Postcard from Kanuga: or, X-Treme Road Warriors for Clergy Health

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The snow was "lovely, dark and deep."

The inaugural Spirited Life retreat was held last week at Kanuga Conference Center near Hendersonville. Not everything went smoothly or according to plan. But in the end we felt it was a success, an enriching experience for all concerned. Surely the Holy Spirit was present!

We knew we had rolled the dice by scheduling a retreat in January in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sure enough, a snowstorm rolled in the night before the retreat was to begin, dumping 12 inches. We made the decision to go ahead with the retreat, offering pastors the option of early arrival and an extra night’s lodging. A handful of participants were unable to make it due to the weather, but only a handful.

On the positive side: The snow was "lovely, dark and deep." It enhanced the sense of apartness that every retreat strives for, and provided a "container," as Robin Swift put it, for the work that took place over three days. The Kanuga staff were great at scrambling, changing room assignments and other details to reduce the amount of walking between buildings.

Hopefully, none of the other retreats will be affected by wintry weather. But in many ways, the Kanuga "template" will be in place at all the retreats. The agenda mixes large-group and small-group sessions. The small groups will include role-playing, to simulate pastoral challenges, and practice skills at handling them in ways that are faithful but don’t cause pastors’ stress levels to skyrocket. There is unstructured downtime built in to each retreat, and there is a large worship component. The Rev. Dr. Ed Moore led worship at Kanuga, and was on hand throughout as a centering pastoral presence.

The Kanuga pastors really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the Clergy Wellness Advocates. These seven people -- Joel, Scottie, Rachel, Kelli, Dwight, LaKeyta, and Lisa — will be visible and hands-on at each retreat, facilitating all of the small-group work. As new members of the Clergy Health Initiative team, they bring diverse gifts and backgrounds to our work, and are loaded with enthusiasm and resourcefulness. We’ll say more about the Wellness Advocates in a post coming soon; they will be critical to each pastor’s unique experience with Spirited Life.

Here is something else we’ll expand on in a future essay: We got some important, albeit pointed and critical, feedback from Kanuga participants. To make a long story short, some pastors questioned the point of starting Spirited Life with a three-day retreat rather than attacking the problem of overweight that many participants perceive as their most pressing health issue.

Our response, briefly, is: 1) Stress and spirituality are two central facts of pastoral ministry. Combining stress reduction and spiritual reflection, from the start, is what makes this a clergy health program. 2) Stress reduction, we fervently believe, will help with weight loss. But clearly we have work to do, to narrate our designs and intentions more fully. Stay tuned.

In closing, I have to pass along a testimonial: On the closing day at Kanuga, a pastor took one of our staff persons aside and told her that he had arrived with a skeptical attitude. He suspected that Spirited Life had an institutional agenda: reducing conferences’ health insurance costs, for instance. But he was leaving feeling good about the three days he had just spent on the retreat, and hopeful for the two years ahead. What changed his perspective was the sincerity and caring that he felt from the people putting on the retreat. Pastors’ needs and honoring pastors’ time were the priorities, not the ego of some expert, or the prerogatives of the church or of Duke.

Retreat # 2 is underway right now, at Caraway Conference Center near Asheboro. Prayers and best wishes to the 40 pastors retreating to Caraway!

"When we retreat to the country, we are hiding not from people, but from our pride, which, in the city and among people, operates unfairly and immoderately." (Anton Chekhov)

Shalom y’all,

John James, M.A.
Research Analyst, Clergy Health Initiative

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