Our Friend, the Desert

Modeling Stepping Back from a Place of Strength

March 13, 2023

I distinctly remember the conversations that permanently reshaped my faith and leadership in the fall of 2021. The first happened in one of my church’s pastoral staff meetings. My lead pastors instructed all of us to make a four-day, silent prayer retreat in the northern woods of Wisconsin a top priority. My heart sank faster than the Titanic. As a naturally loud, extroverted, city-oriented person, this trip seemed like the closest thing to hell on earth for me. Immediately, I began to justify in my mind why this could not happen. I have two young boys and [at the time] a third one on the way this fall. I can’t leave my pregnant wife with that burden. Pastors Kevin and Joelene Taylor are disciplined saints, but also empty nesters, they’ve become more familiar with silence and aren’t afraid of it like I am. Much to my dismay, neither of these excuses was good enough, later confirmed by a second conversation I had with both my wife, Hannah, and my mentor, boss, and friend, Jon Brown, who smiled and said, “You’re going, and you’re going to love it.”

I’m so glad my family and friends persuaded me to go into that wilderness. It was in the silence, in the desolate place, where my friendship with Holy Spirit deepened, conviction stirred, and my appetite was permanently catalyzed to be hidden by God, over and over again: once a year in those woods, but routinely in my vocational ministry as well. Nearly 18 months later, I am more confident and convinced than ever that if we, as called leaders, do not intentionally choose to step back, we might be following a Jesus different from the one we find in the pages of the Bible.

Jesus’ Example

Have you ever considered the genesis of Jesus’ public ministry? He gets baptized in the Jordan River. His identity is publicly released as everyone around hears affirming words from the Father (Luke 3:21-23). Holy Spirit descends, fills, and leads. And then, prior to stepping forward into the calling he’s been anointed for since before the earth had her frame, he takes a step back into the wilderness/desert/desolate place (Luke 4:1).

Prior to stepping forward into the calling he’s been anointed for since before the earth had her frame, Jesus takes a step back into the wilderness/desert/desolate place.

Dr. Alicia Britt Chole talks about this time extensively in her profound book, Anonymous: Jesus’ Hidden Years…and Yours. As she puts this 40-day desert experience under a microscope, she observes the strength of our Savior as he rejects the lures of appetite, applause, and authority, and instead accepts an unshakable identity, deeper trust in God’s timing, a disciplined imagination, an eternal perspective, and submission-based authority. What a start to vocational ministry! Selfishly, as I disciple under Jesus, I wish this was Jesus’ only desert experience. Alternatively, we find that he slipped away to desolate places as a regular part of his spiritual rhythms; The same word for the “wilderness/desert”  (Strong’s G2048 ἐρήμοις/ἔρημος, “erēmos”) where Jesus was tempted in Luke 4:1, is the same word used to describe:

  • the “wilderness” where Jesus often would slip away to pray (Luke 5:16 and Mark 1:45);
  • the “desolate place” where Jesus recovered from deliverance ministry before continuing to preach in different towns (Luke 4:42 and Mark 1:35);
  • the “quiet place” he instructs the disciples to go to after hard ministry work (Mark 6:30-32); and
  • the “remote area” that Jesus withdrew to so he can grieve the death of his cousin John (Matthew 14:13).

The desert was not a foe of Jesus; rather, it was friendly to his soul, and it has the power to become our friend too. Perhaps one of the greatest ways we can model following Jesus to the next generation is to pursue hiddenness as Jesus did. Typically, when we utter the greatest sequential words, “I want to follow Jesus,” it is associated with only the super fruitful/productive parts of Jesus’ ministry. Yet 90% of Jesus’ earthly life was almost in total obscurity (ages 0-30). Even when the Father moved his precious Son, whom he had intentionally concealed, into the public eye, the Word tells us that Jesus would often slip away to the wilderness to commune with the Father (Luke 5:16). What would it look like for us to often slip away?

Jesus would often slip away to the wilderness to commune with the Father (Luke 5:16). What would it look like for us to often slip away?

Our Opportunity

I believe there is an opportunity before us, as next gen leaders, to reframe what deliberate, healthy stepping back looks like in ministry. At the moment, when Gen Z hears about a ministry leader “taking a step back,” it doesn’t carry pleasant connotations. In February, I asked my students at Journey Ministry College, who feel called to lead in various ministries, “When you think about a ministry leader ‘taking a step back,’ what is the first thing that comes to mind?” The results were telling:

  • 54% thought, “They had a moral failure / placed on probation or fired.”
  • 31% thought, “They’re burnt out or lost passion.”

Only one student’s initial thought was, “Refocusing on the Lord and letting others lead.” One. The opening before us should beckon us to flip the script for these next generations. What would it look like for 85% of the next generation of leaders to have positive initial thoughts about ministry leaders stepping back? What if this was modeled so brilliantly that it was ingrained as a normal spiritual discipline in the lives of next gen ministry leaders?

A shift like that is going to take a move of God, Christian leaders continually seeking deeper friendship with Holy Spirit, and preplanned seasons of taking a step back—but not to cut people off, leave ministries, or forfeit responsibilities. We want to have planned periods of stepping back to reorient around Jesus so we can expand our relationship with him and others, build into the ministry God has called us to steward better than we ever have, and empower (not delegate) others for public-facing responsibilities, all while embracing the tasks assigned to us that only God, and maybe our boss, might see.

Ideas for Stepping Back Regularly

How do we do this? While I’m only 18 months into thoughtfully seeking periods of hiddenness, I can lend you some practices that have helped me, to kickstart and customize as you see fit.

  • DAILY: Turn your phone off for one hour a day. Take some time to get quiet, meditate on scripture, pray while washing dishes, or just sit in silence as you invite Holy Spirit to speak.
  • WEEKLY: Take a sabbath one day a week. (If you haven’t yet read John Mark Comer’s bestseller, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, I recommend it—make a latte and grab a highlighter.)
  • MONTHLY: If you preach from your platform every week, empower someone else to do it once a month.
  • ANNUALLY: Do a silent prayer retreat weekend once a year. See if your denomination/network offers these locally. If not, reach out to someone whose denomination/network does and ask if you can join!
  • SEASONALLY: Coordinate with your boss, collaborative co-workers, employees, and (if applicable) spouse/family for taking a time seasonally to be more hidden. It would have been irresponsible and immature of me to step back in my job if I didn’t communicate beforehand. As I unloaded some of my public-facing ministries, I took on some other responsibilities that would allow the anointing God planted in my heart to develop in the background, before I was able to reemerge at God’s appointed time (which was also agreed upon by my overseers). Most recently, this period of stepping back was strategically planned to be between a busy fall (our college beginning a new school year, family birthdays, international mission trips, and having the joy of being on platform multiple times at my church) and this late winter/early spring period (increased outside speaking engagements, conferences, prospective student visit days, and commencement). Taking a step back has allowed others to grow in their leadership and ownership, while my leadership capacity has been expanded and fortified.

My prayer for you, called and anointed next gen leader—my prayer for us—is to be strengthened by what strengthened Jesus. I pray that you’ll no longer fear nor neglect the desert that you sense the Spirit is leading you into. I pray that, like Jesus, your relationship with the Father will deepen to the point that you may honestly say you can do nothing on your own initiative, but only what you see the Father doing (see John 5:19). We will be better because of it, and the following generations will be too.

Rob Guinta

Rob Guinta

Rob Guinta is a pastor at Journey Church, a multi-site, international church based out of Kenosha, Wisconsin. He serves as the director of Journey Ministry College (www.journeycollege.com), which equips men and women called into ministry or missions with personal mentorship, empowering internships, and accredited undergraduate or graduate studies. Rob met his wife, Hannah, at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where they both graduated in 2015 with Ministry degrees. They enjoy raising their three boys, Líon, Blaze, and Aodhan, as well as building into pastors, leaders, and athletes, and coaching youth soccer in their city. Follow Rob on Instagram @robguinta.
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