Shelly Trebesch, author of Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader, states, “Our studies indicate that leaders need 3-4 renewal times over a life time.” I started doing the math and felt a little better about the path I am on. When framing “life” in terms of “renewal” and “transformation”, it sounds therapeutic and inviting. But that is the furthest thing from the truth when you throw in the word “isolation”.
Two times that isolation and transformation hit my life was in 2005 and 2013. 2005 I navigated through a failed transition of a mega-church in Nashville. 2013 was what Trebesch called, “Isolation due to sickness or an accident – here leaders are set aside from ministry because of sickness or some type of injury…” June 23, 2013 I was diagnosed with bi-lateral pulmonary embolisms and pneumonia. This episode in New Jersey (while on vacation with our family) almost took my life and then incapacitated me for almost three months.
Trebesch clarifies the operative words of her title: isolation and transformation. She likens “isolation” to the wilderness or desert. “During a desert or wilderness time, one is removed from his/her normal, daily routine or home and isolated from friends and family. A person in a desert time may not feel the presence of God, and it may seem that he/she is alone in a dark and foreign land.”
The word “transformation” is what we all want, but seldom want to pay the price to get there. I agree with Trebesch that, “Seasons of isolation bring character transformation.” I sure wish there was another way to accomplish that.
In simplistic terms, Trebesch states that the journey to transformation has the following components:
- There are two types of isolation – voluntary and involuntary
- There is a four-fold process that a leader goes through during isolation:
- Wrestling with God
- Increased Intimacy
- Release to Look Toward the Future
- Three Fruitful Results of Isolation Experiences:
- Inward Transformation
- Spiritual Transformation
- Ministerial Transformation
I felt like I was reading my life during the two above mentioned moments in my life of 2005 and 2013. Now being years the other side, I know that Trebesch is telling the truth. As she said so aptly, “It is crucial to note that God never leaves anyone in isolation indefinitely, and when one enters isolation, God’s faithful character provides everything needed to endure the experience.” I will clarify that while you are in it, it feels like an eternity that you question if it will ever end.
Of special note to me was the reference to leaders leaving their positions. My dissertation on transitioning of the senior leader played heavily into this. “During a season of isolation, leaders are no longer the pastors of the church, the president of an organization, or the campus minister. The Lord removes the various identities that ministry places upon a leader and strips the leader to the core of who he/she has been created to be (the identity that the Lord places in him/her).”
At times, one’s identity can come from what we “do”, not who we “are”. A senior leader can have a successful run at leading an organization, but at best all of us are interim. I have had the privilege to work with several retired ministers and heard their heart on the feeling of emptiness. They weren’t bad people, they did not know what to do with the isolation that they felt.
Trebesch states, “After the ministry identity is removed, feelings of insecurity, depression, and emotional pain may follow. Leaders in this state question who they are and long to have the external identity again.” That is when something rises up in me and says, “I Sure Wish There Was Another Way”.
 Shelley G. Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader, (Altadena, California: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 33.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., x.
 Ibid., 49.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 37.