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

I’d Rather be Fishing!

Written by: on February 7, 2018

The photo you see is the “real” Jim Sabella. I am one who gains their energy and refreshing in times of quiet isolation. That’s one reason why I prefer, for example, fly fishing in the Owyhee river over fly fishing the Delaware River. Both are beautiful in their own way. The Delaware rises from the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York where it gains width and speed as it travels south. It is wide and tree-lined. It is gorgeous and a classic northeast river, but one in which you are never far from people or civilization.

In contrast, when you drive into the valley (west of Bosie, just on the Oregon border ) through which the Owyhee river flows, you enter an other-worldly place. The stark hills lead down to the sage-covered flats that lead to a jewel of a river winding through the rock-filled landscape. Compared to the Delaware, at this point the Owyhee is a small stream; but the beauty of its red, yellow, amber, turquoise, and black landscape is unequaled. Not to mention there is no cell phone signal and few people. It is as if God pressed his thumb into the earth, it’s ridged imprint creating the mountains that guide the flow of water. A place where you can wander alone, following the rhythm of the day and the cast, and allow the quiet and healing isolation from a world gone crazy to recharge your battery.


Ministry is filled with demands— some of them crazy. It can seem as if the battery that keeps you going can become depleted without warning. There are regular or not so regular quick charges and a boost here and there, but a full charge is what is needed but seldom realized. After all, the world is filled with problems that need solving, and I am the problem solver! Many leaders do not realize or will not admit that the drive that makes them a good leader is the same drive that can hurt them. The reflexive response to a leader facing an empty battery is either: it will never happen to me, or I will recharge when I have the time. For a busy leader, the recharging is often not realized until they find themselves in what Shelley Trebesch calls involuntary isolation. [1] For Trebesch, both the result and solution to an empty battery is isolation. With this understanding, Trebesch concludes that isolation will sooner or later happen to all leaders. To put it another way, isolation will happen one way or the other— by choice or by crisis, one voluntary one involuntary. [2] For isolation is the place of transformation in the life of a leader. It is the place of stripping away of the outer shell, a wrestling, increased intimacy and a healthier look toward the future. [3]

In Isolation—A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, Trebesch delineates three types of transformation that take place in isolation: inward, spiritual and ministerial. [4] These three are the core of the leader’s life and leadership and overlap in a way that one impacts the other. That transformational isolation touches each of these core areas makes it even more important in the leader’s life and leadership. Of course, there can be no transformation without seeing oneself as we really are. Not unlike an old piece of furniture that is stripped of its layers of paint until it reaches the beautiful wood from which it was created. As in the case of the old furniture, the coats of paint are often applied to cover, blemishes, stains, and cracks. Sometimes a coat of paint is an attempt to hide structurally severe problems. The times of isolation are the moments where God can strip away the many layers and get to the beauty that makes the leader who they are.

Though the transforming power of isolation applies to all leaders, I think that it is particularly applicable to middle leaders. Middle leaders often serve in complex organizational ambiguity where they are both follower and leader. In their leadership position, they must carry out a broader corporate vision within stratified layers of an organizational structure. The complexity of the middle leader’s position places them on both sides of the leadership equation where they must navigate relationships with the leaders above them and also the people they lead. They often have fewer resources at their disposal and even less “power-of-position.” They frequently must lead with influence only and make decisions that range from simple to complicated, complex to chaotic. [5] In this way, their role, function, and purpose often overlap and set the stage for working in a mix of ambiguity where success is difficult to quantify, making middle leadership a position of unequaled pressure within an organization. In this leadership context, the need for purposeful and transformational isolation is more important than ever, and Trebesch is an excellent source.

Though Trebesch is calling for more than just a fishing trip, the fishing trip may be the beginning of a voluntary isolation that prevents the involuntary option from taking place. And so, instead of feeling guilty about saying, “I’d rather be fishing” Trebesch helps the leader to see the wisdom in both the speaking and the doing.


  1. Trebesch, Shelley G. Isolation–a Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader. VistaGroup Consulting, 1997, 73.
  2. Ibid., 30-32.
  3. Ibid., 38-42.
  4. Ibid., 49.
  5. Snowden, David, and Mary Boone. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.” (2007): https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making (accessed Jan 30, 2018).

About the Author

Jim Sabella

13 responses to “I’d Rather be Fishing!”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Ahhh Jim. You made me want to take up fly fishing. The experience sounds exquisite as you wander through nature admiring God’s creation. Like you, I so enjoy having a time away in nature with only my thoughts. It rejuvenates me and refreshes me. Your post reminded me of the importance of taking voluntary isolation periods without feeling guilty.
    Although I am very grateful for fishermen, my big hesitation with fly fishing is I don’t want to catch a fish. It disturbs my serenity as I see the fish struggle for life. Must not be the sport for me. 🙂
    Your thoughts on middle leaders were new for me. Middle leaders are kind of like the middle child in families. They are the ones who get ignored most and struggle to get the support they need. Like middle children, middle leaders struggle more with isolation and acquiring the needed support. Seems like there should be a book on middle leaders. That’s a great concept and often a forgotten one.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thank you, Jenn. I appreciate your thoughts on middle leaders being in the same place and facing some of the same challenges as a middle child in a family. I’m going to look at that a little closer in my research.

      I appreciate your point about the fish fighting for his life. But, you have to understand something about my fishing—I don’t catch fish! That’s why I say I’m going fishing and not catching! 🙂 That photo is one of those rare moments where a fish felt bad for me and said, “hey, I’ll help make Jim’s day.” He didn’t fight for his life, he laughed at the challenge. When he got to the net, I said, “thank you kind sir,” and I released him. I catch and release only—but most times don’t have an opportunity to release because I just don’t catch! 🙂

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Hey Jim

    “Though Trebesch is calling for more than just a fishing trip, the fishing trip may be the beginning of a voluntary isolation that prevents the involuntary option from taking place.”
    I don’t know if it prevents the involuntary but it sure helps you understand and sustain the involuntary option. I went fishing with some friends, I know people are relaxed and find peace. I was frustrated because it’s a waiting game, and I’m not good at waiting. Isolation is similar to fishing, you prep, lay out your bait (request) and wait for a response.
    Keep on fishing.

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Lynda. I don’t like the waiting game either. That’s one reason why I fly fish. You are constantly moving, never in one spot for too long. You get to see the stream and the scenery too. I turn my phone off. I have a very small gas stove that I take with me. Make a cup of coffee along the stream! Sit, take a nap, look at the ants crawling on the rock, wonder if it’s true that moss really only grows on the north side of a tree. It’s a wonder I get any fishing done at all. 🙂

  3. Mary says:

    All right, brother. Next time you’re in Oregon for fishing call Steve!
    Seriously, in most of our posts we talked about involuntary isolation. Thank you for reminding us that we can take the initiative to get alone with God for awhile. I think you nailed the reason why it is so hard – our pride. We think they can’t get along without us.
    We’ve talked about your call to help “middle” ministers before. These are great insights, Jim. What extra pressure they have to not take time off. You will be a great example to them!!

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Mary! I will definitely call Steve. I think we’d get along really well out there fishing together! I am certainly no model of finding rest and times of refreshing, but I always work toward that goal—even if I don’t always get there. I have had to learn to set strong boundaries in my life and with my time. It’s been difficult—there’s always an emergency somewhere—but I need to do it. There’s a lot of fishing left to do and I want to be around to do it! Appreciate your comments, Mary.

  4. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Jim, you look so happy in that picture!
    I love that you zoned in on the idea of isolation as refreshment and a time to recharge batteries. As much as you travel and just plain go, go, go, it makes me smile to think of you standing in the river, breathing fresh air, and enjoying the space. We don’t give our ministers and leaders enough permission to do that. How can we build that into the expectations for ministry so that we can protect those who lead?

    • Jim Sabella says:

      Thanks, Kristin. As I mentioned to Mary, I’ve had to learn to set up strong boundaries in my life and with my time. I’m not there, but I’m working on it. It’s a fight because there’s always a need or an emergency—and of course, I am the only one who can solve the problem!! 🙂 It’s a fight worth fighting though. To your question, I’ve been at this a long time and I’m just not sure we can build that into the expectations for ministry. It may fall to the leader to set up systems, to purposefully set up strong boundaries, and have friends and loved ones who care enough about them to say to them—you think your God don’t you? Well… you’re not! Get over it! 🙂 Always appreciate your comments and posts Kristin.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    We evangelicals like talking about having a “quiet time.” Yet, we often classify that as a time when we study the Bible (with a little bit of prayer).

    I agree that daily Bible study is a good time. But, as your blog points out, we also need extended times to isolate ourselves from the many voices that compete for our attention and just “be” with God.

  6. Katy Drage Lines says:

    I’ve had this song stuck in my head ever since I read your post a few days ago, Jim:

    You’ve done such a nice job of reflecting on ways to be equipped with healthy habits to prevent dry spells. So many (though not all) of those involuntary low points could be preempted if we found rhythms that worked well to keep us going.

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Jim great photo! 🙂 I think you touched on something that was not conveyed in the book but very important. Isolation is not all doom and gloom. Isolation can be a time to reenergize, to reflect and experience transformation without having to go through heartache and pain! Thank you Jim for that reminder and sharing your story with us!

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