By Jeff Brumley
Every year, interest grows in a combined worship planning and support group that has forged an unbreakable bond between six Baptist pastors.
Known as preacher camp, the annual, closed gathering got a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter as members posted updates and photos from the Aug. 10-15 retreat.
“There’s been an awful lot of interest over the years,” said Russ Dean, co-pastor at Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. “Every year, more people want to go.”
And no wonder.
In addition to coming away with worship planning and sermon outlines for the coming year, Dean and fellow pastors Amy Butler, John Ballenger, Dorisanne Cooper, Don Flowers and Jim Somerville have developed a peer group in which they serve as friends and pastors to each other.
Even between annual get-togethers, Dean said, the group maintains regular contact by phone and Facebook to guide each other through church leadership issues — and of course preaching.
“It’s wonderful to be able to have close friends who are trusted colleagues in similar situations who know what you’re going through and offer a shoulder to cry on,” he said.
‘It’s a support group’
Not that it started out that way.
Instead, it began 12 years ago when Butler and Somerville, then pastors in Washington and having met weekly for more than a year for sermon debriefing, decided it was time to shake things up.
“He said, ‘This is getting kind of boring,’” said Butler, senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City. “’We have already told each other everything we know.’”
Somerville suggested forming a “dream team” of fellow pastors already known for their innovative work for “a big version” of the Monday mornings he and Butler had had together, she said.
“So we made a list of people and started reaching out to them,” Butler said.
One they contacted was Ballenger, who in turn tapped Dean and Cooper, who had also been meeting for sermon preparation and fellowship.
There was some turnover the first couple of years, but after that the current group of six was set.
The initial idea was for the gatherings to be lectionary sermon and worship planning retreats. But it wasn’t very long before the events evolved into much more.
One big change, Butler said, occurred seven years ago when conflicting schedules inspired the group to start bringing spouses and children along for the retreats, which usually last at least four days.
Soon mandatory dance parties, camp fires and cooking s’mores were added to the list of activities.
“And it was the kids who coined the phrase ‘preacher camp,’” Butler said. Since last year, each get-together has also earned the Twitter hast-tags of #preachercamp2014 and #preachercamp2015, respectively.
Preacher camp has also become a pastoral care group for its members.
“It’s a support group,” she said.
“The strong consensus is that the chemistry is working for us and as the years have unfolded we have become each other’s pastors as we’ve been through deaths, job changes and church conflicts,” Butler said.
Creating authentic relationships
That element is one of the most sustaining parts of preacher camp, said Cooper, pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C.
Cooper said she struggles to discern her own strengths and talents, but sees them in abundance in her five colleagues. In turn she’s encouraged about her own leadership, preaching and pastoral gifts because they detect them in her.
“It’s easier to see it in others than in yourself,” she said.
“We give each other hope in this powerful endeavor we are part of in the church, and it’s important to have someone hold hope for you when you can’t hope in yourself,” Cooper said.
The six preachers over the years have committed to telling each other the truth about their ministries and lives, especially when flirting with despair, Cooper said.
“That has created authentic relationships” in the group, she said.
‘Vital is the word’
And those relationships have become the most important feature for some preacher camp members, said Ballenger, pastor at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore.
“It started off being very useful with the lectionary planning, it being a preaching resource,” Ballenger said. “And that continues.”
But the relationships “with some of the best and brightest ministers around” has been even more rewarding, he said.
It’s why he and other members are in regular contact with each other throughout the year.
Ballenger added that the sustained participation in preacher camp, and communicating with his fellow members throughout the year, always remind him that his calling to the ministry is about more than himself or the local church.
“I am regularly inspired by them and held accountable by them and by our work,” Ballenger said.
Preacher camp continues to be useful, he said, but it’s something more.
“Vital is the word,” Ballenger said.
No cookie-cutter sermons
But the campers said the original sermon and worship preparation portion of the camp also is vital to their ministries.
Somerville, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., said it begins by dividing the Christian year into two-month blocks — with corresponding lectionary readings — and assigning those periods to different members.
Each preacher then brings his or her ideas for that liturgical season to the meeting and shares them with the others. The group does not leave with prepared sermons, Somerville said.
While each member is generally a follower of the lectionary, Somerville said some follow it more closely than others.
“You would not hear the same sermon or anything like it in any of those six churches,” he said.
The same series titles may be used, he added, as the members move through the church calendar.
“We share good ideas and series titles with each other and offer input,” Somerville said. “What we actually do in our own churches varies a great deal.”
Finding a different approach
The importance of such a group and such a process is invaluable to preachers who follow the lectionary — and even for those who don’t, said Flowers, pastor at Providence Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C.
During the first two or three of Flowers’ 18 years at Providence Baptist, it wasn’t too difficult to preach through the various seasons of the church.
“It’s easy to get Jesus out of the tomb the first year, even the second year,” Flowers said. And it’s the same with the Christmas story, he added.
“But how can you tell this story differently again this year? Because it’s the same story,” Flowers said. “I can’t preach that 18 times — I need a different way of approaching it.”
Preacher camp provides that every year for each season of the church calendar, he said.
“This pushes us to dig deeper into the text to ask, ‘What does this have to say?’”
The ongoing fellowship during the year also helps with these preaching challenges, Flowers said.
Members talk by phone and they check in on a closed Facebook page called the Saturday Night Sermon Writing Club.
“We meet for a week but the conversation continues all year long,” he said.
This constant contact enables the six members to bounce ideas off each other and ask for help interpreting passages of scripture.
Ballenger is one of Flowers’ main go-to’s.
“I can read a scripture for five years and never see it the way he sees it the first time he sees it,” Flowers said.
‘We stumbled into it’
Group members know all of these things make preacher camp so attractive to other ministers. But all six preachers long ago decided against opening membership to others.
Butler said that stance isn’t about being exclusive but honoring the relationships that have given preacher camp a pastoral quality to each member.
Camp members have agreed eventually to write a book about their experiences and to show others how to form their own groups, Butler said.
Cooper said any number of approaches could work in recreating a preacher camp experience.
For her group, it just happened to be built around being pastors of moderate and progressive churches.
It only takes one or two people with the idea inviting one or two other people, and asking them to invite one or two, she said.
“Then plan a time and get together,” she said.
Even the place can move around as it did for Cooper and her fellow campers. For the past seven years they’ve met in a lake house near Charlotte.
All the details can vary, she said, adding that no one in her group ever imagined preacher camp would last so long and become so important.
“We really just stumbled into it,” Cooper said.