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Pastors’ mental well-being flourishes in the woods, on the water

NASHVILLE (BP) — Terry Fant talked about getting tired, not from the Gospel itself, but undeniably what is required in being a pastor.

“Oftentimes we grow weary, and we just can’t tell anybody,” said Fant, of Hickory Ridge Baptist Church in Florence, Miss. “We just sorta keep pressing on.”

Fant spoke as a testimonial for Pastors in the Outdoors, an outreach of REAL MOMENTUM Ministries. His words reveal something many active in such ministries have known for years – the benefits of getting outside include much more than fresh air.

Keith Boggs, founder/executive director for REAL MOMENTUM and co-founder of Pastors in the Outdoors, speaks at as many as 35 churches a year for men’s events. Another 10-15 churches show up at his group’s regional gatherings. He and others lead 6-7 men’s retreats annually throughout the country—from Nebraska to Michigan and all the way down to Florida.

A former pastor who experienced burnout, Boggs has seen time and again the physical, mental and spiritual rejuvenation that comes with getting pastors into the woods or on the water.

When guests arrive, they appear healthy. Boggs has learned to know better through exit interviews.

“We had one pastor [struggling] with the loss of his son. Another was in a hard church and had been considering taking his life,” said Boggs.

He’s observed a central need among these pastors, and it’s not to sharpen their hunting skills.

“Camaraderie,” he said. “They don’t even realize it until the leave.”

Retreats are designed to encourage that participants don’t know others beforehand. In addition to hunting or fishing, a midday ministry session includes two participants sharing their testimony.

“It promotes transparency and becomes a restoring, reviving time with other men,” said Boggs. “When they leave, they continue their text groups to stay in touch. It happens every time.”

Once a taboo subject, the discussion over mental health has become more open. In 2013, Southern Baptist messengers approved a resolution at the annual meeting on mental health concerns and the heart of God. A Lifeway Research study last year revealed that stress topped the mental challenges pastors face.

Engagement brings positive ways to address it, including ones that were always just beyond the church’s front door.

Quintell Hill shares a recent day on the water in a Facebook post.

Quintell Hill was a student minister over 11 years ago when a parent invited him outside. It sparked a love for the outdoors that has continued to this day and is constantly witnessed on his Facebook page, where Hill recently shared a successful day on the lake and resulting fried catfish strips.

Sun and fresh air are far from the only reasons he loves it.

“My time in the outdoors allows me to think about God’s Word,” said Hill, lead pastor of Multiply Community Church in Monroe and president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. “Oftentimes, I’m able to develop sermon outlines and dream about the future.

“As I look at His creation in the outdoors, it reminds me of how great our God is. Remembering His greatness restores my soul!”

Caleb Groteluschen learned how to cast a fly rod on the same stretch of North Colorado river where he would be baptized many years later. His parents, Ron and Ronda, spent part of their honeymoon rabbit hunting. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the outdoors became something their son and his three siblings remember as always being constant.

“Some of my earliest memories are of my dad teaching me how to fish,” said Groteluschen. The frequency of those trips received Ronda’s blessing under one condition—their four children went as well.

His grandfather’s influence proved just as important. Bill Hays was an avid outdoorsman, but also a pastor and missionary in Wyoming as a director of missions.

“He was monumental in my passion for the outdoors and ministry,” said Groteluschen, lead pastor of Capstone Church in Helena, Mont.

Those lessons carried over not only as a pastor, but husband to his wife, Courtney, and father to three young children.

Caleb Groteluschen, pastor of Capstone Church in Helena, Mont., is accompanied by his son, Grayson, while hunting elk and mule deer.

“Anything worth having is worth the work,” he said. “There’s always the opportunity to connect with the Lord through His creation. The context in which I grew up, though, is that the outdoors is a family experience. Everybody goes. It’s a good way to connect.”

The lifestyle also benefits him physically.

“I hike a lot during elk season and will drop 10-15 pounds,” said Groteluschen. “We do this as a family pretty much year-round and stay active.”

Boggs incorporated REAL MOMENTUM in 2012 and Pastors in the Outdoors with Dennis Wilder, who leads several of the retreats, a few years later. Partnerships and sponsorships help keep the cost comparative to a preaching conference. Church leaders who budget an outdoors retreat place a significant contribution toward their pastor’s well-being, Boggs said.

“God’s creation is a powerful thing. The beauty of it and the pursuit of a white tail [deer] or turkey—it’s an adrenaline rush,” added Boggs. Alongside times around the fire and sharing, “we’ve seen breakthroughs up here.”

A common language – and thereby, a common understanding – develops among participants. They’ve been there, gone through that and can listen. When it’s time, they give advice.

“They learn that it’s okay to feel like you’re feeling,” said Boggs.

Hill has those same experiences.

“Many times, I find myself going hunting or fishing to relieve stress from being a pastor,” he said. “If a friend comes with me, we share the stresses of ministry. This helps me mentally and emotionally release things that are on my mind.”

For Groteluschen, the thought of a moment standing in a river, working a fly toward a rainbow trout, lowers his blood pressure. So does a September morning that brings a hint of autumn crisp and early snow during the elk rut.

As a pastor, he obviously doesn’t agree that someone can have just as strong a relationship with God in the outdoors as in church. But there is an undeniable connection.

“He created all of this. When we have the opportunity to fill the freezer, it’s a reminder to how good God is to give us those things,” Groteluschen said.

His default work ethic is sunup-to-sundown. During dark times he has focused on Psalm 121 and lifted his eyes to the mountains around Helena, reminded of where his help comes from.

Sometimes, he physically goes there. “My wife knows that I can wear my stress,” he said. “She’ll also testify that a little time at the river or out in the woods can be cathartic for me. Spending that time with the Lord is refreshing.”