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They won a contest nobody wants to win

DALLAS (BP)–The 52 pastors, ministers and spouses gathering at the posh Cooper Aerobics Center Jan. 26-31 represented a select collection of Southern Baptist clergy.
They won a contest nobody wants to win.
These ministers’ invitations were extended not on the basis of church growth, baptisms or financial contributions, but instead because their lives, marriages and ministries hung most perilously on the precipice of ruin and destruction.
Participating in the first-ever Freddie Gage retreat for Wounded Heroes, the clergy were selected from among approximately 200 other peers who requested to attend. They were deemed the ones most needing a life-saving hand before drowning in their fishbowl existence filled with waters of depression, infidelity, stress and a whirlpool of other
ministry-sinking problems.
The ministers were able to convene at the North Dallas refuge because of the generosity of prominent Southern Baptist leaders such as O.S. Hawkins, president of the Annuity Board; Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga.; Bob Reccord, president of the
North American Mission Board; James T. Draper Jr., president of the Baptist Sunday School Board; Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee; Ken Hemphill, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; William M. Pinson, executive director of the
Baptist General Convention of Texas; and several others.
The week-long retreat was not a time for the ministers to flee or forget their problems with tennis lessons, jogging sessions or massage therapy. They spent every day facing the troubles in their life, slowly
and steadily moving along a path toward healing and restoration.
The participants first congregated defensively — shields raised – searching desperately for an opportune moment to retreat from the retreat. Session leaders Michael Schumacher and Stuart Rothberg quickly challenged them to commit to 6 simple rules that would cause them to both drop their armament and remember their unity in Christian faith.
The rules:
1. Take care of yourself.
2. Take responsibility for yourself.
3. Respect confidentiality.
4. Be on time.
5. Create Value in everything.
6. Play hard.
“If you all play by those rules,” Schumacher said, “you will gain something valuable from this week’s experiences. Some of the things we have planned for you will cause you to laugh. Some will draw you out of your comfort zone. Some will make you out-and-out angry. That’s OK. Everything you will do has a purpose.”
The group received daily testimonies offering instruction and encouragement from denominational peers and leaders such as Hunt, Hawkins and Draper, as well as from Ike and Robin Reighard, pastor and wife of NorthStar Church in Kennesaw, Ga.; Rick and Tracey Lineberger, First Baptist Church, Grapevine, Texas; Fred and Leigh Lowery, First
Baptist Church, Bossier City, La.; Jack and Deb Graham, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Dallas; Claude and Janice Thomas, First Baptist Church, Euless, Texas; Darrell and Kathy Robinson from the North American Mission Board; and Paul Powell, past president of the Annuity Board.
The participants also viewed a presentation on health, fitness and stress reduction from physician Kenneth Cooper, director of the Cooper Clinic and the man responsible for coining the term “aerobics.” Cooper
and wife Millie each waived their regular speaking fees, $10,000 and $2,500 respectively, for the Wounded Heroes retreat.
Amidst the testimonies and strategic interactive events, Rothberg presented lectures to provide insight on destructive issues in ministry: stress, ministerial infidelity, unrealistic expectations and forgiveness. Rothberg is the teaching pastor at Sagemont Baptist Church
in Houston.
The conference room, once filled with apprehension, quickly developed into an atmosphere of trust and refuge. In tears, three ministers admitted to marital infidelity. Their wives, though still angry, each said she had forgiven her spouse. One wife spoke up, “It’s not always the pastors,” she said, admitting her own unfaithfulness,
“sometimes it is us, too.”
Others shouted their anger at being unduly terminated by new pastors or uncaring deacon boards. They fought through the paradox of being called by God to ministry yet being told by their fellow man that their ministry was over.
Still other ministers struggled with the guilt of lost lives from accidents, with the stress that comes with being a pastor under the congregation’s microscope, with the strain of not meeting the expectations of themselves and others, no matter how preposterous.
Perhaps not oddly, these same people who were in the depths of their own life’s worst sorrows never ceased to be ministers to those hurting around them. The same people who saw no worth in their own lives rushed to affirm the worth in lives of their fellow participants. They told one another to remember that God loves them no matter what, even
though some struggled to apply the statement to their own lives.
In the course of the six days, healing occurred. Faces, once pinched and drawn by years of hurt and stress, began to relax and smile for the first time in recent memory. A man who, by his own admission, hadn’t laughed for so long he didn’t think it possible, chuckled. Spiritual and emotional gashes, some cut to the soul, began to scab
over. Relationships blossomed and communication flowed as though the thaw of spring had come in January. When, near the end of the retreat, one participant slipped on the stairs and badly broke her leg, the group gathered funds, sending flowers to her and providing needed money to her
One participant said the retreat was a gift from God. “I’ve been in ministry in Texas for 23 years and I didn’t know the resources we had available, like counseling. Amidst our troubles, we didn’t know how to
get from one side of the bridge to the other. This week gave us God’s answer.”
Another participant said he received the miracle for which he was searching. “This week we didn’t talk about a Disney boycott, about inerrancy, or about five-point Calvinism. Everything we did this week pointed to Christ. We saw that denominational issues didn’t measure a flick when compared to Christ healing hurt people’s lives. This was the New Testament Church.”
As ideal as the retreat may have been, the participants still faced the return to reality that came with Saturday’s check-out. They would be returning to strained ministerial relationships, to the stigmatized ministry that they had left behind, to the demands that come
with Christian service. They did not depart unarmed.
Wounded Heroes equipped each participant with its follow-up program, designed to help the ministers daily handle the challenges that would face them. They each had the phone numbers and addresses of the friends they had made in the week, implored and encouraged by Schumacher
and Rothberg to call at least once a month to monitor progress of one another. Each participant also was assigned to a mentor, volunteers in Southern Baptist ministry who will provide encouragement, council, and whatever else is necessary to their fellow ministers. Finally, Wounded
Heroes is raising funds to establish a toll-free telephone number for ministers to call in times of emergency and strife.
One participant stated his assessment of the week succinctly. He entered the retreat without a reason for living after a two-decade bout with clinical depression but was leaving with a hope for recovery and a return to ministry. He said simply, “What’s being done here needs to be done everywhere.”

    About the Author

  • Bryan McAnally