For 15 years we’ve been gathering around this table. Much has changed, but the same thing brings us together year after year.
In the earliest years of my pastoral ministry my friend, John Ballenger, began envisioning a study leave for a small group of colleagues that would be structured but creative, challenging but restful. We didn’t know it then, but out of that simple idea “Preacher Camp” was born.
Amy Butler and Jim Somerville, then serving Baptist churches in the nation’s capital, were having a similar conversation, and somehow our two dreams of a unique and meaningful study leave came together. Inviting a few other clergy to join us, we gathered for the first time in 2003 on the banks of a lazy West Virginia river. We walked through the 2004 lectionary texts, gathered our diverse ministries in sharing “best practices” and shared our lives in ministry – which are filled with some unique hardships and challenges but also with some incomparable moments of joy. We paddled the river, relaxed on the quiet, shady porch and shared food and faith.
“We continue to believe this ancient word can still speak powerfully to a modern culture.”
Within two years we had settled to six participants, adding Dorisanne Cooper, now at Watts Street Baptist in Durham, North Carolina, and Don Flowers, now pastoring in a vibrant Baptist community in Nova Scotia. We’ve been together ever since, meeting for one week each summer. John makes assignments: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Pentecost, Ordinary Time (summer and fall). Each of us prepares ahead of time. In our working sessions we share sermon and worship themes from the Old Testament and the Psalms, the Epistles and the Gospels. We share sermons we have preached in the previous year. We “check in,” sharing the bitter and the sweet of family and health and church work. And, we eat well and play enough to balance the diet.
I leave every Preacher Camp refreshed, and with a notebook containing 52 weeks’ worth of ideas. Actual sermons sometimes vary as current issues within the culture and our own churches dictate, but the guide we each create serves as an essential roadmap for a year of worship. At Park Road Baptist, our director of music uses my notes to plan anthems and choose service music. Our associate ministers have access to these worship themes in order to match Sunday school lessons and other programs.
When we leave Camp, the Saturday Night Sermon Writing Club, a private Facebook group, serves as a helpful way to exchange ideas, illustrations, study helps and a good joke or two. We share our lives and our ministries every single week. I can’t imagine ministry without these dear friends by my side.
Almost a decade ago we began inviting our spouses and families to share this week with us. We had secured a nice house on a North Carolina lake that would accommodate all of us, so I towed my boat that year, and most of our spouses and about six kids showed up. The preachers’ schedule didn’t change: we worked in the mornings and evenings and relaxed in the afternoons, but beginning that summer our families began playing together.
What could be better? I’m writing this column from Preacher Camp 2018. I started the last two mornings by sharing a few hard slalom runs with one of my college-age sons, and I ended one of those days listening to sermons from the pastors of The Riverside Church in New York City and First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia! After all these years our kids know each other, and (amazingly) even vacationing with a house full of preachers still sounds like a good idea to them!
Four of the six of us have changed churches in 15 years; one just moved to Canada. We’ve celebrated the high school and college graduations of our children, participated in their weddings, grieved the deaths of our parents, shared the health challenges we are facing and reflected on the common challenges facing our churches in this changing culture. We laugh every year about the book we ought to write based on the stories we bring: You Can’t Make this Stuff Up!
“The Saturday Night Sermon Writing Club, a private Facebook group, serves as a helpful way to exchange ideas, illustrations, study helps and a good joke or two.”
We serve diverse congregations, center-left to progressive, smaller to large-ish, historic steeples to new church starts. Our theologies are compatible, but we hardly walk in lockstep. Our unique congregations dictate the variety of our preaching styles, but a scripture we all call holy unifies us.
The one thing that has never changed is the ancient wisdom that guides our preaching.
Week after week, year after year, lectionary cycle after lectionary cycle, we all come back to our sacred text with a renewed hope. Based on the confidence of our combined years of experience, we continue to believe this ancient word can still speak powerfully to a modern culture. After 15 years of Preacher Camp, I’m as sure of that as I am that Don, Dorisanne, Jim, Amy and John can help me better speak that word of hope and challenge and comfort to my congregation.
Pastoral ministry, with all the contextual uniqueness six churches can offer, brings us to the table. An ancient truth, still challenging and comforting a hungry and hurting world, gives us a common hope and keeps us together.