I would like to share with you a transformative experience in my life and ministry. I have enjoyed and been helped by conferences and retreats over the years at the district and national level. For about 10 years I went to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors in Minneapolis. These have been helpful for me. Annually, for the past 12 years, I have participated in the Simeon Trust workshop in Des Moines. I wouldn’t miss these workshops. But, at all these events I have experienced a sense of loneliness and longing. I wasn’t sure for what until I went to Massachusetts for the Spurgeon Sabbatical. From 1996-2017, the Ockenga Institute at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary sponsored what was called the Spurgeon Sabbatical. It was essentially a ten-day retreat for about 16 pastors. I was blessed to attend 4 of the years it was offered. Others were even more regular attendees with one pastor not missing even one.
I would like to describe what we did there together, hoping that there might be some professors or pastors who would put together something similar in the future. Pastors need it.
We arrived together in the Boston area by aircraft or by car and gathered on the campus of Gordon Conwell. We were aggressively welcomed by Dr. David Horn who was the organizer and a sort of shepherd/counselor to us for the 10 days. We gathered for supper the first evening and got to know one another. It was quickly apparent that humor would regularly be on the menu.
The next morning, we entered the routine for our time together. We got up and had breakfast together followed by a half hour of worship. Dr. Horn had recruited a very capable worship leader for us. After worship we were led into the Scriptures by Dr. Scott Hafemann (1996-2012) or Dr. Sean McDonough (2013-2017). Many of the attendees were Dr. Hafemann’s former students. I was an exception, having gone to TEDS. We would spend the entire morning in a part of the Bible, discussing the language, context, grammar, connections to the rest of Scripture, and applications to our lives. Both men were gifted and intentional shepherds, building into our lives, loving us, and setting an example in the Word.
Lunch together was preceded by a short devotional and then followed by an hour of one of the pastors in attendance telling his life story in some way, complete with recent lessons and developments and prayer requests. At times, the sharing was deeply emotional. Then we would all pray for that pastor for at least a half hour. After a few hours of afternoon break when we would go on excursions or just relax, we did the same thing again for supper. Twice a day we would focus our attention as a group entirely on one of the pastors there. This created an atmosphere of amazing encouragement.
In the evening, following supper, sharing and prayer, we gathered again for a discussion of a book we had all read in preparation for the Sabbatical. Finally, we closed out the day with a half hour of worship.
For 10 days.
Saturday and Sunday, when we went to a church nearby, were slightly different in schedule, but still we were mostly together. I felt like what we had was a little taste of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. I found it refreshing, deeply meaningful, and full of fun. I love the men that I got to be with for those times. I stay in touch still with some of them.
After the third Spurgeon Sabbatical that I attended I was home telling my four kids about it. All of them were over the age of 16 and had served at Hidden Acres, an EFCA camp in central Iowa. I explained that it was like I got to be a monk for 10 days. That did nothing for them. They do not have a monastic inclination. Then I told them that I essentially went to Bible camp for pastors. We had a teacher, a counselor, and a worship leader. That made sense to all of them.
I propose that every pastor could use 10 days at Bible camp now and again.
Pastor John Mochel