Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader
Building on the work of Dr. J. Robert Clinton, Shelley Trebesch explains a necessary part of leadership development – “isolation processing”. Dr. Trebesch gives the definition of isolation 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 deeper way (Clinton 1989: 274).”
Trebesch uses case studies from the Bible to demonstrate what isolation experiences can be like. She summarizes the basic process leaders undergo while in isolation – stripping of their ministry identity (36), wrestling with God for answers (39), increased intimacy with God “I have got to have more of you Lord and I have got to have it now!” (40), and a release to look forward to the future while waiting for God to lead her out of the wilderness (42).
There are two types of isolation: ones that come upon the leader involuntarily, such as a family or health crisis, and those that the leader chooses to do.
If the leader will embrace the isolation experience she will be better able to emerge from it with the benefits and lessons that God would give her. The benefits are inward, spiritual, and ministerial transformation.
Psalm 42 describes a person who is experiencing isolation. The leader should embrace the experience and recognize it as an opportunity to deepen fellowship with God and renew commitment, the leader can get more out of the experience by being honest, remembering the significant events of her life, keeping hope and a good perspective, getting a mentor, and listening for the voice of God. She should be careful not to try and get out of the experience before God brings her out.
Every leader will experience isolation at some point in her ministry. Shelley Trebesch has helped leaders to be prepared for it by defining and explaining it. How much better to be prepared for the next time a “dark night of the soul” or “desert experience” occurs. Instead of throwing in the towel, a leader can actually embrace the dry time as a time to grow closer to God and expect amazing things to come of it.
Though not in a typical ministry I recently experienced some of the aspects of isolation. The closest Bible character for me to identify with is the apostle Paul. Paul was a Jew who was converted and spent time in a “desert” experience before he began his ministry. When he did begin, he had to prove himself to the skeptics. He had a Barnabas to help him. What he learned in his alone time with God prepared him to face what he needed and have a fruitful ministry.
I am a woman, recently converted to the thought that women can have a ministry. God has been preparing me for forty years to respond to my calling. When I finally got a chance to teach at our church I had to prove myself to the skeptics. But I didn’t have a Barnabas.
My lesson material was on the Ancestresses of Christ. I kept it very biblical and very mild so as not to offend anybody. I was hoping this might be door to more acceptance of women in ministry in our male dominated congregation.
For starters, my classroom was the Sunday School supply closet. There was only room for me and Steve and 2 to 3 students. There were other larger rooms available, and I was hurt that right from the start there was little confidence in me. I’m not sure now why they even allowed me to have a class.
One time an elder came to the door and looked in. He asked me what I was teaching. I told him I was telling some of the history of the Old Testament including the women who were the ancestresses of the Lord Jesus. He clicked his tongue and walked away.
Two students attended for a few weeks; the last several weeks it was just Steve and me. I finished the whole semester anyway.
Shelley Trebesch gives the feelings one experiences in “stripping” as – emotional pain, hurt, confusion, distrust, joy, depression, rejection, insecurity, embarrassment, not belonging, fear, relief, anger, and sadness.
I went through every one of those. When I reflected on the book for this post I wondered what in the world “joy” was doing in the list.
But Shelley is right. The most amazing things can happen if one will just embrace the situation and try and find out what God has for them.
Yes, believe it or not I do have joy. I know that I obeyed God’s call and did my best. I know that He supports me and there is still a reason for what I am doing. There are thousands of hurting women out there who want to hear the stories of women in the Bible. If no one at my church does, then I will just double my prayers for them.
I have a confession to make. Because I was trying so hard to please the people at my church I told all of the women’s stories in the context of their men. Sarah, Peter tells us in the New Testament, was our example of a godly submissive wife and I presented her that way. Yes, she was a godly submissive wife but I left out the really important part, and God has shown me that I need the courage to say it.
Sarah had just as much faith as her husband. Abraham is portrayed as a great man of faith, and he was, but he blew it a few times himself. He put his wife in a precarious position of being violated twice by other men. One time it was Pharaoh. God Himself protected Sarah.
One of the fruits Shelley mentioned -the strong intimacy with God – came for me when I realized He didn’t rescue Sarah just to keep His covenant; He had many ways to do that. He protected Sarah because He loved her.
Yes, we still attend that church even though I’m embarrassed to show my face around there. I can do it because God loves me. I am rewriting all of the stories as stories of God’s daughters, special for themselves not because they were married to a patriarch.
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my savior and my God.
 Shelley Trebesch. Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader. Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997. 10.