By Jim Nieman
Jody Owens says senior ministers are feeling “under the gun” because of the stress of leading during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ministers are working hard to conduct ministry in a form and fashion for which they were not trained and are not accustomed, says Owens, professor of Bible and pastoral ministries with Johnson University. These ministers are making hard decisions and are dealing with other stressors, and—due to circumstances—they are “not getting the feedback and the positive comments they are used to receiving.”
INTENSIVE LEARNING RETREATS
Owens gleaned some of this information from ministers and church leaders—about 20 of them—who attended the first in a series of “Intensive Learning Retreats” Owens is organizing. These retreats are designed as safe places in peaceful settings where participants receive graduate-level instruction, but which also include time for meditation, reflection, camaraderie with fellow participants, and healthy conversation with the instructor.
The ultimate desire is for participants to be “ministering from an overflow instead of ministering on an empty tank.” Owens led the first of these retreats which took place at the end of July; it focused on Psalms.
One exercise at the first retreat had participants writing their own “psalm of lament.” This resulted, Owens says, in some intense, emotional, and meaningful sharing.
“We’re doing these first three retreats just to see how they go,” Owens says. “But I’m really excited. The first one went very well.”
During table fellowship at the first retreat, some participants were planning sermon series based on what they were learning and discussing. One minister was there with his worship leader, and they were discussing how to incorporate the Psalms more prominently into worship and the overall Sunday morning program.
“We’re framing this for practical ministry,” says Owens, before adding that a friend refers to it as “teaching to the task.” Owens says it’s exciting to see instruction bearing fruit via these immediate applications.
The second retreat—“How the Gospel Medium Impacts the Gospel Message”—will be Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 at the Eagle Rock Retreat Center bordering Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mark Scott, preaching professor at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Mo., will lead it. (Spaces are still available; the target is for at least 20 participants, but no more than 30.)
Owens says that Scott fits the mold for the type of instructor he will bring in for these retreats—a mature Christian of high academic achievement but with significant church ministry experience . . . someone who can “make the application” with the target audience: (1) pastors and ministers who are still learning; (2) church staff hired internally who have little or no theological training; and (3) laypeople—such as small-group and Bible school leaders—who want to go deeper.
A goal is to provide high-level content, while allowing significant time for prayer, interaction, and reflection.
The third Intensive Learning Retreat will be next summer. Owens hopes eventually to have six or seven retreat topics to feature in a rotation. (There is a cost associated with these intensive, “graduate-level,” non-credit retreats, but it is only about one-third what a seminary class would cost, Owens says. The flat fee includes food and lodging.)
SPIRITUAL FORMATION SUMMITS
These learning retreats are a natural progression of an ongoing program Owens started in 2014—something he calls the “Spiritual Formation Summit.”
The summit started with a conviction: “The pressing need in the church today is discipleship and formation into the likeness of Christ.” That conviction grew into an idea: “What if pastors, missionaries, counselors and other Christian leaders had a safe place to nurture their own soul while at the same time receiving graduate-level teaching and a challenge to more effectively disciple those in their care?”
Owens says 24 leaders gathered at Eagle Rock that first year, and since that time—largely through word of mouth—the summits have grown into two yearly gatherings totaling more than 100 annual participants.
Each summit follows a “monastic pattern” that includes prayer, shared meals, teaching workshops, and times of silence for reflection. (It’s not for everyone, Owens admits.) It takes place in a peaceful setting—a safe place of trust, genuine concern, and confidentiality.
“We seek to nurture the souls of leaders and provide practical, hands-on tools to implement in the local church.” Owens refers to his personal approach as a “ministry of ministering to ministers.”
The coronavirus caused cancellation of the summit scheduled for this past spring, but two gatherings are scheduled over the next several months: Oct. 19-21 and April 12-14. The theme will be “The Implications of the Incarnation: God with Us.” The fall gathering will be limited to 45 participants due to the coronavirus.
Learn more about upcoming Intensive Learning Retreats and Spiritual Formation Summits at www.jodylowens.com.
Jim Nieman is managing editor of Christian Standard.