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Classis Retreat Lifts Pastors and Spouses

June 8, 2022
Pastors and spouses from Classis Hackensack spent a 24-hour retreat together.
Pastors and spouses from Classis Hackensack spent a 24-hour retreat together.
Photo: Katie Roelofs

Several pastors and their spouses recently attended a 24-hour retreat for fellowship and renewal at the Sandy Cove Christian Retreat Center on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Members of Classis Hackensack, a region that spans much of the East Coast of the United States, attended this first-time gathering—in essence as an experiment to see if the classis might do something like this once a year. Participants said they felt the tension, turmoil, and trauma of having ministered during the COVID-19 epidemic lift as they prayed, played, and took in the beauty of the retreat center.

“We were able to lay down our burdens and get fed by being with one another,” said Wayne Coleman, pastor of Madison Avenue CRC, Paterson, N.J., who attended the retreat with his wife, Ruth.

Thirty pastors and spouses attended the event.

During the retreat, Coleman said, he had the chance to help pull the ropes attached to a big swing in which other pastors sat one at a time and were pulled high into the air. As the swing drew slowly upward, each of the pastors could look out over the bay, and then Coleman and others would let go of the ropes, allowing the swing to plunge back toward solid land.

“They were put in a harness, and we pulled them up and let them go,” said Coleman. “They had to trust others to pull them up and to have the faith as pastors and leaders that ‘God has got you’” as they teetered and then swung down.

The retreat, Coleman added, “was a great time for me to be away from the noise of everyday life and to be with other pastors, and for my wife to talk with other people in our classis.”

Diane Averill, a regional ministry leader for the eastern U.S., said that having the retreat, in addition to attending more traditional classis meetings, was a great idea.

“The time together, even though it was only 24 hours, had great value,” she said. “Normally several of these pastors would only be with each other at a classis meeting.”

And because the time at classis meetings is primarily taken up with classis business, there often isn't a lot of time for extended conversation and prayer.

“This retreat not only afforded an opportunity for personal spiritual renewal, but it also allowed the pastors to make relational connections. Pastors could come a day early or stay a day late for a nominal fee, and a few took advantage of that opportunity. Spouses were also invited, and about half a dozen of them met together to get to know and encourage each other,” said Averill.

Averill suggested that each classis could at least occasionally meet in this way, either for their regular meetings or for a special spiritual retreat.

The idea for this retreat had begun more than two years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans were set aside once churches and members of congregations, along with the rest of society, went into lockdown, said Katie Roelofs, resource and communications coordinator for Worship Ministries.

“It took awhile to make this happen and then to figure out the best place to hold it as well as what its purpose should be,” said Roelofs.

“We came to see that one purpose would be to offer a chance for rest after the stress of the past couple of years. We organized it as a time away.”

The event also needed a strong scriptural aspect, she said, so the opening time together focused on lament. “It gave people the chance to pause from their daily routine and to unpack and lament those difficult things that have occurred over the past year or two,” said Roelofs.

As a regional pastor for part of Classis Hackensack, John Algera had seen firsthand how hard the past two years have been on pastors and their spouses as they have tried to keep their churches alive and on track in the midst of many challenges.

“This retreat provided a wonderful way to connect, step away, have fun together, and do some deep reflection on the Lord’s presence in our life,” he said.

“The context of Sandy Cove Retreat Center provided a beautiful place on the Chesapeake Bay to sit or walk by the water, watch and listen to the ospreys, and enjoy an amazing sunset. . . . We laughed and cried, ate good food and s’mores, talked and sat in silence, played and worshiped.”

Dave DenHaan, a ministry consultant for Pastor Church Resources, said that although he came to the process of helping to facilitate this conference a little late, he appreciated that it was easy to see the value and beauty of what the organizing team was trying to accomplish.

“Of course, there are many things that can make pastors weary, but the focus was on the fact that the pandemic had made life even more challenging and stressful for church leaders. Conference organizers wanted to minister to such pastors.”

During the gathering, he said, they spent time with Mark 5, using the story of Jesus' ministry to Jairus's daughter and the woman with the bleeding condition to reflect on lament, hope, and gratitude.

“I saw pastors who were ready to engage, and I was glad to see them finding themselves in the text and sensing that Jesus' affection and accompaniment was for them as well,” said Den Haan.

Walking peacefully across the grounds of the retreat center, watching the sunset, and listening to and reacting to Scripture with fellow pastors were moving experiences, said Fred Harvey, a pastor at Spirit and Truth Fellowship in Philadelphia, Pa., and one of the event organizers.

“The retreat wasn’t content-heavy,” he said. “Being there was a huge blessing. We had the chance to rest in God and to go from lament to hope to gratitude. . . . We were reminded that relationships still matter the most to God and to one another.”