The newly gathered conference attendees wandered about the room, cautiously asking each other for coins as part of an odd and awkward assignment. The ice breaker exercise required each of these pastors and their wives to produce a dime, a nickel, and a penny. Whatever coins they lacked, they were to solicit from other participants.
That task completed, they were instructed to return to their seats, examine each coin carefully, and determine which coin best reflected their feelings. Then, each participant was asked to share which coin they chose and why.
"I chose the nickel, because this one looks old and worn. It looks like it's been used a lot, and it's between the dime and penny. That's how I feel tonight. I feel worn and used by my church, and I feel like I'm stuck in a hard situation, with no way out."
"I chose the penny, because it's the smallest and least significant. I feel like that's how people view our ministry — as small and insignificant."
"I chose the dime, because Truman looks angry, and that's the way I feel right now."
"The picture of Washington on this nickel reminded me of his statement, 'I cannot tell a lie.' Our deacons asked us to be part of a lie. We refused and now we're paying for it."
"This penny is dark, and I can't make out the words 'In God We Trust.' Tonight, I feel like my trust in God is slipping away."
"I chose the nickel, because there's a big chunk missing from Washington's head. That's how I feel tonight."
And so began the weeklong Wounded Heroes Conference at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. Fifty-two soldiers in God's army, mostly pastors and their wives, gathered to find healing for their wounds and hope for their despair.
Not everyone bore the same injuries. Some were pastors who had been forced to resign by hostile deacon "boards." Some were staff members forced from their positions by incoming pastors. Some had endured prolonged, debilitating illnesses that left them unable to carry on in pastoral ministry. Several struggled with clinical depression, fearing the stigma so often associated with it.
There were those who battled intense and prolonged ministry-related stress, attempting to ward off burnout. And there were those who had lost children to terminal disease, leaving them to stagger under the brutal combination of exhaustion, grief, and the unrelenting pressures of ministry.
A few suffered from self-inflicted wounds. Three pastors and one pastor's wife admitted unfaithfulness to their marriages, and that they needed healing from the aftermath. Even after confession and repentance, and after God had forgiven and healed their marriages, some felt they remained unforgiven outcasts in the Christian community.
Despite the sources of their wounds, they shared a common bond — each was hurting acutely and desperately needed God's Divine intervention.
As they gathered, they experienced healing from God, mediated through a combination of therapeutic strategies. One aid was the testimonies of guest speakers — veteran pastors who have endured their own battles and who survived only by God's grace. Each day these prominent pastors and denominational leaders, along with their wives, opened their hearts, revealing emotional struggles related to an array of church and personal crises, including vicious opposition in the church, the tragic loss of a spouse, forced termination, a teenage son's arrest, and clinical depression. Their candid accounts provided tangible examples of God's comfort, provision, and sustenance as they journeyed through the dark times of the soul.
In addition to the testimonies, conference leaders Stuart Rothberg and Michael Schumacher presented vital instruction, offering insights specifically tied to ministry. Rothberg, teaching pastor of Sagemont Church in Houston, addressed common causes of church conflict, as well as common sources of stress in the ministry. He also emphasized the need to forgive, and identified factors that lead to marital infidelity.
Schumacher, a therapist with the Christian-based counseling ministry Rapha, detailed several key false beliefs that ultimately lead to a self-destructive mindset and eventual defeat in the ministry.
Combined with the instruction, Schumacher and Rothberg led the group in activities designed to apply key scriptural principles. Some group activities identified common communication and leadership styles, while others revealed personality traits that often conflict with ministry. The attendees were broken into small groups in which they prayed for, encouraged, and bore one another's burdens. Husbands and wives were offered opportunities to admit their failings to each other and to renew their love and commitment to each other.
Some activities were intended to encourage laughter, something many said they had not done for a long time. One activity helped the participants identify their heaviest burden, and to tangibly recognize the complications it forces upon every aspect of life. On the last evening, each was given time alone with God and was afforded the opportunity to leave their burden at the foot of the cross.
Rothberg and Schumacher also led in large group discussions that identified common struggles, failures, and pain. During the course of the week the group developed into a safe haven where no one feared condemnation. In that relaxed context, some revealed their deepest hurts, others admitted their weaknesses, and a few even confessed their sins to each other. Consistent with James 5:16, they received support and prayer, and began to experience spiritual healing.
In addition to the testimonies, instruction, and learning activities, and large group sharing, attendees were also offered individual and marriage counseling, provided by counselors from Rapha.
Freddie Gage, the impetus behind the Wounded Heroes conferences, shared his burden for ministers who have been crushed and feel isolated in their struggles. He indicated that 6,000 Southern Baptist pastors leave the ministry each year, with 1,800 forced from their churches. More than 200 pastors asked to attend the conference, but the number was restricted to fifty-two so that a small group dynamic could be maintained.
On the opening night, he revealed his own battle with depression, and addressed the stigma many pastors associate with clinical depression. For this reason, those who hurt are often afraid to seek help, fearing their reputation and ministry will be ruined. He recounted how many pastors, their wives, or their children feel trapped and unable to seek the help they need. As a result, some have even turned to suicide.
Sadly, many who need help can't afford it. However, a host of Southern Baptist entities and churches provided the resources necessary to underwrite the cost of the conference. This assistance, combined with assistance from the Cooper Aerobic Center, enabled participants to attend without cost.
The coin activity vividly illustrated the darkness that had encompassed these pastors and their wives. But as the week drew to a close, and as this group began to minister to each other according to God's design for His church, the darkness gradually turned to light.
Frowns gave way to smiles, sadness gave way to joy, despair gave way to hope, and hurt gave way to healing. As they were confronted with God's truth, as they ministered God's love and forgiveness to each other, and as they were paired with comrades who pledged continued prayer support, they left with renewed hope and strength.
For most, the circumstances they faced remained unchanged — but the healing they encountered during the week enabled them to return to battle.
At the end of the week, attendees had opportunity to share their reflections.
"I don't think I've ever experienced this much love and support."
"I may not have a job when we get home, but I know God will take care of me and my family, and now I think we can face it."
"In the midst 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."
"I wish every pastor could experience this."
"This is the way the New Testament church is supposed to be!"
"Thank you for praying for me and for understanding my pain, for not condemning me, for listening … for caring."
God's Concern for the Wounded
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. ~ Psalm 34:18
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. ~ Psalms 147:3
For this is what the High and lofty One says — He who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite." ~ Isaiah 57:15
God's Instruments for Healing and Prevention
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. ~ Galatians 6:1,2
But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. ~ Hebrews 3:13
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. ~ James 5:16