by Justin Lonas
Many pastors along the Gulf Coast lost their churches when Hurricane Katrina hit last year. Many also lost almost everything they owned. Some are still living several hours away from their church and making the commute daily. Some have despaired of their calling but have stayed the course by the Lord's grace. Most have worked tirelessly for their congregations and communities for the past year-putting the needs of the flock above their own.
Enter the "Standing Strong in the Storms of Life" conference, co-sponsored by AMG International (Pulpit Helps' parent company) and Hoffmantown Church (Albuquerque, N.M.), to provide just what a number of these pastors needed most: rest and spiritual renewal.
About 35 pastors and their spouses attended the three-day event on Sept. 11-13 at the Riverview Plaza Hotel in Mobile, AL. Wayne Barber, pastor of Hoffmantown and Pulpit Helps contributing writer, was the featured speaker. The two sponsors picked up the tab for the hotel and meals, opening the door for attendees to come away and rest without a large personal expense. Pulpit Helps' staff aided in coordinating the registration for the conference, and Joe McKeever, director of missions for the Greater New Orleans Baptist association and frequent contributor of both articles and cartoons to the magazine, was instrumental in spreading the word about the event to pastors in southeastern Louisiana.
"Standing Strong" was born out of a realization by Curtis Brickley, missions pastor at Hoffmantown, that a shocking majority of pastors in areas affected by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 had left their churches in the region within two years after the storm. Brickley and others from Hoffmantown had partnered with LaRue Stephens, pastor of First Baptist Church in Long Beach, MS, to provide relief to the region in the months following Katrina. In following up with Stephens, Brickley decided that providing a retreat for the caregivers might be the best way to further assist the recovery efforts.
Stephens said that he understood that "If you don't come apart and rest, you may just come apart."
The conference was very well received by those who could attend. Most echoed the sentiment of Gary Smith of First Baptist Church in Carriere, Miss., "I needed this more than words could express."
Many, like Felix Williams of Grace Fellowship in Gulfport, Miss., have devoted their energies to getting their churches up and running even before attempting to rebuild their homes. Williams said the storm actually provided them the opportunity to rebuild their church facilities (which had in the past housed a nightclub and casino) to "really look like a church."
Stephens said "I never knew how rich I was in Christ until I lost all the things I was worshiping in the place of Christ." He said that Katrina had totally changed his focus in how his church went about community outreach.
"We've let Y'all come' be replaced by How can we help you?'" Stephens said.
One couple, Derrell and Sheilah Marshall, of Bayou La Batre, Ala., didn't even live in the region when the storm hit. Darrell had been a candidate for pastor at a church there, and chose to come anyway a month later, and has thrown himself into rebuilding the church at the same time as he's stepped into preaching.
Stories like these abounded from the conference attendees, who hailed from various points on the coast from New Orleans to Mobile. The storm, though its destruction left deep wounds, opened the door to the healing blood of Jesus Christ in the region like never before.
Barber's messages throughout the conference centered on the truth of how God's grace is all that we can rely on-that to "lose heart" literally means to turn from God to our own wisdom in the face of difficulty. His three points for the three days reiterated this theme: "You can't, but Christ can, because He lives in you. You don't want to, but Christ does, because He lives in you. You don't need to be seen, but Christ does, because He lives in you." As Galatians 2:20 says, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
Barber reminded the pastors that "You can be worn out, but if you are filled with the life of Christ, you can never be truly burnt out."
The significance of the conference has yet to be fully determined, but if the comments of attendees are any indication, the Lord has mightily used this event for His glory. AMG International President Paul Jenks has suggested that this model of "providing care for caregivers" should be employed in all disaster areas. Sometimes providing a brief respite is all that is required to give those in need the strength to press on.