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

The Leadership Process: Moving Through Times of Isolation

Written by: on February 27, 2014

Literature on effective leadership had been prolific. Ken Blanchard defines it as “the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and impact for the greater good”.[1] Leadership is influence for mutual good is a good starting point. Kouzes and Posner add that leadership as “the art of mobilizing other to want to struggle for shaped aspirations”.[2] There is struggle. There is a process. There are as many variables as what makes a leader as there are as what makes a human being. It is the social context, the time in history, a person’s upbringing, the type of organization, the events that led up to a leader’s role and many others. Regardless of how scientific the process may be, it is a human endeavor. Leaders are formed, not merely by innate gifts, but an ongoing process with other people. It is the challenge of working with human beings that make a leader. I know of no leader that has not gone through at least one crisis that has made her or him the leader they are today. As easy as some pop literature may make leadership development, it always emerges through pressure and struggle. Many times leadership brings with it times of feeling isolated from the people they lead as one pastor expresses it, “ I feel so alone in this thing”. One biblical character that comes to mind is Elijah. Before a great victory Elijah complains, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left”. (1 Kings 18:22) Then, after a great victory he retreated from public interaction for fear for his life. He felt isolated and alone. He complained to God that he was the only prophet left who was committed to Yahweh. As Elijah complains to God, God does not abandon him to frustration. Through the message of a plant, the Lord reminds and refreshes Elijah of his leadership calling. (1 Kings 19) This feeling of isolation is part of the process.

There are times where leaders are forced by circumstances beyond their control into times of isolation. There are other times when the leader feels compelled to withdraw or quit one organization because he or she no longer fits. Regardless there is a process for the Christian leader that can either grow them or hinder their development. Shelley G. Trebesch’s book Isolation—A Place of Transformation In The Life of a Leader describes the process well. She states that there is a fourfold process that a leader goes through in isolation. She calls the stages stripping, wrestling with God, increased intimacy and release for the future. Combining personal examples and other Christians she cites case studies to support her claim.

The first stage of stripping can be very painful. People know that to be a better leader the leader must grow. The growing pains can either be resisted or embraced. To grow is to move into the fray not to retreat from it. As pointed out by Manfred Kets de Vries in The Leadership Mystique there are hidden irrational forces in any organization. There are also hidden irrational forces in a leader. Every leader has a “core confliction relationship theme” (CCRT) that contains the desires of a leader, their reactions to others and how they anticipate people will respond in the context of the leaders desires.[3]  This creates conflict for a leader. In one church I served in, there was a conflict with my CCRT and the culture of the church’s CCRT. This was definitely a stripping process. I said to myself that I did not like who I was becoming (or expected to become). It eventually led to me leaving that church. My expectations, my perceptions and my attitudes toward church all were being stripped away. My conclusion as I took the present leadership position in my church was “What do I need to unlearn about church to be the mission of Jesus in the neighborhood”. Everything was up for grabs.

Trebesch next speaks of a wrestling phase in the experience of isolation. For Christian church leaders this may be a wrestling with God. More often than not it is a wrestling with the church organization, as we know it. This wrestling shakes up our preconceptions. For me, unexamined assumptions about what it means to lead a church were being squeezed under pressure. This often wounding experience, can make a person bitter or it makes a much more humane and caring leader. Bitterness and resentment is poison to a leader’s soul. Blaming others for the entire problem takes all power away from the leader. Seeing oneself as complicit in the problem without blame or shame has been one of the most healing elements of moving out of the wrestling phase. Without a disciplining of our spirits, we can be caught off guard. As the Apostle Paul states, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

The next stage is increased intimacy with God. Sensitivity to God’s voice is what is missing in secular literature on leadership. Gordon Smith is perceptive of the need for hearing from God. Discernment is a key sensitivity that leaders need in church. Spiritual discernment is needed in a complex world. Through it, we can respond with courage. With reoccurring news of Christian leaders moral failures, it reminds us of the need to be alert to respond in ways that show love and justice.[4] The last stage then is leading with a renewed voice as one moves into the future. To be a Christian leader initially is a response to Jesus calling to follow him. This involves both trusting in Jesus to bring forth good and suffering for him (Philippians 1:29). Even though we go through times of isolation we know we are never alone. The burden does not have to weigh us down. Smith encourages us to know that, “The calling of God is not burdensome, even though it necessarily includes both challenge and responsibility. Rather, discerning vocation is substantially a matter of discerning what bring us joy and finding though that discernment who we truly are.”[5]


[1] Ken Blanchard, Leading at a Higher Level. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Financial Times Press, 2007, p. xix.

[2] James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1995, p.30.

[3] Manfred Kets de Vries. Pp.44-45.

[4] Gordon T Smith, The Voice of Jesus: Discernment, Prayer and the Witness of the Spirit. Downer’s Grove: IVP Press, 2003, p.183.

[5] Ibid., p.199.

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Fred Fay

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