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Part 3 Leading in Rhythm: Solitude and Community


“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 is stating so boldly 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 become frustrated and might take out our frustration on those around us through gossip, manipulation, attempts at controlling others.  We 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.

Human community can never fully meet the needs that can only be met by a rich and satisfying relationship with God; it is a weight too heavy for any community to bear. 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 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 legitimate 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

A leader’s journey into solitude and silence has its own unique challenges. One of the subtle temptations of 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 which, 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, provide 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, 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. This 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.  So, if you’re feeling a little desperate in your own spiritual life, let it keep coming until it drives you into the wilderness of your own solitude—a very fruitful place for a leader to be.

The Rhythm of Ministry

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 approaching others from a place of emptiness demanding that they fill up what is lacking.

Henri Nouwen has said, “In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.” Bonheoffer’s comments shed light on what Nouwen means.  We can love the sheep, serve them and be committed to them; we can be vulnerable with them and receive the gifts God wants to give through them.   But our ability to survive and to have our 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.  What we must die to is requiring those we serve to meet our basic needs. 

The beauty and effectiveness of solitude and community is not in either one alone but in the rhythm between the two.  “Each 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.”

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…let him who is not in community beware of being alone.

Continue to Part 4

or Part 1, Part 2, Part 5 of the Leading in Rhythm summer series

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2013.

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.

17 Comments

  1. Celeste on March 23, 2017 at 7:55 am

    Good question, I believe God is the only one who can truly answer that. My change comes from surrender and seeking His direction instead of my own.

  2. Mark Condy on March 30, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I’m reading the Sacred Rhythm book and finding the content wonderful, do you do a retreat on the book at Transforming Center?

  3. Himawan Teguh Pambudi on March 30, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I am full timer youth worker in Surabaya, Indonesia. This article is good to reminding me about the balanced of solitude and being in community. When i disciplined myself to doing this practice i found that my relationship in ministry more healthier day by day. Sometimes so difficult to find good times to doing solitude in the busyness of youth ministry, but i still try. Now, i am mentoring three youth lay leaders and i want them to building solitude discipline in their life. Thanks Ruth for your article and your books. God bless you

  4. Lois Francis on August 13, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Wonderful insights that bear regular revisiting. I used to think of humility in rather narrow terms – just not thinking more highly of myself than I ought. Very true, but I’m thinking it goes much further: true humility pursues the Father to receive what I lack but am called to give – as the widow did in Luke 18. The need is pretty much constant, actually. How foolish I am when I don’t come and sit, especially when such a great welcome awaits!

    • Gerry on August 13, 2013 at 7:39 am

      I received this e-mail and my spirit actually leapt … oh my. Paperwork all around me, delayed flight, cranky customer, crankier boss … just the sight of this spiritual oasis has refreshed me … and how “right on” with the comment. Now, back to work!

  5. celeste on August 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Oh yes I already working on a close friend

  6. celeste on July 31, 2013 at 9:02 am

    I would have spent more time in solitude with God, praying and seeking his direction for my life. I was doing everything right or so I thought, but letting the most important relationship fade. You know that song by casting crowns its a slow fade. That’s what happened to me, I let that relationship slowly fade.

    • Kristin on July 31, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      Sometime in the future, will you reach out to youth pastors and encourage them to learn the secret?

  7. Kristin on July 31, 2013 at 7:47 am

    I wonder if 30+ minutes reading and praying in the morning are enough. I read so much more from others all day long. Yet I know God can speak through other stories if I’m listening and can understand His heart.

    It is an easy trap to fall into of relying on others for your encouragement, approval and love. Thanks for the reminder.

    • celeste on July 31, 2013 at 9:08 am

      Kristin those 30 mins can be enough time. I would suggest reading sacred rhythms and learn some awesome spiritual disciplines.

      • Ruth Barton on July 31, 2013 at 9:35 am

        My experience is that God can do with time what he did with the five loaves and two fish–he can expand whatever we have and make it enough and more than enough. That said, as we practice solitude and silence, our capacity will expand and we will want more. A good principle to consider is that the more words we say and the more leadership we are called upon the provide, the more silence we need so that our words and our leadership are emerging from listening to the still small voice of God rather than just listening to ourselves and the influences of the world around us.



      • Kristin on July 31, 2013 at 2:00 pm

        Ruth,
        God has a sense of humor for I read about the five loaves and two fish this morning. As I read that passage, I thought about how Jesus had just heard about John’s death and stepped into this miracle of sustenance. What that meant to John’s followers and the people of faith, I can only imagine. I will listen to your advice about finding even more silence as our words and areas of leadership increase.



  8. Gerry on July 30, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Perfect timing, thanks.
    It would seem that this same principle would also apply to a father toward his wife and family.
    God’s blessings

    • celeste on July 30, 2013 at 2:47 pm

      Yes it would be great for any relationship, in our high speed world what we need most is time for each other and that all starts with our relationship with Christ.

  9. celeste on July 30, 2013 at 8:31 am

    I wish I would have know this a year ago, before I stepped down from 25 years of youth ministry . I am reading the book sacred rhythms and it has been a big help. I thank god that he lead me. To this place

    • Kristin on July 31, 2013 at 7:43 am

      How would you have been changed, Celeste?

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