Part 2: Solitude and Community

Editors note: As we head into the fall ministry season we offer you part two of an eReflections series to encourage you to pay attention to the spiritual rhythms that will strengthen the soul of your leadership. Click on the links to read part 1, part 3, part 4, and part 5 of this series.


“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.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer


In this paradoxical statement from his book Life Together, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulates one of the most important spiritual rhythms for all Christians but especially for those of us who are leaders—the rhythm of solitude and community.

What Bonhoeffer seems to be saying is that if we do not take time regularly to enter into solitude and receive God’s unconditional love as the constant source of our identity, calling, and belonging, we become dangerous in the human community. Why? Because we will attempt to get from other human beings what only God can provide; we will demand that the community meet our needs for love, approval, a sense of self and whatever else we may be missing. Then when the community disappoints us, is unable 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.  We may accuse the community of failing us and may even start projecting our inner lacks onto others in the community—blaming them for not meeting needs that are not theirs to meet anyway.

The problem, of course, is that the community can never fully meet the needs that can only be met by a rich and satisfying relationship with God. It is a weight that is too heavy for any community to bear. And when the 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.  The result is pastors and leaders who are trying to get basic human needs for identity, approval and belonging met in the community rather than seeking to have these needs met in relationship with God.

To make matters even more complicated, our deepest unmet needs are often unconscious as are our patterns for trying to get other human beings to meet them. If these real human needs continue to remain unmet (as they ultimately will because they can never be fully met in any human relationship), spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd eventually begins to devour the sheep.

A Little Desperation Goes a Long Way

Solitude is a key discipline for all those who seek after God; however, a leader’s journey into solitude and silence has its own unique challenges. One of the great and very subtle temptations relative to life in leadership is that the activities and experiences associated with leadership can be very addicting.  The idea that I can do something about this, that, or the other thing feeds something in us that is voracious in its appetite.  That something is the ego or the false self that, over time, identifies itself and shores itself up with external accomplishments and achievements, roles and titles, power and prestige.  Leadership roles, by their very nature, give a lot of fodder for the ego. To remove ourselves, even for a time, from the very arena where we are receiving so much of our identity can be difficult, if not impossible, for leaders no matter how much mental assent we give to the whole idea.

Many leaders preach solitude better than they practice it and I suspect this may be the nut of it.  Leaders are busy, yes, and solitude necessitates that we pull away from the demands of our lives in ministry, which is never easy and involves many logistical challenges.  But I think the real reason we resist actually moving into a more substantive experience of solitude may have more to do with the anxiety that comes as we pull away from that which we have allowed to define us externally.  Usually we’re not willing to let go of all that unless we are desperate—as Elijah was when he went into the wilderness,  as Moses was when we he fled to Midian, and as Paul was when he got knocked off his horse and sat in utter stillness for three days.  If you’re feeling a little desperate, let it keep coming until it drives you into the wilderness of your own solitude—a very fruitful place for a leader to be.

And of course, the point of going into solitude is to return to our life in the company of others with something to give from the fullness of what we have received rather than coming to others from a place of emptiness demanding that they fill up what is lacking.

The Rhythm of Ministry

Henri Nouwen has said, “In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.”  I think Bonheoffer’s comments shed light on what Nouwen means.  We must die to needing those we serve in order to survive. 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 has given them.   But our ability to survive and to have our (very legitimate) human needs for identity, calling, approval, belonging and worth met must come from the richness of our own intimacy with God cultivated in a balanced rhythm of solitude and community.

“Each by itself (solitude and community) 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 beauty and effectiveness of solitude and community is not in either one alone but in the rhythm between the two.  Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

Continue to part 3

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


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Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer 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.

6 Comments

  1. Maria on February 13, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    I am much like the person who desires fellowship without solitude and don’t seem to realize how harmful it is to myself and others(devouring another). While my husband is very much like the person who seeks solitude over fellowship who seems to be in despair despair seems to border on self infatuation and neglect (destroying unity)we are on our sixties and our third marriage of less than two years is almost destroyed
    What are some intentional things I could do? That he could do? Which would help save our marriage ?

  2. Clare Loughrige on August 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    This pastor thanks you for teaching and modeling this for me… it saved my life and kept me in the race!

  3. BinKen on August 24, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Would like to get emails from you on transformation insights.

  4. Mark Werner on August 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Wonderful e-reflection! How paramount to our ministry, and serving freely, to receive from God what God alone can give to us, and then not to be seeking, or in the worse case scenario demanding from those we do serve in ministry, what is God’s alone to make real and true in our lives.

    • Ruth Barton on August 24, 2011 at 2:18 am

      Amen, brother!

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