Tri-conference Black clergy retreat helps pastors refresh, recharge

By Jessica Brodie

MYRTLE BEACH—Some participated from home, and some from a conference room a short walk from the beach. But at the end of their set-apart time at the Carolinas Black Clergy Leadership Retreat, attendees came away filled with new ideas for ministry in a world vastly changed by a pandemic.

Black, along with a sizable number of non-Black, clergy in South Carolina, North Carolina and Western North Carolina annual conferences gathered for the retreat Aug. 30 to Sept. 3 to explore “Crossroads: Where Faith and Innovation Meet.” Hosted at Kingston Plantation Resort in Myrtle Beach, leaders included South Carolina Bishop L. Jonathan Holston, South Carolina Congregational Development Director the Rev. James L. Friday, South Carolina Christian Action Council Executive Minister Dr. Regina Henderson-Moore, Emory Fellowship United Methodist Church’s Dr. Joseph W. Daniels Jr. and North Carolina District Superintendent Dr. Christopher Brady.

Dr. Otto Harris of the Western North Carolina Conference brought the opening worship and devotion, reminding the body that our people and even our churches might be paralyzed, Jesus came to move and work through us in midst of all uncertainty.

Holston and Dr. Albert Shuler then brought greetings, urging all to use the retreat as a time of rest and renewal.

“I know this is a plantation, but God has made it a sanctuary of grace,” Holston said, urging people not to waste this pandemic but understand God is trying to tell us something in the midst of the wilderness. “Take time to hear what God saying to us in this season.”

With that, they kicked off a four-day tri-conference event that strived to foster unity and learning amid change.

‘The Next Faithful Step’

Holston brought the first plenary, on “The Next Faithful Step,” calling on clergy to remember their purpose as they do their work.

“God is calling us to be a better version of ourselves,” Holston said, lifting up Matthew 14:13-21, when Jesus fed the masses after people lamented a lack of food.

“How often have we said in church, ‘we don’t have’—enough members, enough faithful people, my friends don’t understand me,” Holston shared. “Jesus began to refocus people on what they need to do with the things that they do have.”

Jesus took what they had, loaves and fish, and used it. His message is clear: We have more to work with than what we ever give ourselves credit for.

“It’s time to reverse our mindset,” Holston said. “We need as a Black church to look at who we are and whose we are and what we have at our disposal.”

We’ve got to revitalize, to use the gifts and graces we have and not just do same old thing but be open and willing to do a new thing.

Instead of sitting around waiting for big decisive moments, such as General Conference, or as Holston called it, “the big meeting,” we need to act now with what we have, working in the midst of what we are given.

Referencing Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” and Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Holston turned the question to the clergy gathered.

“How willing are we as the Black church to see ‘what’s going on’ and to take next faithful step, or are we just going to keep ‘sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away, sittin’ on the dock of the bay wastin’ time’?”

Current Realities and Missional Possibilities

Friday brought the next plenary, sharing his perspective on “Current Realities and Missional Possibilities.” He shared the power of using tools such as Mission Insight to understand the communities in which we serve.

Mission Insight gives conferences information on the people and areas in which a church is situated, including how many households in a certain radius are involved with a church, how many homes are in the area, what are the standard income levels and jobs in the area, how old are the people who live nearby, dominant races, etc.

Advertisers and businesses use this information for marketing, but churches can use it for reaching souls.

“To be the church in our current realities, we need leadership to sustain and multiply the growth of the Christian movement,” Friday said.

We often don’t take a walk or drive where our members live. We don’t know everyone. But tools like Mission Insight can help us know those in our community and our gathering space.

Seeing, Writing and Funding Your Vision

The next plenary was led by Henderson-Moore, who shared the importance of developing a clear vision and then implementing action around it.

In her position at the South Carolina Christian Action Council, she developed outlines for her first 100 days, her second 100 days and her third 100 days.

Then she identified needed tasks and efforts to achieve the goals for those time frames. Some include grant writing, while others involve communicating or connecting people.

‘If You Couldn’t Fail’

The Rev. Telley Gadson, new superintendent in South Carolina’s Hartsville District, brought the opening worship and devotion on Day 2 of the event, asking, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

That question has become the theme for her district’s ministry calendar year, and she is challenging her pastors and churches to do bold, Jesus-centered ministry with confidence.

“God Almighty took God’s time and poured treasures into us,” Gadson said—God knows what we can do through him. So we must reach far and wide, utilizing the treasures within us, so we can help God’s kingdom soar.

“Why are you putting off for tomorrow what you can do today? Maybe you’ve convinced yourself you’re not equipped for the task, you don’t have the time it takes, you can’t afford the risk.”

But even in the midst of distress, racism, sexism and more, God is always with us, and God’s grace is always sufficient.

Gadson lifted up what she called “a winning team combination of prayer, purpose and partnership.” Prayer is the key, and faith unlocks the door, she said. Ask God, and God will deliver. As for purpose, remember the important focus in our lives: We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What are the steps required to do this? And finally, understand your powerful partnership with Jesus and the rest of his body working with and around us.

“The UMC is a connectional church,” she said. “We have help all around us—the UMC connection, local church, district, conference, general church, charge conference, annual conference, jurisdictional conference, general conference.”

Use your partners, she said. Stop waiting and start doing.

The Power of Godly Vision

Daniels led next on “The Power of Godly Vision.” He shared how in his ministry at Emory UMC, Washington, D.C., God speaks vision in the center of the three circles; community vision, leader’s purpose and congregational passion.

“I’d always thought the vision comes from pastor, but that’s a lie straight from the pit of hell,” Daniels shared.

One day, God showed him that while he does have a role as “vision caster,” the vision itself comes from the leader, the people he serves and the people in the community who he might be ignoring.

As he learned, “As pastor, my responsibility is to discern what God is doing in ourselves, in our congregation and in our community.”

Every decade, Daniels said, he goes back to all the places where God spoke to him profoundly during his call to ensure he’s living in the purpose and plan God called him to. This helps him discern better.

During a discussion time, Daniels posed some questions: Who/what does your heart break for, does your heartbreak line up with what you’re currently doing, what move do you need to make to address your heartbreak and how are you supporting people discovering their heartbreak?

“Sometimes those in the community will rise up and act even before your congregation will,” he noted.

We should find the “shiny eyes” in our midst—the ones who are eager and want to do the stuff. Embrace the people around you even if they don’t look like your congregation. If you’re a Black church in a White community, embrace the White folk around you. If you’re in a Latino community, embrace the Latinos around you.

Really explore your vision, he said. What do I really want to see come to pass? What are my prayers saying?

Reframe, Refocus, Retool

In the final plenary, Brady led on how the old days are gone. Now is a time to find a new way forward.

“God will bring good out of anything,” Brady told the crowd. “If we are willing to follow, surrender and change, to walk where God wants us to walk, we will flourish, but we cannot measure our faithfulness or success by old paradigms. The paradigms are broken.

“We need new paradigms.”

We are often so used to following our GPS, but sometimes errors occur, and following the GPS directions could take us into oncoming traffic. Likewise in the church, we must be wayfinders, open to reading the signs.

Brady shared some distress warning signs in communities, such as withdrawal, drop in functioning, problems thinking and concentrating, increased sensitivity, apathy or feeling disconnected. We need to see these signs and understand they are warnings, he said. Suicide ideation is on the rise, and there are so many negative effects on our minds and relationships because of COVID.

But God can bring good out of everything, and we must trust God.

“In the military we have ‘pathfinders,’ guys who go in and clear a path for others to come behind them. Spirit of God clears a path for us so we can follow God into the wilderness and not be fearful of wat we are going to face.”

Now, we need some Joshuas and Calebs who will go before us and clear a path, making a new way.

Part of getting those wayfinders involves understanding our own psyche and mental health. Identify the ways your body responds to stress, how your personal and professional lives are affected by stress.

“We must understand so we can manage our stress and not let stress manage us,” Brady said.

The retreat also included fellowship opportunities such as dinners, free time on the beach, resource sharing with UMC agencies, and a time to hear the bishops reflect on what is ahead.

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