Who’s Holding You? Part 1

By Mark D. Roberts

February 26, 2024

A Biblical Guide to Inner Work

Scripture — 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 (NRSV)

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith.


Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky remind us that leaders of change need to create “holding environments.” But we also need places to be “held” by others. The relationship of Paul and Timothy in the New Testament offers a stirring biblical example of such “holding.” If we’re going to do wise inner work, we need people in our lives to support us in that effort by offering their kindness, wisdom, and love. And, of course, we need to offer the same to others.

Today’s devotion is part of the series: A Biblical Guide to Inner Work.


In their book Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky describe a particular task of adaptive leadership as creating a “holding environment.” They explain:

When you exercise leadership, you need a holding environment to contain and adjust the heat that is being generated by addressing difficult issues or wide value differences. A holding environment is a space formed by a network of relationships within which people can tackle tough, sometimes divisive questions without flying apart. Creating a holding environment enables you to direct creative energy toward working the conflicts and containing passions that could easily boil over (p. 102).

Wise and effective leaders create a holding environment so their team can work through divisive issues without becoming relationally divided.

Creating a holding environment for others is demanding yet essential work for leaders. Yet it isn’t the only “holding” that matters. Heifetz and Linsky go on to say,

Through your own experience, you may indeed have become extraordinarily good at providing a holding environment for people, containing the tensions during a process of organizational, political, or social change. You may have developed the great emotional and mental energy required to unite people in the midst of conflicting views and values. . . . But who’s holding you; who’s holding the holder? When you are completely exhausted from being the containing vessel, who will provide you with a place to meet your need for intimacy and release? (pp. 176-177).

As you read those questions, perhaps a person or certain people came immediately to mind. You may know the people who hold you, both literally and figuratively. On the other hand, perhaps you’re not quite sure who should be the “holders” in your life and leadership.

But we all need people to serve as “holders” for us, especially when the tasks of leadership are exhausting. We see an example of this in the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul. It’s common for people to view Paul as a solo act, an individual who scurried about the Roman Empire preaching the gospel to as many people as he could. But, in fact, Paul operated as part of a strong network of churches and individuals. Moreover, certain people were particularly important to him, not only as ministry partners, but also as beloved members of his “family.”

I would suggest that Timothy functioned as a “holder” for Paul. Now, to be sure, Paul also was a “holder” for Timothy, of whom Paul once wrote, “like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Phil 2:22). Yes, Timothy was Paul’s “beloved and faithful child in the Lord” (1 Cor 4:17), one whom Paul nurtured even as they served together.

But Timothy was uniquely special to Paul, who once said of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (Phil 2:20). In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes sending Timothy to Thessalonica even though he preferred not to be “left alone” (1 Thes 3:1). In this instance Paul describes Timothy, not as his spiritual son, but as “our brother and co-worker for God” (1 Thes 3:2). If we read between the lines a bit, we can see that Paul valued Timothy deeply, not only for the work Timothy did with Paul, but also for the close relationship they shared. Of course, Paul never said, “Timothy is my holding environment.” But it seems likely to me that if Heifetz and Linsky had asked Paul, “Who’s holding you?”, he would have pointed to Timothy and probably others as well. (Of course, Paul would have mentioned the Lord. I’ll have more to say about this next week.)

Now, you may be wondering how having people “hold” us is related to the inner work of leadership. I’d suggest several possible answers:

First, identifying the people who form our personal holding environment is itself a crucial element of inner work. We need to know to whom we will turn in trying times.

Second, it’s difficult to do wise inner work when we’re emotionally spent. We need the support and strengthening that comes from those who “hold” us.

Third, the people who “hold” us often know us very well and can help us sort out what’s going on inside of us. Though inner work is something we can do alone, it is also something to share with trusted confidants.

Certainly, there are more than three answers to the question of how people hold us. In a moment I’ll invite you to think about how you might answer this question as you reflect on your own life. Tomorrow I’ll share a bit about my experience of being “held” by people in support of my leadership.


How would you answer the question: Who’s holding you?

Have you ever had a relationship that reminds you of the relationship between Paul and Timothy? If so, what was it like? In what ways were you “held” in this relationship? In what ways did you do some “holding”?

Are there people whom you are “holding” as they exercise leadership? If so, in what ways are you “holding” them?


If you have identified someone as a “holder” for you, reach out to that person and thank them.


Gracious God, how thankful I am that I am not alone in life. Yes, you are with me always, and that’s most important. But also, you have given me the gift of others who share life with me, who listen to me, who encourage me, and who love me. Thank you!

Help me, I pray, to see those who are my “holders.” May I be sure to spend time with them, opening my life honestly with them.

Also, I ask that you use me as a “holder” for others. I may already know who those others are. Or, perhaps, you will direct me to folks I have not yet identified. Help me, I pray, to support the leaders to whom I’m connected in ways that encourage and strengthen them. Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Labor of Love.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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