“A leader is a person who must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside him/herself, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.”
Parker Palmer

By the time you get this, I will have begun an eight-day silent retreat.  During this time, I will not have access to cell phone or e-mail and will only be reachable by an emergency number at the retreat house where I will be staying.

This is not a vacation.  It is not a week at a spa.  It is not a study leave or even a sabbatical. This is a retreat—a time for giving God my complete and undivided attention and giving God full and uninterrupted access to my soul. There is never an ideal time for this—only times that are better than others—but I am trying to practice what I preach and God knows I need it.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

On one level I have no idea what to expect, but on another level I do.  I know to expect rest for body, mind, and soul.  I know to expect intimacy with God.  I know to expect to be surprised at what God might want to say to me. I know to expect caring love, compassion, and guidance regarding the complexities of my life.

I also expect this time to be challenging and even spiritually rigorous at points. I expect to miss my home and my family.  And I may even get a little bored at times—a scary thought for an activist like me.  But I have done this enough to know that God is very generous in coming into any space we create for him.  I’ve done this enough to know that it is worth whatever price one has to pay.

The Busiest People in the World

One of the great mysteries I am contemplating these days is how “spiritual formation people” now seem to be the busiest people on the planet.  And how many of us preach solitude better than we practice it.  What begins as a journey out of busyness, distraction, and divided living is often overcome by “the leader part” of us that now wants to share what we’ve experienced with those we have been charged with leading. There is nothing wrong with this unless it keeps us from practicing.

A darker possibility is that we start to feel driven to “make something” out of these very intimate experiences with God.  Its not enough to just have the experience; once we get a taste of how meaningful these encounters can be, a voice inside says, “Now that’ll preach!” But the problem is that once we start preaching, we often stop practicing. And this can become very dangerous—for ourselves and for others.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls attention to the dangers of this kind of imbalance with startling clarity: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.  He will only do harm to himself and to the community…but the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

The Danger of Leadership Without Solitude

What Bonhoeffer is warning us about is this:  when we do not take time to be alone in God’s presence, we become dangerous or harmful in the human community.  And this is most true for leaders. When we are not consistently allowing God to replenish us at the soul level, we will unconsciously attempt to get from other human beings what only God can provide. We will demand that those we are leading meet our needs for love, approval, identity and self worth—a weight too heavy for them to bear.

As significant as Christian community is, no human community can ever fully meet the legitimate human needs that can only be satisfied by a rich and vibrant relationship with God. Bonhoeffer’s statement offers an important corrective to a one-sided approach to leadership that values community and activism without a commensurate emphasis on solitude.

If those of us who are leading spiritual communities are not practicing solitude and silence in fruitful ways, the “harm” that can be done is incalculable. When the community fails to meet our needs or refuses our demands, we may become frustrated and take it out on those around us through gossip, manipulation, controlling others through heavy-handed tactics, or simply giving up and walking away in a huff. We may accuse the community of failing us, projecting our inner lacks onto others and blaming them for not meeting needs that are God’s to meet anyway.

When Shepherds Start Feeding on the Sheep

The most disturbing possibility in all of this is that when shepherds do not spend time in solitude, receiving their soul’s nourishment from God, they may start to feed on the sheep—the very flock they are supposed to be caring for.  They may unknowingly attempt to get their basic human needs for identity, love, approval, belonging and a way of life that works be met by the community rather than seeking to have these needs satisfied in their relationship with God.

Many leaders are not even aware of their unmet needs, let alone their unconscious patterns for trying to get other human beings to meet them. They are not aware of how tired and empty they are at the soul level. The result is leaders whose profound emptiness results in the narcissistic tendency to always need to be in the limelight. Or whose needs for love and approval result in performance-oriented driven-ness and perfectionism that they constantly inflict on themselves and others. Or whose sense of self is so fragile that they can’t live without a steady stream of applause and approval from others.  They become driven rather than discerning. All of this makes solitude very difficult.

The point is this: if our very real and legitimate human needs are not being met by God in times of solitude, spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd might eventually begin to devour the sheep.

Putting First Things First

Times of extended solitude are a little bit like the times a husband and wife might set aside when they know they have things to talk about that cannot be addressed fully in the nooks and crannies of their busy lives.  They recognize a desire to simply enjoy one another’s company and to give each other their best attention. So they create time for each other—to speak, to listen, to argue (if they need to), to be intimate, to enjoy one another’s company, to have the freedom of just letting things unfold.  They may have to fight and claw for this time away, but they know it is worth it.  They are putting first things first.

Leaders need such times with God, too, precisely because we are pouring out so much of our spiritual selves for others. We need deeply private times with God because our relationship with God is often made so public.

Henri Nouwen describes this great paradox of leadership, “In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.” This might seem like a fairly radical statement, but what Nouwen is saying is that we must die to needing those we serve for our own survival.  We can love the sheep and serve them and be committed to them. We can be vulnerable with them and receive from them the gifts that God is giving to us through them.   But our ability to survive spiritually and emotionally must come from the richness of our own intimacy with God which can only be cultivated in a balanced rhythm of solitude, community, and leadership.

So by the time you get this, I will have dropped completely out of sight. I pray I have done so before my leadership becomes dangerous.  I am trying to practice what I preach and God knows my soul needs it. What about yours?


©Ruth Haley Barton, 2016. Not to be used without permission.


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