impact—that it may be excruciatingly painful, but God enables us to successfully get through it to accomplish His ends for the journey. We need always to stay humble and close to God, obey His voice, and seek to understand what He is teaching us about what He created us for, and then to embrace the isolation experience when it comes. “To be forewarned is to be forearmed,” that is, we stay in a preparatory mode.

Leave a Reply