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

Isolation: The Leader’s Great Omission

Written by: on March 20, 2015

Bottom line: Most Christian leaders need a deeper, more vital relationship with God. What most church leaders will admit is that they just don’t have time in their busy schedule to cultivate this deeper connection with God. This results in burn out, sin and emptiness, which eventually leads to the very same place that the leader needed to venture to in the first place: Isolation, or separation from normal life needed for developing a deeper connection with God. This forced isolation now becomes an unwelcomed and painful experience, which will ultimately bring rich dividends, transforming both the life and the ministry of the leader. How much better would it be if leaders were to seek isolation rather then waiting for it to be thrust on them?

The process and importance of isolation is theme of Shelley Trebesch’s Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life a Leader. As I picked up this small book, I first wondered what anyone could really say in a mere 76 pages. But, I was instantly overcome by the wisdom and insight of this small volume. What she lays out is the great paradox Christian leadership, which is the necessity of leaders to separate themselves from those they severe in order to be truly effective in their service. This process seems counterintuitive, and it goes against our modern concept of the engaged and sacrificial leader who is willing to give all for the sake of the cause. What leaders often fail to realize are several deadly mistakes. First, having less time for God, leaders become more self-sufficient. Their ministry gradually becomes dependent on them, rather than their leadership being in service to God and to others. They fail to remember they are simply conduits through which God works. That is why “leaders often need to be set aside from the ‘doingness’ of ministry before they can realize how driven they are by it.”[i]  Second, because they lack contact with God, they then become reliant on the success of their ministry for personal affirmation. This then requires that “whatever it takes to succeed” becomes their primary goal. This opens the door to sin, conflicts and further driven-ness and burnout. This leads to leaders failing to seek guidance (either from God or from others), because they have become the center and source for their ministry.

Therefore, isolation for the leader becomes necessary for realigning and refocusing the leader. Isolation is described by Trebesch 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,” or “being set aside from ministry and being driven into a deeper relationship with God.”[ii] As she suggests, leaders will inevitably end up in isolation, either because they choose to, or because it will come to them through sickness (stress, illness, or burnout), imprisonment or organizational discipline. Whatever way, isolation is the place where God is found in a way that heals and repairs the ills and emptiness of the leader. This practice of isolation was important for Jesus, who early in the morning found time for separation, quiet, and connection with God (Mark 1:35).

Why is this isolation so vital for the leader? It “isolates one from ministry which is the usual way one gets affirmation. Since affirmation cannot come in an isolation experience from achievement it must come through beingness. It is this drawing out of one’s beingness that is a paradigm shift that most leaders used to plaudits from achievement struggle with in isolation.”[iii] To understand our “beingness” in Christ begins with stripping: “As the Lord leaves leaders empty handed without ministry to tell them who they are, they experience a deep sense of loss and emotional pain. They begin to ask questions about who they are and about where their value lives.” This stripping process “has uncovered the leader’s deep need for God.”[iv] This leads to wrestling with God about one’s deepest needs and how to resolve the central issues in one’s life (those that are mostly hidden because leaders tend to focus on other’s problems). It answers the question: Where do we find our true identity?

This leads naturally to increased intimacy: “Much of the evangelical Christian culture along with Protestant work ethic, pushes leaders to never admit their weakness and their needs.” In isolation, leaders “discover they are not as put together and in control as they thought they were…. During this time God affirms leaders for who he has created them to be, not for what they can accomplish in ministry.”[v] And this sense of “beingness” found in Christ’s mercy and grace, releases the leader to look toward the future. The leader now has a quiet peace, a vision about the future rather than a restless desire to escape the pain of isolation, because he has returned to his central source of being, strength and purpose.

In our world of quick fixes, five easy steps, and going from good to great, Trebesch provides us soulful, Lenten meditation. It is the way of repentance, of quiet, of returning the very heart of real leadership to the loving embrace of our crucified Savior. What Christian leaders need most, she concludes, is to realize that “God is thrilled to have a relationship (with) them even if they never were to do any ministry again…”[vi] This truth alone should calm the most troubled heart of any Christian leader.

[i] Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishing, 1997), 73.

[ii] Ibid, 10, 3.

[iii] Ibid., 3 (footnote).

[iv] Ibid., 38.

[v] Ibid., 41-42.

[vi] Ibid., 73.

About the Author

mm

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

6 responses to “Isolation: The Leader’s Great Omission”

  1. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    John, Thanks for your thoughtful post as always! You ask great questions and you answer them nicely. It is true you pointed out how evangelical Christian culture pushes ministers never to admit their weakness and needs. Perhaps their denial is because they do not believe God can use weakness or suffering to transform leaders’ life. I love how ended: “God is thrilled to have a relationship (with) them even if they never were to do any ministry again…”[vi] This truth alone should calm the most troubled heart of any Christian leader.” May the Lord help us!

  2. mm Deve Persad says:

    John the intro of your blog caught my attention, because it seems as though you’re starting with one of the questions that I ended with. Thanks for that. Certainly, it has been my observation, in my brief exposure in ministry, to recognize that many pastors/leaders do not have a regular form of “isolation” in their lives. You can see the signs in their physical health, their families, their churches and when it’s too late, their legacy. Part of finishing well, must include how we handle ourselves in the journey. What suggestions would you have to incorporate that kind of proactive isolation?

  3. Miriam Mendez says:

    John I like how you begin with your….”Bottom line”— “Most Christian leaders need a deeper, more vital relationship with God. What most church leaders will admit is that they just don’t have time in their busy schedule to cultivate this deeper connection with God.” Yes! What happens along the way? I wonder….when we begin to discern God’s call on our lives, we are in prayer, seeking God’s guidance, listening to God’s voice and direction. Once we enter the “call” the “ministry” we focus so much on the “call” itself that we forget the “One” who called us. Why do we allow the “call” to distract us from the “Caller?”

  4. Liz Linssen says:

    Dear John
    Really love your blog. You outline the issues so clearly and summarise the whole subject so well. I appreciate your passion for this subject. How well you question, “How much better would it be if leaders were to seek isolation rather then waiting for it to be thrust on them?” Amen. The minute we begin doing ministry in our own strength, is the moment we steal the blessing of God’s presence and intimacy not only from our own lives, but from the lives of those we minister to. A great piece of writing!

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    John well done on this post! You have successfully discussed the challenges, the needs of leaders and how isolation can be helpful. I am more pursued about the need for leaders to be beloved and if leaders experience the love of God during “isolation per se, then that also a good thing.

    When leaders are affirmed, I believe they always be invited into the love of the father.

    Thank you!

  6. Great work here John. I am simply catching up on some late comments. Isolation is so difficult for anyone but especially for a leader who feels as if so much weighs upon him. In China, we have had pastors tell us that they’re in prison meant by the communist government has served them as opportunities to regain their focus on Christ. Who would have thought that imprisonment would be such a benefit to the kingdom of God. Perhaps in America we could lean in China, we have had pastors tell us that they’re in prison meant by the communist government has served them as opportunities to regain their focus on Christ. Who would have thought that imprisonment would be such a benefit to the kingdom of God. Perhaps in America we would benefit from learning what are Chinese brothers are going through. Let us elect for ourselves times of isolation before the Lord seems fit to force in America we would benefit from learning what are Chinese brothers are going through. Let us elect for ourselves times of isolation before the Lord seems fit to force us into isolation.

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