From Busyness to Solitude
By Bob Clark
“The best thing a person can bring to leadership is his or her own transforming self.” — Ruth Haley Barton
Moving from busyness to solitude is the first part of a life-giving holy rhythm that can feed a church leader’s soul. By solitude I mean withdrawing from the distractions of busyness, seeking time alone with God, and practicing this act of solitude until your heart can experience solitude even in a crowd. Solitude begins as a withdrawal into the quiet and grows into a state of mind and heart that enables you to engage people and problems with a calm, non-anxious demeanor because you are not only focused on God, but also aware of being in the presence of God.
Jesus withdraws from the crowds, and even from the 12 so he can pray and enjoy time with God. If Jesus needs this solitude, how much more do those of us who are church leaders? Times of solitude can enrich our prayer life and knowledge of God as we reserve time for exploring Psalms as a prayer book, praying an examine prayer, reading scripture in the style of lectio divina, and even sitting quietly with God.
In addition to enriching our prayer life, regularly scheduled times of solitude can also help church leaders lead out of our love for God as opposed to acting out of either anxiety or a need for approval. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” as he reinstated Peter and charged him with feeding his sheep. Quiet time with God provides church leaders with the opportunity to renew our love for God. Renewed love makes it more likely that our ministry will grow out of love.
These times of growing closer to God also provide opportunity for the church leader to confront his or her own sin. As we spend time with God we discover areas in our heart where we are conflicted. We remember we are not God, which can deliver us from a messianic style of leadership. Times of solitude in which we see our own sin can reduce our inclination to be judgmental and increase our compassion for those we minister to.
Long ago I discovered I would never have time to devote to the word and prayer if I did not set aside time on my calendar. So I mark off regularly scheduled appointments for solitude that I keep unless compelled by love to make an exception. The following prayer illustrates my frustration with busyness and my desire to have a routine of solitude.
Into the Quiet
The car is parked.
The phone is off.
The television is dark.
The computer is sleeping.
The music player is silent.
Sure, in a way it’s quiet . . .
But this is not the stillness I am searching for.
My mind is racing.
Thoughts are clanging around.
Cares are distracting.
To-do list leftovers are screaming.
How do I find the quiet?
Is there a switch?
Can I turn off all the distractions?
Is there a door to get away?
Can I just walk away from the noise into the quiet?
God, take me to the quiet.
Take me into your peace.
Please, let’s go together.
–Prayer Journal, September 23, 2011-
After I wrote this prayer in my prayer journal, I began a more intentional practice of solitude. Not only do I set aside time for solitude on a daily basis, also I schedule regular visits to a retreat center where I can spend an entire day in silence, reading, worship, and prayer. There are a number of retreat centers in the area where I live. Reserving a room for the day is relatively inexpensive and includes breakfast, lunch, a comfortable room with a bed and shower, walking trails, a chapel, and an exercise room.
Church leaders need to be comfortable with much of their work being hidden from public view. Because the density of ice is different from that of salt water, only about 10% of an iceberg is visible above the water. Likewise, only a fraction of what goes into the ministry of a church leader is visible. Hours of research, study, prayer, and writing may go into a 45-minute class presentation or 20-minute sermon.
Extended periods of prayer, prioritizing, and vision casting may go into a three-minute announcement. Weeks, even months of theological reflection that is unseen may be behind a teaching document that can be read in a few minutes. Seasons of prayer and lengthy conversations may be unseen while the resulting life changes are visible but often completely unnoticed. For our spiritual health, we need to embrace the work that is done either behind the scenes or in solitude and guard against the desire to be seen and approved.
Our relationship with God cannot be forced upon us or forced to grow unnaturally, but with regularly scheduled times of solitude, our relationship can experience natural growth over time. Solitude provides the spiritual nourishment we need as we tend to the souls of others. As we move from busyness to solitude to spend time with God, we get to know God better.
None of us will ever completely master God in our understanding. However, the clearer our picture of God, the more likely we are to have a healthy self-understanding, not to mention healthy relationships with other people who bear the image of God. The end of solitude is not isolation, but community. Our time in solitude makes possible our enjoying community by preparing us to recognize and appreciate the image of God in others. (to be continued)