It could have been the downtown in any small city, a place of transition where many cultures meet and people learn how to live together:
Pre-school children romped in an enclosed playground…
A group of developmentally disabled adults boarded a bus….
Members of an AA group assembled for their weekly meeting….
An elderly gentleman walked into a free dental clinic…
On her way to work, a middle-aged woman escorted her mother to senior day care…
Unemployed men and women finished a free, hot meal with full stomachs…
Parents received much needed clothing for their young children…
A recently widowed woman obtained helpful counseling.
The venue for these acts of service might surprise you. All took place in various local churches in a single southeastern Wisconsin community.
The churches represented here are not mega-churches. In some ways, they are congregations in transition. Their architecture reflects the stately traditions of many years ago, when the wealthy and successful members of the community built beautiful houses of worship. Today, those benefactors are long gone, the sanctuary may need a fresh coat of paint and the pastor wears many hats. But each of these congregations is actively and creatively carrying out its God-given mandate to love and to serve.
Who leads these communities of faith and outreach? An African-American man in his 30s called into ministry from a successful career... a bilingual pastor who conducts services in both English and Spanish... a woman and her husband who each pastor a different church... an elderly priest who moved from a larger congregation to a place where he could directly make a difference... a bi-vocational minister whose other part-time job helps his family make ends meet.
Opportunity and Challenge
A quick look at the American Church reveals a culture in change. Research identifies several major trends that provide both opportunities and challenges for local church pastors:
Churches are either getting smaller or larger. According to the National Congregational Survey, 71 percent of U.S. congregations have fewer than 100 regularly participating adult members, and the median congregation has just 75 regular participants. Only 10 percent of U.S. congregations have more than 350 participants — though those congregations account for almost half of all churchgoers.
Rural churches face special challenges as increasing numbers of people move to urban areas, taking their financial resources with them. As a result, many rural churches have difficulty finding full-time pastors.
George Barna (The Barna Update, October 10, 2005) has reported that more than 20 million adults throughout the nation are “revolutionaries.” In Barna’s words, “These are people who are less interested in attending church than in being the church. We found that there is a significant distinction in the minds of many people between the local church — with a small ‘c’ — and the universal Church — with a capital ‘C’. Revolutionaries tend to be more focused on being the Church, capital C, whether they participate in a congregational church or not.”
Clergy are leaving parish ministry in greater numbers and after shorter tenures, according to a 2005 report by Patricia Chung for Pulpit and Pew. The average pastor changes assignments every three years and has little opportunity to advance to larger, more prestigious positions because comparatively few are available.
The average salary for pastors of congregations with less than 100 members is $32,500 (Christian Ministry Resources report, 2004).
According to H.B London, Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, in their book Pastors at Greater Risk (Regal Books, 2003), 90 percent of pastors feel inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands, and 70 percent do not have a close friend.
The Need for Retreat
In the face of these challenges, we nevertheless find thriving pastors building strong communities of faith and outreach. They and the people they lead are learning to be the hands and feet of Jesus. By building relationships and meeting the practical needs of others, they bring hope and opportunity to the poor and marginalized of their communities. They inspire, teach, preach, support and walk alongside people in every circumstance of life.
In the healthiest congregations, parishioners share the work of the church, learning to minister to each other and their neighbors. Compassionate outreach is the work of the entire congregation, not just the pastor. The marginalized find a place to belong and opportunities to make meaningful contributions to others.
Healthy churches play a major role their communities. And it takes healthy clergy to lead healthy churches. Pastors who serve long and well cultivate healthy habits: regularly scheduled time away from ministry responsibilities, a commitment to build their marriages, accountability with peers and other practices that meet their personal spiritual needs. In essence, healthy pastors minister from the overflow of their relationship with God, and they value that relationship as their number one priority.
How, amid the demands of a busy ministry schedule and family obligations, can clergy maintain and deepen their personal relationship with God?
Without question, commitment to regular times of personal retreat is among the most important contributors to pastors’ spiritual health. Pastors must take time away to refresh their spirit, reconnect to God and regain (or reaffirm) their passion for ministry.
It’s a bit like the speech that air travelers hear before take-off: “Put on your own oxygen mask first, and then help others around you.” Spiritual retreats (as contrasted with conferences, meetings and denominational gatherings) are one way pastors can “put on their oxygen masks” — listening for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit in a setting designed specifically for that purpose.
Keys to a Successful Retreat
What does a successful spiritual retreat look like? Extended time away (a week or more) at a cottage in the woods, the mountains or on the shore may be helpful for some. For others, time in a monastery, either in silent retreat or a guided retreat, proves useful. Several fine retreat organizations cater specifically to pastors and Christian leaders who desire time away to seek God.
Whatever the setting, the key is to follow a good plan, use appropriate resources and maintain the proper frame of mind. In every case, the most important resource is the Bible. A personal journal is another indispensable tool — essential for recording observations, insights, decisions, questions and other “outcomes” of the time away. And for the duration of the retreat, the pastor must unplug from the stresses and demands of daily life, choosing instead to truly listen for God.
Through retreat, pastors learn to leave the church in God’s hands — it’s His anyway — as they discover experiences and personal reflections that draw them closer to God. Some pastors hear God most clearly while fishing on a lake or hiking a trail. Others find him in the quiet, or in the details of creation. For some, music is a key element. And some need to process the journey with others of like calling or with the help of a trained counselor or spiritual director.
While the specifics will vary, none of this will happen in the neighborhood coffee shop!
Finding Your Place
Where can ministers go to find such a retreat?
Pastors Retreat Network is one option. Our nonprofit Christian ministry provides pastors and their spouses with a Christ-centered, true retreat experience that helps them lead their congregations into deeper relationship with God and greater service to their communities. The self-directed spiritual retreats occur in beautiful settings that are conducive to practicing the spiritual disciplines — including prayer, meditation, reflection, re-creation and rest. Guests select from several programs that provide starting points for their journey with God. A daily community meal, facilitated by experienced program directors, provides a forum for discussion and processing the experience. Each participant has complete freedom to pursue God wherever and however He leads.
The experience is free of charge for both pastor and spouse — a generous gift from individuals and organizations that love pastors and understand the community-changing impact of a healthy, vibrant pastorate. Each guest enjoys a beautifully appointed room with private bath at secluded locations in Wisconsin, Texas or Ohio. All meals and program materials are provided.
To learn more about Pastors Retreat Network’s programs and services, request a reservation, or make a contribution, please visit www.pastorsretreatnetwork.org.
For other retreat options, Google “pastor retreats” or check out Focus on the Family’s online listing of other retreat organizations. The Christian Hospitality Network also has a helpful listing of inns and bed-and-breakfast facilities that offer discounted rates to pastors and missionaries.
Betty Mulloy joined Pastors Retreat Network in 1998 after more than 20 years in human services. In her current role, Betty trains and supports program staff, oversees program quality and the development of new sites, and coordinates the marketing and fundraising aspects of the ministry. Betty is a graduate of Lakeland College and is pursuing a Masters in Spiritual Formation and Leadership through Spring Arbor University.