DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Enforced Retreat

Written by: on March 2, 2017

I crashed emotionally when I walked into my tiny room. There were two sparse bunk beds: period. Nowhere was to be seen a table or even a chair. The dormitory rooms had 8 foot walls, but no ceiling, so high above was the tin roof. When other people (students) were in the building all noises sound like they were in my room. The closest plumbing (aka bathroom) was a hundred yards up the hill. Out back was a pit toilet for those middle of the night trips.

I said, “Lord, I don’t think I can do this.” I was ‘stuck’ for two weeks of teaching at this little Ugandan university. My description may not seem worth making a fuss, but I had already been away from home for a month: two weeks in Latvia and two weeks in Uganda, and I had just had to say good by to our Uganda team and, worst of all, my wife.

I was alone. ALONE – except for the mosquitoes. So began my enforced retreat.

Was this my lesson in “be careful what you ask for?” In all of my trips to Uganda I had been continually amazed at the Christians’ joy in worship and constant declaration of God’s goodness and faithfulness. As I would look around at rutted dirt roads, dust, hungry children…I would ask myself, “Based on what? What do you see that proclaims God’s goodness?” And yet they declared it so.

With great perplexity I would ask the Lord, “How does this work? These dear people are poorer than poor, and yet they seem so convinced of your faithfulness when they have no physical evidence to support that notion.”

Be careful what you ask for. In order to answer the real question of my heart, God had to isolate me. After hours with just my Bible, prayer journal, and the merciful presence and voice of God, the summary of what I heard from the Lord in this isolation was something like this: “You are constantly distracted because of all the things you have. You can’s see Me through all the stuff. The Ugandans you know don’t have those distractions and have nothing except to seek Me. I am their life and their joy.”

When I picked up Shelley Trebesch’s book Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader, I knew this book would connect. When I read, “During a desert or wilderness time, one is removed from his/her normal, daily routine or home and isolated from friends and family,” [1] I now had somewhat technical language to describe my Uganda experience.

Dr. Trebesch’s book is based on case studies: Biblical, other historical, and contemporary. With the advantages of story-telling as a teaching tool, she illustrates the functions, principles, and lessons of isolation.

In order to define isolation, Trebesch quotes Dr. Robert Clinton, “Isolation is 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. [2]

Dr. Trebesch cites a number of things God can accomplish during isolation:
-character transformation
-dependence on the Lord
-increased intimacy with the Lord
-intense theological reflection [3]

It seems that God uses isolation as a primary tool to build character and to refine us personally and theologically. The author writes, “Thus, we see a pattern of stripping and restoring or recreating of identity during these desert times. And the most encouraging thing, God always involves himself in the process.” [4]

Just before my first major chosen isolation, a three month sabbatical in 2003, I heard a therapist, who specializes in counseling pastors, speak of our lives as a reservoir. If more water flows out than in, the reservoir will become empty. At that time I was feeling that dryness. I wanted to just stand under a waterfall somewhere and be washed and filled by the water. It is healthy to be aware of potential dryness and move to establish regular times of filling in one’s life. God often must use isolation to accomplish this filling.

I was also encouraged by the statement, “For one of the major leadership lessons we have identified is, ‘Effective leaders maintain a learning posture all their lives.’” [5] This reminded me of one of my heros in the faith: Dean Olleman. Dean is a brilliant metallurgical engineer and former elder in our church. One of the reasons I admire him is that even at age 90 he has never lost his curiosity. His continual hunger to learn contributed to my decision to enter our Doctor of Ministry program two months after retiring.

Dr. Trebesch also wrote about a four step process during isolation: stripping, wrestling with God, Increased intimacy, release to look toward the future.

Even during my brief forced retreat in Uganda I experienced these to a greater or lesser degree. As I sat alone, the Lord stripped me of distractions and props. I wrestled with Him a little about how to live at such a personally wealthy level and about my attitudes towards poverty. With no distractions He did speak to me and we went deeper together. Finally, even now I am leaning into the future and what further international leadership training will look like

As Trebesch walked the reader through Psalm 42, showing the guidance in the Psalm for dealing with isolation, it occurred to me that our spirit-touched attitude is crucial. All of the hints given in the this chapter are affected by attitude, and in turn our attitude is affected by being faithful to the process she outlines.

The key to isolation is having a soul that is open to the Lord’s work and being willing to go anywhere with Him in order to cooperate with His plan and participate in His end goals for our lives. Although the style of this book is not smooth, it is very practical and could make the difference between someone failing in a time of isolation or coming out of isolation with all the qualities the Lord wishes to work in us though isolation.

1. Shelley G. Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 9.
2. Ibid., 10.
Robert J. Clinton, Leadership Emergence Theory (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Pub, 1989), 274.
3. Trebesch 15, 17, 26.
4. Ibid., 27.
5. Ibid., 34.
6. Ibid.,
7. Ibid.,

About the Author

mm

Marc Andresen

I have a B. A. in Music from San Diego State University and received an M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1977. July 1 2015 I retired after 38 years in pastoral ministry. The passion and calling that developed in the last 20 years is leadership training in cross-cultural contexts, as my wife and I have had many opportunities to teach in Eastern Europe and Africa. I have been married for 38 years and have two adult children, one daughter-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter. My hobbies are photography and British sports cars.

6 responses to “Enforced Retreat”

  1. Marc, you brought up the idea of short term missions trips as a type of voluntary isolation. Nice. I didn’t think of that and I don’t think Trebesch did either. I guess she did write about Paul as a case study but I had a similar experience in Uganda my first time. Thanks for writing.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Aaron,

      Yes, you know the disorienting experience of such an unfamiliar place.

      I’m not surprised Trebesch didn’t talk about mission trips, since they’re pretty active in ministry. The sense of isolation, of course, would come from the experience (ala Dorothy and Toto) of not being in Kansas anymore. We know that immersion into a completely different world and culture can be sufficiently disorienting that we depend on the Lord in new way.

      My isolation time last August was closely tied to PHYSICALLY being isolated, exacerbated by the heightened alone-ness from saying good bye to a team and my wife for two weeks. I had none of my familiar props. The emotional pain fueled the heart-cry to God.

  2. Marc,

    Thanks for your transparency. Interesting that life and ministry can bring you into contact with isolation. While “doing” ministry we can have a very intense struggle “being.”

    One of the concepts that the author brought up was the idea of being in community while being in isolation. Have you experienced this? I feel like this cohort is part of that attachment to community why being stretched to think differently. Not everyone can relate to the process that we are currently in, so is this a form of that for you?

    How awesome to know that you had people to encourage you to continue learning even though retiring. Who do you have right now that can encourage you through this next season of isolation called writing a dissertation?

    Kevin

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Kevin,

      Great questions.

      My very brief isolation (just 2 weeks) in August was intensified because of the lack/loss of community. At the university where I taught there were three other American men who came to teach also, so we had lots of conversation, and they’re good guys – but still virtual strangers. I am such a people-person that losing that close community is really hard.

      I’m having a hard time thinking about the presence of community during times of feeling that isolation. I suspect the answer is that I’ve always had a few trusted friends (often older) that I could go to for support. (Just this morning I drove up to Portland – about 90 miles- to visit with a friend who is now 93. He may not last a bunch longer and I wanted to tell him what an influence he’s been in my life. In my early days pastoring my church, he was my go-to guy when I was facing a decision that was over my head. He is an incredible support.)

      Our cohort is a supportive community for us while we go through the intensity of the D Min. In a sense we get to community quicker because we don’t have to explain to each other what we’re going through. We are all in the same place, generally speaking.

      I do have enough people around me who know me, who are friends, that they are very encouraging to me in this process. Plus, for about 15 years I have been meeting with the same five ministry leaders in an accountability group. We check in weekly via e mail and monthly face to face. So they know all my stuff and encourage and exhort.

  3. mm Phil Goldsberry says:

    Marc:

    Your Uganda trip equaled Trebesch’s concept of being detached and growing in it. Was there anything that you could have done to prepare yourself better for the “isolation” experience that you went through?

    Of concern to me is not IF there will be isolation, but what do I do to prepare for it? What can be done preemptively that will hep the outcome to be positive? I have experienced several isolation periods, most I was not prepared for and they truly took me by surprise.

    Phil

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Phil,

      I don’t know if there was anything I could have done. I will say that next time I will be prepared because I will know what to expect. Part of the pain was the shock of the basic/crude nature of my accommodations. I had just spent 2 weeks in (by African standards) a pretty nice hotel with bathrooms in the room and occasionally hot water. The shock of the set up contributed to my crash, exacerbated by leaving a team and my wife to enter this new world. Also, if/when there’s a next time I will think twice about doing that after having already been gone a month, with energy supplies running low. All of this added up to excruciating isolation.

      But, as I said, the merciful voice and presence of God was there.

      I would say the one of the best preemptive moves is to maintain a good habit of listening prayer so that in the heat of battle, as it were, we can hear what God needs to tell us. (Interesting, our next book is “When God Talks Back.”

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