The first time I read Shelley Trebesch’s Isolation was in the summer of 2010. I’d recently been “let go” from my job at a church for “not being a good fit.” It was (and still is) a painful experience and I was (and still am) having a tough time processing it.
My friend and doctoral colleague, Glenn Williams, suggested Trebesch’s book. He’d also navigated a similar situation and found the small book offered big insights into what happens when someone in ministry experiences a period of isolation. The book is written for people in ministry about how to navigate times when they are not actively engaged in ministry. As another colleague, Russ Pierson, notes on his blog, this limits the scope of Trebesch’s immediate audience and possibly narrows the context of applicability.
You, dear reader, may not be involved in something you’d call “ministry.” But I’ll wager that Trebesch has something to say to you as well. If you have the time and the resolve to expose yourself to 100 pages of “insider” talk about the practice of ministry, analysis of Biblical characters, and the insecurities of those who practice professional ministry, you might find that there are takeaways that work in your context as well.
But, perhaps you don’t have that kind of time or the interest. Read on. I’m going to offer a brief sketch of the four main stages of isolation that Trebesch describes, attempt to draw out some “secular” parallels, then share with you where I am in that process, almost exactly a year into isolation.
The crux of Trebesch’s understanding of isolation turns upon a four-stage process, which she distilled through examining Biblical character studies, ministry leader biographies, and contemporary accounts of ministerial “burn out.” Briefly, her four stages are:
- Stripping – a stage during which isolation is initiated and the ministry identity of the leader is stripped away. Isolation can be voluntary (as in a sabbatical, pursuing a degree full-time, or transition into a new ministry context) or involuntary (illness, financial hardship, or discipline). The removal of the minister from his or her ministry context results in the stripping away of the aspects of his or her identity that are based on performance or the “need to be needed.”
- Wrestling with God – during this stage, the leader struggles to understand who it is that he or she is created to be, apart from identifying with a particular ministerial function or role.
- Increased Intimacy – this is the period when the leader experiences a breakthrough in understanding the role that brokenness plays in one’s relationship to God and the formation of one’s identity. After being stripped of role-based identity and after struggling with how to conceive on oneself as created by God apart from a given role, the ministry leader experiences a bit of a crisis as he or she leans into the understanding that we are first created for relationship with God.
- Release to Look Toward the Future – this final stage is marked by the leader’s return to ministry in some form. Trebesch assures her readers that isolation is episodic, that God brings His people out of isolation. His enduring faithfulness grounds leaders in the hope that what God has planned for them is greater than what they’ve experienced up to that point. Further, the period of isolation is one of the ways that God forms leaders for future ministry responsibilities.
Now, that’s all fine and resonates well if you are “in ministry.” But what does it mean for those who aren’t? Are there any touch points? I think so. If I was going to recast her stages of isolation for people who are not “in ministry,” here’s what it would look like:
- Stripping – the event that initiates isolation and the period subsequent to it. This can be voluntary (job transition, vacation, further education) or involuntary (financial hardship, layoffs, long illness). Whatever the inciting incident, being removed from one’s “job” often results in an examination of one’s identity. Who am I apart from what I do?
- Identity Crisis – Once one’s primary role has been stripped away, one starts to look around for something else in which to be grounded or through which to find meaning. This could take the negative form of a “mid-life crisis” or a radical change in one’s choice of career. Often, however, it manifests as an existensial crisis centered around one’s ultimate purpose in life.
- Peace – This stage is reached only if one comes to the understanding that there is value in who he or she is as a person, apart from his or her performance or role. This revelations is usually freeing and refreshing.
- Hope – Having weathered Stripping, Identity Crisis, and arrived at a place of Peace, one is filled with a sense of hope for the future. The whole experience is seen in light of Nietzsche’s aphorism “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” One begins looking for new opportunities to lean to be the best self he or she can be.
Does that have traction? Does Trebesch’s basic premise work apart from her focus on ministry as context and minister as role?
Finally, a personal note: I think I may have just closed the Stripping stage and be moving on to the Wresting stage. I’ll write more about this in the coming weeks as I reflect upon the last year, but a recent experience at the 2012 Ecclecia National Gathering in D.C. helped me see just how much God has been doing underneath the surface over the past year.
Last week, I returned to the D.C. area for the first time since being “dismissed” from my church-based ministry position at a large, attractional church in the suburbs. At dinner with some friends who are still in the area I was asked, “So, is it weird to be back?” I took her question to mean, “How are you emotionally processing your return to the area where you experienced so much pain the last time you were here?”
I thought about it for a moment and then, somewhat surprised by my own answer, told her that I hadn’t really thought about it. It wasn’t “weird” at all. I suppose I should’ve felt something. Anger? Sadness? Remorse? But I felt none of those things. Just… normal.
Later that evening, back at the conference, the emcee closed the evening by saying that he felt like there might be a few people in the room whom God wanted to “call back from the dead.” People in ministry who had been dealing with a prolonged period of spiritual “deadness.” He wanted others to gather around those people, lay hands on them, and pray for them. When he asked if there was anyone in the room who felt like that description fit, like God was calling them “back from the dead,” to raise their hands, my hand shot up. Just shot right up on its own. Traitor.
Within moments, a half-dozen people, some of whom I’d just met the previous day, but most of whom I did not know, were gathered around me, hands on my back, shoulders, arms, and legs, praying words of life and peace over me. One person said, “Andy, I feel like Christ is standing at the entrance to your tomb, just like he did for Lazarus, and he’s calling you to come out and take off your stinking burial clothes. It’s time to take off those rags. They stink of death, man.”
That night I re-read the Lazarus passage in John 11. Jesus had just been chased out of Jerusalem for pissing off the Pharisees (again). He went across to the other side of the Jordan river, to the east of Jerusalem. While he was there, he got word that his good friend Lazarus was near death in Bethany, and that he should come quickly. To do that, Jesus and his followers would have to go back through Jerusalem.
By the time things had settled down enough for them to make that journey safely, Lazarus was dead and in his tomb. But Jesus went to Bethany anyway and called out, in a loud voice “Lazarus, come out of there!” (You see, the dead don’t hear very well.)
Jesus met Lazarus in the place where he died and called him back to life. Christ did the same thing for me in my return to D.C. He met me in the place where, a year ago, I died. And he called me back to life.
That doesn’t mean that things are rosy now. My identity has been thoroughly stripped. I went from being in a place of prominent ministry and a decent salary to working at a seminary on the other side of the country providing tech support for students. That’s a big role shift, friends. No, things aren’t settled. There is a lot of wrestling in front of me. But at least I know that’s where I am. Where are you?