“Let them who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community… But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.
(Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
In recent years I have become increasingly appreciative of the need for solitude as a spiritual discipline in my life. I realize this doesn’t appear very enticing to most people. After all, who wants to be alone? Didn’t God make us to live in community? Don’t we receive joy and blessing by being in relationship with other human beings?
Yet, in light of living in a culture that puts us in constant contact with people, media, music, and other social connection points, is it any wonder that I am not the only one who is being drawn to the practice of solitude?
Solitude, however, is more than simply being alone. Rather, solitude as a spiritual discipline is the practice of pulling away from a focus on the company of others to give ourselves totally and exclusively to God. It is the practice of withdrawing from our addiction to noise, activities, words, thoughts, and ideas, and to become receptive to God.
Solitude is a formative place because it gives God the time and space to do his deepest work. When no one is around to watch, judge, and interpret what we say, God often brings us face-to-face with hidden motives and compulsions. It is in solitude that we stand squarely before God without props, in a place that reveals how much of our identity is embedded in a false sense of self. Often it is in solitude where God reveals things to us that we might not notice in the normal preoccupations of life.
But solitude is not a practice we do to avoid contact with people. Instead, it gives us healthy perspective and transforms us in a way that enables us as leaders to reengage with people in healthy and productive ways. Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, says pointedly:
If we do not take time regularly to enter into solitude and receive God’s unconditional love as the constant source of our identity, calling, and belonging, we become dangerous in the human community. Why? Because we will attempt to get from other human beings what only God can provide; we will demand that the community meet our needs for love, approval and a sense of self. 
This is a real danger in leadership. If we are not attending to our relationship with God, we will inevitably struggle in our relationships with those we lead. If we are not receiving nourishment for our souls by spending time in God’s presence, we may start to destroy the very community God has entrusted to our care. Barton goes on to say:
Even more disturbing is the reality that when the shepherds (pastors and leaders) do not spend time in solitude receiving their soul’s nourishment from God, they may start to feed on the sheep—the very flock/community they are supposed to be caring for. The result is a leader or leaders who are trying to get basic human needs for identity, approval and belonging met in the community rather than seeking to have these needs met in relationship with God. If these real human needs continue to remain unmet, spiritual starvation sets in and the shepherd eventually begins to devour the sheep. 
We can love the sheep and cultivate healthy relationships with those in our spiritual flock. We can even receive from them the blessings and joy they bestow upon us. But our legitimate human needs for identity, approval, belonging and worth must come from the richness of our own intimacy with God cultivated in a balanced rhythm of solitude and community.
The dangers of community without solitude are clear. And much could be said about the equal dangers of isolating ourselves from community. The two must be balanced somehow through a rhythm of engaging and disengaging both, yet all the while knowing God is present in each of them.
How about you? Can you identify with this personally? Have you witnessed others who are clearly deficient of solitude? How does your soul reverberate with noise from lack of stillness in God’s presence? What is it worth to you, and to those you lead?
 Retrieved from an unpublished paper by Barton, which was included in a notebook of materials distributed at the Transforming Community.
Header image by Milada Vigerova. November 20, 2015. Retrieved from stocksnap.io.
After 16 years in ministry with churches in Abilene, Texas, and La Mesa, California, Barry Packer became the Executive Trustee for the Bell Trust in 1997. Bell Trust is a private foundation that assists Churches of Christ with mission works throughout the world. Barry earned a bachelor’s degree in Bible from ACU, a Master of Theology degree from Harding School of Theology, and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has been an elder at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas since 2004, and currently serves as the Chair of the Board of Trustees at Abilene Christian University. Barry also serves on the governing boards of Missions Resource Network and Christian Chronicle. In addition, he consults with churches and non-profit organizations regarding governance matters. He and Diane, his wife of 38 years, have two sons and four grandchildren.