Only the Lonely: Leading Through the Crucible of Isolation

This is a guest post by my friend Joshua Lee Henry who wrote about christian leadership development. I am honored and privileged to call Joshua a friend, mentor, teacher, and a brother in Christ. Joshua has consistently demonstrated high caliber leadership in everything he does. His relentless drive for growth and learning coupled with his consuming desire to serve and add value has been instrumental in my growth in my leadership journey. You can connect with Joshua at Twitter and Facebook. Joshua also writes a blog at www.joshualeehenry.com

Christian leadership development is a very popular topic these days. Thousands of titles fill bookstore shelves, all addressing leadership from some sort of biblical, practical, and spiritual aspect. Likewise, the Christian blogosphere is flooded with thought-provoking articles, claiming to be applicable to every believer’s context. So am I complaining? Not at all! I love the fact that there is such an awareness of the need for the Church to corporately and individually influence our culture.

However, many of these pieces focus on relationships, ethical dealings, and service. Essential aspects of leadership, yes, but they tend not to address the specific internal challenges of the leader. Without even considering the many obstacles that accompany organizational leadership, the issues of self-leadership abound. Subjects like character, fear, doubt, and isolation need attention too. It is the last mentioned crucible of isolation that I’d like to concentrate on in this guest post.

By definition a leader is someone who has followers. That means a leader is a person that influences others for the sake of completing a common goal, creating a better reality, or entering into new territory. Therefore, leaders are responsible for creating and casting vision among their people. All of this takes shape in some sort of social and interpersonal environment. Again, because as leadership expert John Maxwell likes to quip, “He, who thinks he’s leading but has no followers, is merely taking a walk.”

Still yet, there will be times in a leader’s life when they will be forced to face a difficult situation alone. Whether physically or emotionally, this can be part of attaining a larger purpose for the group or meant as a divine testing of personal character development. This pattern is true for all great leaders in history and is something that emerging leaders should be conscious of, so that they can be prepared to learn from such an experience.

I wrote the final outline for this post during the Easter weekend. As I thought about the empty tomb that we celebrate so much on Sunday morning, my mind conjured an image of Christ rising from the dead, sitting up, and realizing that he was all alone. Of course it was the supernatural power of the Father through the Spirit of Life that raised Jesus from the dead, but from a tangibly relational aspect, when he awoke, it was just him, the burial clothes, and a dark cave.

Conversely, this was not the first time Christ was alone. Just a few days earlier on Good Friday Christ hung on the cross and suffered through excruciating agony alone. Though he had exchanged a few words with the two thieves hanging on either side of him, he had to feel deserted. The surrounding guards of Roman soldiers and executed criminals could not have been comforting. Only a few friends were present to watch him die. Christ’s instruction to the beloved disciple, John, to watch over and care for his own mother, was Jesus’ final acknowledgment that where he was going, they could not yet go (see John 7:32-36 & 19:26-27). With his last breath Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). For the first time in his existence, Christ experienced a separation from the Father. Indeed, He was alone.

We find that in several other critical moments of Christ’s life he faced many challenges of isolation. For example, the night Jesus was arrested the disciples abandoned him in two ways. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, despite the admonition from Christ, Peter, James, and John, fell asleep on him three times while he prayed. Then when Judas arrived with the Roman guards to arrest Christ, all his disciples fled in fear, leaving Jesus alone with his accusers. Jesus was able to overcome these tests of isolation because he understood his greater purpose. Sweating drops of blood, he prayed “My father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42). Christ’s obedience, surrender, and solitude on the cross led to the conquering of death and total forgiveness of the world’s sins. Thank God Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. Instead his resurrection led to the birth of the church and the reconciliation of all creation.

Again, this pattern of isolation as a period of trial is common throughout the Scriptural narrative. Consider these other biblical leaders who faced important yet trying periods of isolation and the great work that God did through them afterwards.

  • Noah and his family alone in the Ark while the earth was flooded
  • Abram taking Sarai and leaving his family in Egypt
  • Jacob fleeing Esau in fear
  • Joseph’s imprisonment under Potiphar
  • Moses’ mountaintop experience

These biblical leaders went through very demanding and abandoning times to follow God’s greater purpose. Remember, sometimes God takes leaders though difficult and lonely situations so that we may be strengthened to accomplish more for His will. Here are some lessons and contemplative questions to help you stay sane during solitude:

1)      Remind yourself of your purpose.

  • What is it that you were born to do, and what’s the connection between that end goal and this time of trial?

2)     Reflect on your journey.

  • How have you arrived at this situation and where does this indicate you may be headed?

3)     Revere the name of God and trust in his provision.

  • Read his Word and Pray. Ask him what it is you need to learn through this situation.

4)     Review your current circumstance.

  • What action can you begin to take to leave this period of seclusion

Suggested Readings:

“Leading Minds: The Anatomy of Leadership” by Howard Gardner

“Leadership and the Art of the Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity” by Steven Snyder

“Understanding Leadership” by Tom Marshall

About the Author:
Joshua Lee Henry is a leadership coach and organizational consultant for churches, nonprofit ministries, and ‘business as mission’ companies. He has a B.S. in sociology and religious studies with a minor in philosophy from Ball State University and an M.A. in ministerial leadership from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University. Joshua is currently taking postgraduate courses in Christian leadership and missions in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

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  • Lynn Hare

    Excellent article, Joshua. Isaiah 43:20, 21 says, “I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.” In a wilderness experience, the river of God’s purpose flows through our lives. When the arid desert experience seems to steal our comfort, I pray our spiritual eyes–as leaders–are open to the new life springing up, even as we lead others in being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

  • Hello Lynn, thanks for the reply! I love the prophecies in Isaiah and all the metaphors for Christ, the new Canaan. We would do well to remember how Egypt, Babylon, and the wilderness were all temporary and trying locations of learning in the history of God’s people. I agree, Christian leaders should always been seeking the wellspring of life in Christ.