Last week I went to a pastor’s conference at Highland Lakes Baptist Center near Martinsville, Indiana.
Highland Lakes Baptist Center is both one of the nicest camping facilities you’ve ever seen, and also the headquarters for the Southern Baptist Convention in Indiana. It is 400 acres of rolling, wooded hills that contain a wonderful Worship Center, a rustic Welcome Center that looks like a lodge in a state park, a large cafeteria facility, various cabins and bunkhouses (heated and air-conditioned, thank you very much), an outdoor swimming pool, an obstacle course, a Frisbee golf course, and various trails for hiking.
This isn’t a commercial for Highland Lakes, and I didn’t really take advantage of any of those wonderful facilities. I saw them as I drove in and out of the property. They looked very nice.
I spent the majority of my time at Highland Lakes sitting in a room with fourteen other pastors from around the state. We spent our time being taught by, conversing with and being prayed for by seven other men, former pastors all, now working out of the state organization to do all they can to encourage pastors and strengthen churches. In fact, that’s pretty much their mission statement.
We began each day at 8:00 AM with a private devotional time, focused on Scriptures we were asked to read and ponder. Then about 9:00 AM one of the leaders of the retreat would ask us to share with the whole group what God might have said to us.
Then we dove into the main sessions, in which an experienced pastor would teach us about key areas in modern ministry. Often we were taught via Skype by someone halfway across the country. In one case, the author of one of the books we had read spoke to us.
Some of the sessions were very sobering. Some of them were very informative and insightful.
Some of them didn’t really scratch where I itched very much. But honestly, the sessions weren’t the best part of the conference.
The other pastors I got to know were the best part.
You see, I was torn last week. Through the day I attended the conference, but in the evening, I didn’t stay at the campground. Instead, I drove to my Dad’s apartment and stayed with him at night. It gave my youngest brother a needed break, especially toward the end of the week when he and his family were all afflicted with a 24-hour bug.
So I would arrive at my Dad’s apartment in the evening, watch a little television with him, and then I’d act as his valet as he prepared for bed. In the morning, we would reverse the process: I’d help him get dressed and we’d have breakfast together. Then I’d leave for the day’s sessions at Highland Lakes, about a 50-minute drive away.
I confess that often my heart was heavy as I’d return to the conference, thinking about my Dad. But in the providence of God I was seated right next to a pastor named Fred, whose father was also going through late-life challenges. His words were a great encouragement to me.
Once as I was preparing to leave to go to Dad’s, a big young pastor named John came up to me with tears in his eyes. He told me he’d lost his father last year, and asked if he could pray for me. He put his arm around my shoulders, and I felt like a small child. I was extremely moved by his empathy and his prayer.
There were pastors a lot like me, and some a lot different from me. (Sometimes I think they thought I was the most different of all!) There was an African-American pastor, and an Asian pastor. But for all the differences in background and situations, we had much that bound us together: a shared faith in the Lord Jesus; a desire to proclaim Him and see disciples made; churches that faced the similar challenges; and a desire to see God work in our circumstances. There was a lot of sharing, a lot of laughing, and a fair amount of crying as we went through those four days together.
For me, it’s never been about great campgrounds and nice facilities (I’m allergic to most stuff in the woods). It’s never been about busier schedules and more meetings. And it’s never been about more books and seminars that may or may not be helpful.
It has always been about connecting with other believers, other pastors, and other churches. My most meaningful moments last week were not in the sessions, but one-on-one with brothers I’d never met before.
Somehow there is great comfort, a feeling of relief, and a breath of fresh air to your soul when you realize that you’re really not alone. It happens within our own church. It happens when believers from different churches come together. And it happens when churches of like faith and practice come together.
King David said it best: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). May God grant that we experience this over and over again, in ever-widening circles!
Soli Deo Gloria!