One early morning I was sitting with a pastor friend enjoying a cup of coffee. I was pastoring in a metro area, and he pastored in a small rural town. For some reason, he must have thought that pastoring in a city was the pinnacle of success. I remember him asking me or rather telling me, “Jason, you have had a charmed life in ministry. I bet you have rarely struggled.” I was absolutely shocked, and I thought this guy was my friend. He was in my wedding. I went on to explain my “dark night of the soul” moments to him. I explained my failures and that I quit ministry at one time in my life and dug ditches. I went into vivid detail of the pain, the struggles, the heartache and the loneliness that I walked through in ministry that brought me closer to God and gave me a vision for the future. Little did I realize that back then I was describing Shelly Trebesch’s book Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.
Trebesch does a marvelous job that all of us go through if we are in ministry long enough. She describes the process as a stripping process, a wrestling process, and a time of new vision. Trebesch masterfully uses the Word of God to prove her point as she examines the lives of Paul and Jesus and their periods of isolation.
While I do feel that isolation is necessary for the leader, I do not think it should be something that is negative. Tresbesch tells us, “More than 90% of leaders will face one or more important isolation times in their lives. Most do not negotiate these times very well. Knowing about them and what God can accomplish in them can be a great help to a leader who faces isolation (Appendix A).” While I do agree with Tresbesch, it seems that many times leaders do not do well with isolation because it catches them by surprise. I do wonder if isolation needs to catch by surprise to be effective. Rather can we plan periods of isolation in our lives, much like Jesus, and achieve the same results? Would this be healthier for the leader.
Most people do not plan wildernesses, but perhaps connecting Trebesch with Cal Newport’s ideas can be effective. As a reminder, Newport believed in order to get our best work done we have to unplug ourselves from the world for selected periods of time. In other words, Newport discusses a planned isolation in order to achieve results. Instead of letting an event, tragedy, or struggle (which is what happens with many leaders) move us to isolation, maybe we should willingly lean into annually.
As I have connected the dots between Trebesch and Newport, I have begun to explore ways where and when I can force myself into isolation. I truly believe that if I do this, then perhaps I can avoid the pain of being forced into isolation. If I structure my life much like Jesus, then I can possibly be more effective for a longer period of time. After all, that is the goal.