A remarkable retreat for church leaders occurred recently on the banks of the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country.
Convened by the Soundings Project at Baylor University, 40 pastors and lay leaders from 14 Texas congregations spent three days at historic Laity Lodge, thinking and praying together about the mission of the church and the ways they are being led to minister in the days and years ahead.
The churches represented at the retreat come from small towns and big cities. Nine of the churches are Texas Baptist. The others are Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Christian and Missionary Alliance and two Catholic parishes.
There is racial and socioeconomic diversity, both within and among the congregations. Likewise, there are variations in theology and worship. But these differences do not define them.
What unites these churches is a common calling to ministry that will serve God and God’s people and the shared realization that Christians need to hold hands and work together whenever and wherever possible. The challenges of ministry are similar in Rosebud and the Metroplex.
Ministry leaders see common needs
Pastors and lay leaders want to see the generations in their congregations connected in meaningful ways. How can those with wisdom and experience mentor youth and young adults in their Christian walk?
Church leaders also see the need for discipleship and formation efforts that will shape the lives of the faithful across the stages of life.
Finally, they see the need to make the gospel proclamation of Sunday’s sermon come alive the rest of the week for themselves and those they encounter in their workplaces, schools and communities.
Lilly Endowment makes more ministry possible
Lilly Endowment Inc. has given the Soundings Project $1.5 million to encourage and enable the congregations to develop new ministry projects that might respond to these needs. The retreat was the first step in the planning of these efforts. The implementation of the projects will take the next two to three years.
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Lilly’s generosity to religious and educational purposes is without parallel. Founded in 1937, it cares about the church and church-related higher education and wants to see both thrive.
Lilly also wants the work of congregations and schools like Baylor to be inspired by a deep sense of divine calling or vocation. The initiative that funds the Soundings Project and 13 other institutions across North America is named “Called to Lives of Meaning and Purpose.”
Listening and learning
The pastors and lay leaders at the retreat listened intently to Paul Wadell, a gifted theologian, writer and speaker, when he described the way we all share—through our baptism—a common calling to be an instrument of Christ’s salvation.
They also heard from Phil Miller, acting director of Texas Baptists’ Great Commission Team, who contrasted servant leadership with the all-too-familiar and lamentable phenomenon of “paper towel leadership”—when those who serve are discarded quickly when they no longer are useful.
Listening for the ways God calls us is not easy for most of us, and we can make it more difficult for ourselves, especially in the midst of busy schedules and full lives. We often feel like we are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. People doing the work of the church are hardly immune to this. As Howard Butt Jr., the founder of Laity Lodge, once said, “We retreat so that we may advance.”
Ministers share common challenges
For those who attended the retreat, there was a unique opportunity to listen, pray, worship, share table fellowship and dream about the future with brothers and sisters in Christ.
They are swimming in the same streams, whether Baptist, Catholic or Christian and Missionary Alliance. Christian friendship not only was talked about at the retreat, but practiced. Congregations will be working alongside and learning from one another in the years ahead.
For my own part, I was awed by the hope I saw in those who are serving and leading churches across Texas. There is tremendous energy, wisdom and commitment among them.
Could the Soundings Project, drawing together congregations from varied parts of the Christian faith, have happened 20 or 30 years ago? I don’t know. But it is happening now.
I think I saw a glimpse of what heaven might be as I looked into the faces of those gathered each morning and evening for prayer and as we sang hymns like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “It is Well with My Soul.”
The work God entrusts to us takes all of us. We need one another, and now more than ever.
Darin Davis is principal investigator of the Soundings Project, director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, and a faculty member in the Honors Program, all at Baylor University. He also is pastor of Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Falls County. The views expressed are those solely of the author.