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The Surprising Cure for Lonely Leaders

How solitude fills us

Leadership can be a lonely assignment, as a recent post here on Gifted for Leadership explored. By definition, leaders are often self-reliant and achievement-oriented. We can easily let tasks and strategy become more important than the people accomplishing those tasks or implementing that strategy.

That recent post offered some great strategies for engaging in authentic community. While making time for relationships is an important step toward alleviating loneliness, I believe it is insufficient. To address core loneliness, leaders must engage in what seems like a counter-intuitive strategy: spend time in solitude. The cure for loneliness is a balance of solitude and community.

As a leader, you may work alone. You may spend time preparing sermons or lessons, studying, strategizing. This can sometimes look like time alone with God, as you pray for his help in exegeting text and seek his wisdom for counseling those you lead. You may even have a daily "quiet time" that, ironically, is full of words—books, study guides, even words of worship and supplication. But very little quiet—in which you are silently listening to God.

I am talking about a deeper sort of solitude—a place where we go without tasks, without agenda, just to be alone with God, to rest in his presence. It is more than just time alone by default. Rather, solitude is time alone with God, entered into with no other intention than tending to that relationship by listening to him. It is a place leaders sometimes believe they don't have time to visit. As a result, leaders are lonely.

If we are not steeped in God's love, which we experience differently in solitude than we do when we are accomplishing tasks for him, no amount of lunches with friends will cure our loneliness. Community is a discipline in which we give and receive love, we live out the "one another" commands of the New Testament. In order to have something to give, we must first be filled. That happens in solitude.

What does that look like?

When my son was a preschooler, he loved to cuddle on my lap on an oversize rocking recliner. He'd snuggle in, stroke my arm, make soft humming noises. (Now that he's a teenager, I miss those days!) Occasionally he would leap up and grab his latest Lego creation. "Look what I made!" he'd say. I'd examine it and tell him how I liked it, that I was proud of his abilities. Or he'd stand before me, teetering on one foot. "Mommy, look what I can do!" he'd tell me. "Wow, you are very talented," I'd say.

But these accomplishments, though important, did not make me love him more. What I loved was him, not his tasks or talents. Sure, I loved seeing him develop his gifts and grow. But what I loved more was just him, and him soaking up my love. I found joy in his ability to simply sit still and enjoy my loving presence.

Yet how often I come to my heavenly Father, hands full of things I've made, or wanting to show him all I can do. And he says, "Sweetheart, I'm so proud of you. Now put that down and just be with me." That's what solitude is: just resting with God, soaking up his love. It is nothing more than obeying God's directive in Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God!"

Once we are filled by God in solitude, then we must seek out community as well. Both disciplines are essential for every Christian, but especially for leaders, because we can too easily believe that our relationships with God and with others are all about what we give, rather than both giving and receiving.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful book Life Together, warns that someone who cannot be alone should "beware community," while those who are loners should be cautious about spending too much time in solitude. The disciplines of solitude and community bring balance to, and empower, our ministry. Each is essential, but I believe solitude must come first.

Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God and love others. Likewise, we need to receive love from God, and from others. But too often, we accomplish tasks for God and look to others for love to support us. Or we give to others without allowing God to fill us first, and we find ourselves poured out, souls parched.

Henri Nouwen wisely observed that effective ministry begins in solitude, then moves into community. And that community is created out of the strength that each individual finds in solitude. In an article titled "Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry," he wrote: "If we do not know we are the beloved sons and daughters of God, we're going to expect someone in the community to make us feel that way. They cannot…But community is not loneliness grabbing onto loneliness: ‘I'm so lonely, and you're so lonely.' It's solitude grabbing onto solitude: ‘I am the beloved; you are the beloved; together we can build a home.' "

It is in the practice of solitude that we discover our belovedness—but only if we are willing to go, empty handed, and carve out some time to simply listen, to be quiet, to leave our agenda and tasks behind.

The recent GFL post on loneliness talked about feeling lonely for God in spite of "doing all the right things—praying, reading my Bible, serving Jesus in ministry." While those are good things to do, solitude calls us instead to stop doing. To simply be, instead of do. To sit still and let Jesus serve us, minister to us, reassure us that even when we stop, we are just as loved as when we are accomplishing.

But solitude, especially without an agenda, can be frightening. What if God doesn't speak? Or worse, what if he does? What will we talk about? If we don't name those fears, we'll never spend time in solitude, and we'll never discover its soul-quenching power.

Ruth Haley Barton, in her helpful book Invitation to Solitude and Silence, writes: "The willingness to name our fear as we enter into solitude opens the way for God to reassure us with his presence, much as the presence of a loving parent comforts a child who awakes trembling with fear in the night. It also enables us—eventually—to peel back the fear, revealing something even true: our desire for God. This desire is the flip side of our fear."

I believe it is this fear that keeps leaders (and followers) from discovering the joy of solitude, the living waters that flow unabated when we simply rest in God's presence. In solitude, we discover our deep desire for God, which will fuel our ministry like no amount of hard work can, and no other person can.

Keri Wyatt Kent is a freelance writer, speaker, and author of nine books, including Deeper into the Word: Reflections on 100 Old Testament Words. She's led small groups, bible studies, and service teams at Willow Creek Community Church for more than 20 years. Connect with her at www.keriwyattkent.com or on twitter at @keriwyattkent

April10, 2012 at 1:53 PM

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