Wellness Retreat refreshes hurting pastors

When Alabama native Charles Chandler experienced involuntary termination at his church in Virginia he wrestled with the fact he was 58 years old and “less marketable” as a prospect for another pulpit. He found few resources to help him deal with these issues and began to dream of an organization that would offer help to ministers in crisis. That’s the motivation that helped him create Ministering to Ministers Foundation (MTM), and through that, the Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat.

The 131st retreat was held at Samford University in Birmingham in early July.

Chandler said his dream was latent for many years. As president of the Illinois Baptist Convention he received many calls from pastors in difficulty who needed advice, and later in Richmond, Virginia, he partnered with a director of missions to visit congregations in turmoil and offer mediation.

“I developed empathy for hurting pastors many years ago,” Chandler said, “so I suppose God planted the seed for a new ministry long before I needed it myself.”

Chandler said a number of things have changed in his 22 years at the helm of MTM.

“Early on I’d search for pastors who needed help and phone them with invitations to our retreats,” he said. “Now the Internet has revolutionized this process and we also get many referrals from others who’ve benefited from this ministry.”

The basic format of the five-day retreat has remained the same, with some minor changes, Chandler explained. The core group is limited to 12–15 participants who share their crisis stories and engage in intensive individual and group therapy. Participants hear from numerous experts including an attorney, a job counselor, a physical fitness instructor and spiritual leaders. Clinical psychologist Dr. Beverley Buston served as resident therapist at this year’s event.

Control issues, people skills

Chandler said the two most oft-cited reasons for pastor-church conflict have remained the same for many years: control issues and people skills. And he believes in many ways these issues are currently more pronounced than ever before.

“We find a corporate mentality in many churches,” he said. “The pastor is expected to function like a CEO. He runs the organizational machinery and grows the organization. If either doesn’t materialize, the pastor can be expendable. But most pastors aren’t trained to be CEOs and they find themselves very frustrated.

“If a pastor provides leadership, he is a change agent and change brings conflict. But there’s conflict also if the pastor doesn’t provide leadership. I’ve always believed the pastor is to cast a vision, but he must ask the people to help him shape and carry (it) out.”

Lack of direction

A participant at the recent retreat, Bill, said he moved his family from Florida to Virginia to begin a new ministry in 2015. His position, however, was terminated 11 months later. Several influential members of his congregation complained to the general superintendent who, in Bill’s denomination, has the authority to fire pastors.

“The search group told me ‘all we need is a leader,’ and I believed them,” he said. “But my leadership created some issues. I really don’t think my key leaders wanted to try anything new in order to grow the church.”

He said the retreat offered him encouragement.

“It’s the ‘camaraderie of the terminated,’” he said with a smile. “We find we’re not alone. I needed someone to talk to. And the leaders helped me learn that I could’ve handled things much better than I did.”

Chandler said retreat participants, like Bill, make new friends and many stay in contact as a support group.

“This is one reason we’ve found a five-day event away from home is good for ministers and spouses,” Chandler said.

He said MTM surveys find that about two-thirds of retreat participants go back into full-time vocational ministry. Others move to a nonministry vocation where many have opportunity to do part-time ministry. Chandler is in the latter group having served as bi-vocational pastor during his tenure at MTM.

Chandler grew up in a pastor’s home and has deep roots in Alabama. In addition to his father serving churches in Centre, Gadsden, Jacksonville and Bessemer, his great-great grandfather, Philip Sieber, founded Calhoun Baptist Association in 1834 and served as its first director of missions. And Chandler’s brother, Harold, served as director of missions for Calhoun and Madison Baptist associations before his retirement.

For more information on MTM, visit mtmfoundation.org.

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