A Leader’s Biggest Challenge?
What is the biggest challenge you face as a leader? Building a cohesive team? Communicating a clear vision? Developing strategy towards that vision? Is it securing funding? Navigating the demands of family and physical health? Recruiting volunteers and staff members?
Seriously. Stop for a moment and reflect: What’s your biggest challenge right now?
Most leaders I know, when faced with an important urgent challenge, can sense the adrenaline start to build, and will gladly clear their schedule and forego sleep if needed… doing whatever it takes to address and even conquer the looming challenge. They rise to the occasion.
You rise to the occasion. You do whatever it takes. Like Superman, you are “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” At least in that moment.
I celebrate this and recognize it in myself as well. Well, maybe not quite as superhuman as all that, but truly, our capacities can accomplish great things! Especially under the guidance and direction and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We love quoting—and seeing—that “all things are possible.”
But here’s what I’ve also noticed in myself and others over the years. Leaders who would not even flinch at spending 30 hours in transit to a speaking engagement, who are also negotiating major real estate transactions for their organization, hiring key staff members, developing visionary financial proformas to present to their board next week, and gearing up to bring a “fresh word” to that awaiting audience…. these leaders find it extremely difficult to do one thing: RETREAT.
In fact, some openly vilify the very word, as if a halt in forward progress is a threat to their existence or an indictment of their character.
Leaders find it extremely difficult to do one thing: RETREAT.
One such leader I know well had requested and been given a plan that was designed to bring intentionality to next steps in their journey. Among the various next-step recommendations, which included reading materials and serving activities, was one assignment to take two hours for a solitude retreat.
Not five weeks; not three days; not even a half-day. Two hours.
Guess what? Talks were written, deals were negotiated, budget projections were made, staff got hired and fired… but in the span of over two years, this leader—by their own admission—simply could not intentionally stop being available, productive, or otherwise “on”—not even for two hours! Turns out, retreat is hard.
I have come to believe that, especially for many high-capacity leaders like my friend, taking intentional time for retreat is actually one of the hardest things for us to do. Even so, intentionally taking time away from our productivity to be alone with God—whether through solitude, retreat, sabbath, sabbatical—is actually one of the most important things a leader can and must do. Without it, we lose our bearing. We lose our being. We lose our humility. We lose our humanity. And when we lose those things… it’s just a matter of time until we lose everything. We lose our souls.
Intentionally taking time away from our productivity to be alone with God—whether through solitude, retreat, sabbath, or sabbatical—is actually one of the most important things a leader can and must do.
We stay up all night, push past physical and emotional pain, ignore the pleas of friends and loved ones, and keep going… often “for the sake of the call” (or so we think). But a bit of reflection usually reveals that our over-doing can also be for the sake of our egos, the sake of not disappointing powerful people, or the sake of appeasing our fear of failure. At least that list can be some of mine… I’m guessing you have your darker “for the sake of” list as well.
We Resist Rest…
Before we get too frustrated with ourselves over this, let’s remember: this resistance to rest and retreat is not a new or novel thing for the people of God.
To understand what’s behind it, we don’t have to look too far. Throughout scripture we see dozens of invitations and admonitions and even commandments to live and lead out of a place of rest: God introduces, almost immediately, a pattern of Sabbath; Jesus further shows us this through his habits of solitude, stillness, and prayer; the Israelites are given the law of Jubilee. These are things the Lord has created, modeled, and invited us into.
Yet rest and retreat are some of the hardest things because, while having many benefits, they also require something of us: trust. If we are going to truly rest or retreat, we must have a deep and abiding sense of trust that God will sustain us and all the things we are involved in, even as we step away. One of my favorite passages from all of scripture, Isaiah 30:15, reads like this:
This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it” (NIV).
Though God had made himself available to the nations to be their protection and their strength, they wanted none of it. They went out and secured whatever they thought would be their source of provision and strength. Faster horses, so they could flee from their oppressors. Alliances with powerful neighboring nations. Anything to secure their well-being. And yes, we do the same.
God aches over you and me when we choose to go elsewhere. Even today, he says this to us: “In repentance and rest is your salvation.” Can you hear the ache in God’s voice when he says, “but you would have none of it”? A longing to be our provider, protector, our source? A sadness over knowing what and who we become when we choose otherwise?
If God spoke about rest and retreat through his prophets in the Old Testament, he modeled it for us in the person of Jesus. If God in human form needed to rest and retreat, how much more do we need to do the same!
…But We Need to Rest
There’s a story in Mark 1:35 that comes right on the heels of a successful ministry event. These days we might even refer to it as a revival. Jesus was preaching and healing people and drawing larger and larger crowds.
What would we do in that kind of a situation? Would we keep working, doing more and more, because we could see advancements were being made in the kingdom and we wouldn’t want to jeopardize that? Would we call in for more disciples? Now is the time! We must strike while the iron is hot! Or would we retreat and rest?
That last one sounds almost silly, doesn’t it, when we consider our current models of ministry and ways we have of operating. To walk away, just when things are beginning to take off, seems foolish; maybe irresponsible.
And yet that is what Jesus does in this story:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1:35-37, NIV).
He left the crowds behind. Irresponsibly enough, he didn’t even tell his followers where he was going! And their reaction seems about right: “Jesus, where did you go? There are things to be done, people to be healed, sermons to be preached!”
If rest and retreat are essential, they might also sometimes appear… inappropriate? Ill-timed? Even irresponsible? But even the secular world around us is beginning to recognize the benefits of rest and retreat. A recent Forbes article1 listed five benefits that occur when you ensure you are receiving adequate rest:
- Physical Healing. The human body flourishes in short bursts of activity, so taking a break, even for a few minutes, can refresh us throughout the day. “Adequate rest helps your body activate its inner healing cascade and return to a state of homeostasis.” In other words, resting helps your body make repairs and recover from the hard work you’re doing.
- Stress Reduction. When you’re stressed, you experience a fight-or-flight response, something that may make you feel more productive, at least in the short-term. But our bodies were not made to remain in that state. “Resting activates the parasympathetic nervous system–the opposite of the… flight-or-fight response.” Resting can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, bring your digestive function back to a normal pace, and decrease hormone levels that cause stress.
- Boosts Creativity. Resting allows you time to refill your reserves, reflect, and break through creative walls. Open-ended problems are more easily solved, as your brain has the space to act spontaneously.
- Improves Productivity. Your brain is like most of your other muscles—it is less functional when it’s fatigued. Rest sharpens your thinking.
- Enhances Decision-Making. Working for too long without resting or retreat leads to a lower ability to concentrate and depreciated emotional capacity.
The idea of taking a retreat or even a sabbatical compounds these benefits of rest, and is also finding its way into the mainstream.
While the type (paid versus unpaid), length (weeks versus months), and other sabbatical details vary, research suggests that the upward trend in sabbaticals is due to two primary factors. Sabbaticals and extended vacation time are not just good for employees to rest and recharge—they benefit the organization by stress-testing the organizational chart and providing interim roles to allow aspiring employees to take on more leadership.2
Make Time to Rest and Retreat
What could intentional times of retreat look like for you?
Start with an honest look at your calendar. Where and when will you pause, disconnect from your productivity and sense of being “on” to connect with God? Not binge-watch or socialize with friends or go for a long run. (No judgment on any of these, but that’s not solitude and retreat.) You and I need to get to a space where the noise-floor of your life can actually drop. Where your mind can become still, focused on being with God, resting in God, connecting with God.
If this is a common pattern for you, and I hope for many of you it already is, please begin to take some emerging leaders along with you in this journey. As Eli did for young Samuel, help someone else begin to discern the voice of God in their own life.
If the concept of personal retreat is unfamiliar and foreign, decide today that you will learn this vital practice for your soul.
And if the concept of personal retreat is unfamiliar and foreign, decide today that you will learn this vital practice for your soul. There will be a learning-curve. It will be hard, and all your muscle memory—everything in you—will be screaming and shouting loudly with you for productivity and reminding you that you have no value apart from what you do or accomplish.
Here are a couple of things that have helped me.
- Take a monthly retreat. (Tip: Invite others into your time so you’re accountable to do it!) I started a virtual, semi-silent, monthly retreat that’s been going on for over two years. Quite a fun virtual community is growing up around it now, but everyone knows I started these in part for selfish reasons—to make sure that I actually took three hours each month for a time of personal solitude. To participate and learn about upcoming retreats, join The Soul Care Collective.
- Commit to a 24-hour floating sabbath. Hey, I get it. You don’t get Sundays off. Or Saturdays. Or Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays. You’re on the road, your schedule changes each week. Me too. What I have discovered is this: The principle behind sabbath, the resting in God, the not being “on,” is vital, and so is the expanded timeframe of 24 hours where you are not “on.” Yes, you’re still with family and friends, yes, you’re out for a walk or reading a great book… but you’re not “on.” You’re not pushing forward. You’re able to rest. Trust. Enjoy God and others. Recreate; re-create. Replenish and restore. Remember and rest. (Tip: I find it helpful to draw an imaginary line in my schedule and commit to not pushing forward for the next 24 hours. Sometimes it’s Friday at 3:00 p.m., sometimes it’s Sunday at noon. But usually between Friday and Monday I can carve out at least 24 hours to be “off.” If your schedule can accommodate the same timeframe each week, that would be an even more useful practice for your body and soul. But if your schedule does not permit that level of routine, please at least make sure you can carve out those 24 consecutive hours to be “off.”)
What I have noticed as I embrace both of these practices on a weekly and monthly basis is this: I remain clear on who is God and who is not. I am refreshed in my spirit. My soul gets restored. I re-anchor my doing into God’s being and my own being.
I truly hope you will consider doing the same and helping each other on this path. Maybe start a #leadstrong group with friends and text each week to let each other know when that imaginary line has been crossed! Or join our monthly semi-silent retreats online. Let us know what practices help you truly turn off the doing.
Several friends right now are stepping away from their senior leadership responsibilities this summer for a sabbatical. Some for as short as a month, others for three or more months. What a wise and strategic thing to do! Our Soul Care team will be wrapping them up with prayer and sabbatical-related services to help them maximize this incredible gift of time away. The last thing you want to do with a sabbatical, as they well know, is squander the opportunity by simply treating it as an extended vacation. There is so much more to glean from this gift than simple time away.
So… God commanded us to rest, and Jesus showed us how it was done. What plan do you have for you and your organization to institute rest—not just as an accidental byproduct, but as a deliberate part of your ongoing growth strategy?
Retreat and rest can’t be something we only do when we have nothing else to do. Retreat and rest must be a strategic priority.
Do the hard thing.
1. Heather Cherry, “The Benefits Of Resting And How To Unplug In A Busy World,” Forbes magazine, January 15, 2021.
2. David Burkus, “Research Shows That Organizations Benefit When Employees Take Sabbaticals,” Harvard Business Review, August 10, 2017.