Solitude, Community and Leadership

“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.  Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In this statement from his book, Life Together, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the startling and very sobering observation that if we do not take time regularly to be alone in God’s presence, we become dangerous or harmful in the human community. Why? Because we will unconsciously attempt to get from other human beings what only God can provide. We will demand that the community meet our needs for love, approval, identity and self worth—which is too heavy a weight for any community to bear.  As significant as Christian community is, no human community can ever fully meet the needs that can only be satisfied by a rich and vibrant relationship with God.

The Danger of Community without Solitude

Bonhoeffer’s statement offers an important corrective to a one-sided spirituality that values community and activism without a commensurate emphasis on solitude. If people who are seeking community together are not clear on the need for both solitude and community and are not being guided to practice solitude 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 out our frustration on those around us through gossip, manipulation, attempts at controlling others, or simply leaving.  We may accuse the community of failing us and even start projecting our inner lacks onto the leader (s) of the community—blaming them for not meeting needs that are God’s to meet anyway.

This is exactly what happened to the Israelites when they became disillusioned with their journey in community in Exodus 16. The people blamed Moses and Aaron for the lack of provision and even begin to question their motives; however, Moses refused to take the place of God in their lives—as gratifying to the ego as that might have been. Instead, he took the focus off himself and directed them back to their own relationship with God.  He pointed out that providing at this level is really God’s to do and they need to take it up with him. “For what are we that you should complain against us?  Your complaint is not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16:8)

The Danger of Leadership Without Solitude

Even more disturbing than the harm that comes to communities when individuals are not cultivating solitude is what happens when leaders are not consistently seeking God in solitude. Shepherds (pastors and spiritual leaders) who do not spend time in solitude, receiving their soul’s nourishment from God, may start to feed on the sheepthe very flock or community they are supposed to be caring for.  The result is a leader or leaders who are trying to get their basic human needs for identity, love, approval and belonging 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 own unmet needs, let alone their unconscious patterns for trying to get other human beings to meet those needs—even in a ministry setting. So we have leaders whose profound emptiness results in the narcissistic tendency to always need to be in the limelight. Or whose need 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.

If our very real and legitimate needs for unconditional love, inner fullness, basic self-worth and sense of “being o.k.” are unmet, due to a lack of solitude in which God is the one who meets these needs, spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd eventually begins to devour the sheep.

Where Real Service Begins

Henri Nouwen says, “In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.”  While this might seem like another fairly radical statement, what Nouwen is saying here 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—to have our human needs for identity, self-worth, calling, love and approval met—must come from the richness of our own intimacy with God which can only be cultivated in a balanced rhythm of solitude and community.

“Each (solitude and community) by itself has profound pitfalls and perils,” Bonhoeffer goes on to say.  “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feeling, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

The real beauty and effectiveness of solitude and community is not in either one by itself but in a balanced rhythm between the two. Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

© Ruth Haley Barton. Adapted from Transforming Community teaching session, 2010.  This article is not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


  1. Patti A Gell on September 23, 2010 at 7:27 am

    Thank you, Ruth. This is a concept I grapple with. Reminding myself the approval of the “audience of One” is the applause I seek, helps keep my life in perspective.
    The recent release of my first book, Prayer As Dance- Invitation To Intimacy, leading weekly devotions for a local company, presenting Choerography of Grace seminars and attempting to launch a ministry with integrity, make the practice of solitude imperative.
    Being cognitive of the concept and practicing the discipline, for me at least, are worlds apart.
    I look forward with great anticipation to the encouragement of being present at your seminar in Holland, MI this weekend.
    Attuned to His grace,
    Patti A. Gell

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:01 am

      Thanks, Patti! Great to meet you in Holland!

  2. Tony Horsfall on September 23, 2010 at 6:21 am

    When I was a church leader I was very dependent upon the community for my identity. If things were going well, I felt good; if things were difficult, I felt bad. Only when I discovered stillness and silence, and developed intimacy with God, was I able to find my true worth in God and become more objective about my ministry. But I also need the community of others as well. For me this comes not only through my own congregation, but through meeting with a small group of other Christian leaders for the purpose of seeking God together. We can be real together and this actually increases my own intimacy with God.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 9:59 am

      Amen! I like your both/and approach here–you are in real community wth your congregation and you have a community of others leaders to share with as well. I think this is the healthiest approach to community for leaders.

  3. Peter on September 22, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Like others have said, the timing on this is remarkable. There has been a great tragedy in the community of which I am a part. I have found myself leaning more and more on those who I lead for feelings of love and acceptance. I want to know from them that I’m leading well in the midst of this hard time. This is an unfair burden for them and an unhealthy reliance for me. Thank you for the vital reminder that I need God and his Spirit to live a whole and holy life.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:03 am

      You’re welcome! Your honest personal reflection is very powerful. God bless you and your community during this difficult time.

  4. Pam on September 22, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Ruth, The timing of this article is unbelievable. This weekend I am presenting on the topic of Solitude. Solitude is a discipline I’ve practiced for years because I so desperately need it. The fruit of solitude – peace, joy, discernment, etc – pare me down to who I really am. What I so needed to read in the article was that as a leader – it’s a necessity, it’s not just a luxury. I’ve felt guilty for taking the amount of time I have away from family and friends to be alone with God. And I’ve noticed that my closest spiritual friends practice it, as well.

    Blessings on your ministry

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:04 am

      Thank you! So glad this came at just the right time. God is good.

  5. vern on September 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    My comment on Dennis King’s comment.

    I believe it is possible to find community within the community in which you liveand serve as a leader. The community is not easy to find or build, but God will provide in ways that one would hardly suspect. I can attest to that. And I also know that it is possible. We’re not above the people we’re serving. We’re amongst them -leading yet with them.

    God will provide..


    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:11 am

      Yes, it is not only possible it is necessary for us to be in community with those we lead. Those of us who lead together in the Transforming Community do so from a very deep commitment to each other as spiritual community. AND it is good for us to have other expressions of community as well–family, life-long friendships from other aspects of life like college/seminary connections, clergy groups, spiritual friends, spiritual director, even our neighbors with whom we share “normal” life. Then, if our status with our church or our place of vocation changes (by our own choice or thiers, or God’s leading), we have not lost our entire community support system. God provides through all these avenues as he knows we need it.

  6. Dennis King on September 22, 2010 at 6:43 am

    Thank you for this crucial reminder. I do have one question. The article challenges us to seek a balance of solitude and community. While I agree that we as leaders can neglect our need for solitude, we also can find true community difficult to experience. We are surrounded by people, but it’s not easy to find relationships of transparency and support among those that we serve. But we give so much time to our congregations that the thought of making more time to find community elsewhere can be overwhelming.

    So to my question: is it possible for a leader to find community within his or her own congregation?

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:15 am

      Yes, the struggle for balance that you describe here is so real. Being surrounded by people is not the same thing as experiencing community, is it? As I responded to Vern, it is both good and necessary for us to find community both within our places of ministry and beyond it as well. Even just having one spiritual friend or a spiritual director outside your immediate community can be very healthy–esp. if your status with your congregation changes.

  7. David P on September 22, 2010 at 6:32 am

    Dangers when people haven’t understood?…I think it’s as inflected in your well-written article…when we seek to fill something meant to be supplied by God through other means and people, we become unhealthy and loose our balance. The danger is continuing to treat the symptoms (with our own understandings and strength) rather than seek the healing and nurturing that only comes from the Lord and precious Holy Spirit. It’s like deciding to take a pain pill for something that needs surgery and thus continue to be unhealthy.
    Lord make me whole, whether you find me in solitude or community. May my spiritual eyes and ears be tuned to You. May I accept the costs, pain and recovery required by surgery, when needed in my life. In Your name Jesus I ask.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:16 am


  8. D. Mark Miller on September 22, 2010 at 5:50 am

    Ruth, while I often find your eReflections confrontive of some aspect of my life and/or ministry; this one proved to be exceptionally provocative. Unfortunately, I can be guilty of both extremes – isolationism on the one hand and then, one the other, demanding of others what I myself am unable or unwilling to reciprocate upon. However, your thoughts were used of God this morning to foster a season of reflection, repentence, and refreshing.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:21 am

      I am most grateful for your deep and heartfelt response to God in the context of this article. You are so right about the two extremes which is why Bonhoeffer’s dialectic is so powerful.

  9. Debby DeBernardi on September 22, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Although I could give many examples of the dangers of leaders I have witnessed such as inconsistencies in how they listen (lack of attentiveness), how they then perceive the person or situation many times followed by dishonoring, curt responses or worse. I have seen burn out and family crisis (like affairs, emotional infidelity, or other mid-life looking actions). However, I am no better if I am not providing space and place for my soul.
    For me personally:
    I notice my body becomes tense in the shoulders, my focus more scattered, my old fear of being worthless wells up giving me the desire to achieve that puts me more into “image management” than listening to God for loving and serving others. It can become about me. It can be so subtle, but once aware of our own red flags, it is then easier to surrender these false needs to God. In fact, it has been in solitude God has revealed this! Helpful to confirm why I need my daily and monthly rhythms for the pace of life and times when I need to plan for more solitude before or after more energy zapping times. Thank you again Ruth for your presence and text mentoring!

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:23 am

      You’re welcome! Thank you for your description of these “subtle but very real” effects of leadership without solitude. This stuff really matters!

  10. Linda Stoll on September 21, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Without choosing times of solitude and silence centered on Jesus, and the filling of the Spirit that develops during those times alone with Him, our wells quickly run dry.

    We run on empty. Our own deep neediness becomes more evident. We look to others to define who we are. And in our exhaustion and frustration, we end up doing harm to those that we’ve been called to serve.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:30 am

      Yes, indeed!

  11. Janice Griswell on September 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Thank you, Ruth, for continuing to teach truth in a clear and timely way, and for sharing it with those of us too far away to be part of the ongoing community! I am changed by having been part of the Transforming Center, but God is good to continually provide refreshers thru His Word and Spirit and others. I always appreciate what you have to share.
    Prayer would be appreciated as I co-lead our Mexican church’s first women’s retreat this weekend with our pastor’s wife. Teaching and counseling has been heavy, and I need my needs filled by Him even as I finish preparing the messages. Thank you.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:31 am

      You’re welcome, Janice! Bless you in all you’re doing.

  12. Vicki Tillman on September 21, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    I totally agree. Those of us who are leaders need the balance of alone and community as much as anyone. One without the other leads to emotional anemia and spiritual dryness.

    • ruth on October 7, 2010 at 10:31 am

      Thanks, Vicki!

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