DMIN 547 Distilling a Dream for Leadership: The Nature and Art of Global Leadership / Jason Clark
Alone Again, Naturally
A Review of Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of A Leader
by Shelley Trebesch
#dminlgp #isolation #trebesch
But as if to knock me down, reality came around
And without so much as a mere touch cut me into little pieces
Leaving me to doubt talk about God in His mercy —
Who, if He really does exist, why did He desert me?
In my hour of need I truly am indeed alone again, naturally.
* * *
In the summer of 1972, I was 14 years old, growing up on the mean streets of Tacoma, Washington, about to start the 9th grade. Like everyone else my age, the radio was my constant companion. And that summer a young Irishman named Gilbert O’Sullivan had an unlikely number one hit in the US; unlikely in that he somehow managed to capture all the angst of the teen years, mix it with a goodly dose of depression and squeeze it out onto the airwaves riding along on a bouncy, happy 4/4 beat. The song has been covered countless times, and heard in television and movies from The Simpsons to Napoleon Dynamite. The song, Alone Again, Naturally, is a schizophrenic mashup of dark, suicidal lyrics coupled to a jolly tune straight from a Disney parade. It feels a bit like the sense you get watching Johnny Cash singing Hurt, the Nine-Inch Nails hit.
At some level, it might just be the theme song for the Shelley Trebesch book, Isolation: The Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader.
Isolation is an odd book with which I have immediately developed a love-hate relationship. There is much to hate: Trebesch’s images and illustrations for isolation include stripping furniture with turpentine, being literally whacked upside the head with a brick and nearly dying, and being bed-ridden for several years prior to a slow but sure death. Yet there are also glorious stories of restoration, redemption and, as the subtitle of the book suggests, transformation.
Then, too, the book is thoroughly steeped in a Christian context and is incredibly ministry-centric. I am gripped with anticipation to see what doctoral colleague, Glenn Williams, writes about a book this narrow, with his broad focus on leadership development. Can the notion of enduring hardship for purposes God has in mind beyond our understanding play in Peoria (or maybe in Perth, since Glenn is an Aussie)? Even within its narrow, Christian milieu, the focus is really on pastors and other church and para-church leaders; there is little here that speaks directly to the average person in the pew.
Most annoyingly to me (for reasons I will soon enough explain), the book is in essence an academic analysis of isolation, a term for which Trebesch adopts J. Robert Clinton’s definition:
Isolation is the setting aside of a leader from normal ministry involvement in its natural context usually for an extended time in order to experience God in a new or deeper way.
This approach makes Isolation a book of lists and charts. Everything seems to be documented with three reasons, six results, a diagram and a table.
This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, but given the subject, it feels very much like someone has once again taken Gilbert O’Sullivan’s suicidal poem and matched it to a song from Barney the Dinosaur. The essential message: “You may feel like crap right now, but if you do these five things you will come to understand there is a grand purpose and out of the compost of your crappy life, a flower may grow.”
In essence, this is a clinical approach, and depending on where you are at in the process, while it may be hopeful it may not be helpful.
So what’s to like about this book?
Well, as it turns out I am both a Christian and a ministry leader, in “full-time ministry” most of my adult life. I have experienced dark periods of isolation that were both voluntary and involuntary. I left one ministry post serving under a manipulative, abusive leader; I left another because the church closed in the wake of a long history of financial difficulty; and I was terminated from a third position in the midst of a difficult season of depression that was colored by end-of-life issues with my adoptive parents. From the vantage point that time and distance affords, I can tell you that, within its narrow context, Trebesch’ analysis and prescription is spot-on.
Still, dealing with the very real trauma life can throw at you is more complex, more personal than this book suggests. Its prosaic clinicism may make it the perfect tool in the hands of a counselor, but I am not sure I would ever give it to a friend who is finds himself way too familiar with the working end of life’s hammer.
When one finds oneself in a period of isolation, you need support and you need guidance to come to your own understandings, your own answers to those age-old questions: Where is God? Why me? Why now?
You don’t need prose and a stark catalog of prospective lessons you might learn. You need narrative and wonder and mystery. You need opportunity for reflection to find yourself in a greater story. If I’m a counselor, I want Isolation on my shelf; but if I’m the one going through the difficult place in life, I would much prefer something like A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.
It’s the same message, but the spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
* * *
 Shelley G. Trebesch, Isolation : a place of transformation in the life of a leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabus Publishers, 1997).
 Shelley G. Trebesch, Isolation : a place of transformation in the life of a leader (Altadena, CA: Barnabus Publishers, 1997), 10..