First Things First: Practicing What We Preach

“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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Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God

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Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (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, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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This is very rich. Thank you for sharing!

You’re welcome!

God is very generous in coming into any space we create for him.”

Beautiful, true, and wonderful.

I found the section on leaders feeding on the sheep to be very disturbing… and true. I’m aware of some leaders in my church even now who do not seem to be aware of the needs they are getting satisfied through other people’s praise of their efforts. I wish there were a way for those of us watching from the cheap seats to aid such leaders in seeing the off-kilter way that they are trying to obtain from mortals what can only be obtained in Christ. It is one thing when another is open to such discussion, but another thing when their hold on “I’m a leader” brings a cadence of “you are not, you are not, you are not” with it. It kind of breaks my heart.

Heartbreaking, indeed. God help us!

I love this. Thank you for these words. I’ve been following you for some while and your resources have helped me over the years. I am now a new mom for the first time and having trouble finding silence and solitude…do you have any resources or advice?

Abby, The line from above speaks directly to your question, “God is very generous in coming into any space we create for him.” It is not the amount of time, but your heart. There are seasons where solitude is very difficult – new born children is one of them, and yet I am confident God will meet you. I would recommend Ruth’s book Invitation to Silence and Solitude as a great resource for further encouragement.

Absolutely outstanding. Peace be with you, dear Ruth. The ears of my heart receive this. ❤️

Thank you for always being a voice of reason. I hope your time is meaningful.

Amen and Amen Ruth!! Praying for you on retreat!!!

Awesome! Thank you for the reminder. This is so timely for me. Peace and Blessings

Thanks for these words that I needed today. God Bless you!

Well said, Ruth. May the Lord bless and guide your special time this week.

[…] Ruth Haley Barton extols the value of solitude and silence for ministry leaders in her article, First Things First: Practicing What We Preach ( […]

Wow…this is so spot on….I will ponder this in the days to come… pleased your time away was fruitful….no surprise there….God is ever so faithful……and you….thank you for your faithful witness.

All–Thank you so much for your prayers and well wishes as I entered into this important time. I am back–and changed–from such an intense experience of solitude, silence and spiritual direction. In time, you will hear from me regarding some of what took place during that time but for now, simply thank you! I could tell you were with me in spirit!

[…] a recent post from Ruth Haley Barton that skillfully joins into the above thoughts. Both pastors and those who pray for them […]

“In order to be of service to others, we have to die to them.” Nouwen.
Lord, will ever get this right? Thank you for loving me despite my weaknesses.

Thank you God for using Ruth in such insightful and powerful way to remind me of how desperately I need to draw closer to you in solitude. I confess that all too often I struggle with approval issues. I feel like “a jar of river water all shaken up.”

Ruth, thank you for your obedience and submission to the Spirit’s guidance. I’ve benefited over and again from your writings.

God fill you cup to overflowing.

The paradox of time alone – we are with Him and there are such moments of sweet communion while simultaneously or in a toggle we are alone with ourselves and that means facing myriad of emotions and experiences which can not be evaded or silenced once we are still without distraction. Ultimately that is the place where God draws up dross and brings us to more healing and greater intimacy, but there is no bypassing the discomfort. It takes courage and hunger to bridge the moments of boredom or self-revelation that bring us face to face with our deeper selves. I’m grateful for your example and the encouragement you give. Absolutely love the Nouwen and Bonhoeffer quotes. Savoring those truths today. May God richly bless you as you demonstrate through your choice: “You, Lord Jesus, are ultimate in my life and heart.”

Greetings and salutations Ruth … first of all I’d like to welcome your space in gratitude … every so often these reminders are needed, but most of all with action to follow … and this morning as I contemplate on the day’s busy events, your words is a breath of crisp fresh air on a hot summer’s day, a very invigorating and much needed message … I’ll hold you with intentional prayer and sincere revelation of godly identity… muchas gracias.

Thank you for the encouragement to solitude and silence. I have been working at Sabbath keeping of about a year and still struggle. Your encouragement and example is good for my soul.

And many look for Love in all the wrong places……

Yes!! Thank you for this reminder & affirmation. I have a 10-day personal retreat scheduled for after this current time of ministry & an upcoming retreat I’m leading. After that, I will follow your lead, Ruth, and “practice what I preach”. Once again, your words constantly teach me & give me guidance for my own journey. I appreciate the way God has (and continues) to impact my life by your careful ministry. Be blessed, Sister, as you go away and sit at the Table where Jesus Himself will wait on you & serve you in the truest sense of hospitality.

Ruth, as always you consistently write so wonderfully and honestly of spiritual formation from the perspective of one who is still being formed – of one who knows the temptations of the terrain and the subtle trappings found within the life of the “occupationally holy”. Thank you again for writing about and making the pursuit of life within God so real, so normal, so challenging and so deeply rewarding!

Ruth is so right! When leaders become dependent on what others think of them and what others can do for them, those leaders have crossed a line that is unhealthy for everyone. I have had to relearn this lesson in my own life a few times. As a professional single woman in ministry till I was 46, getting married put me into a life situation I was not really prepared for. The marriage was (and is!) wonderful, but moving to a new city and not finding a full-time job as I had planned and then becoming full/time caregiver to my mom made me realize much of my identity was based on the attention of others: students, congregants, a boss. I had to reconnect with God on a whole new level. I have since learned that life has many different seasons and we can miss the blessings of the moment if we can’t rest in what God has for us in the present because we are too busy pining what we think we are missing. I am grateful God has been patient with me as a remedial student in developing my identity in Christ and not in those around me.

Thank you so much for bearing witness to the wisdom (and necessity) of commiting time for retreat in solitude, and discerning thru it, possibilities to discern soulful rhythms with community and leadership… all rooted and grounded in God’s Grace-filled love. Holding you in prayer from down here in Fort Worth during this time of courage, renewal and deepening discernment.

Bless you. I needed to be reminded of this today.:)

With gratitude for you on so many levels and continual prayer for you and yours throughout your week.

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