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.