A healthy discussion: ministers talk about personal wellness at Shepherd Care Conference

The two-day Shepherd Care Conference focused on a variety of health-related topics for pastors. MYRIAH SNYDER/Index

DULUTH — The topic of health can cover several areas for pastors. And whether it’s physical, emotional, or relational, the level of honest self-assessment goes a long way in determining effectiveness in ministry.

Reggie Ogea of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary addresses conference attendees. MYRIAH SNYDER/Index

That was the overall message for pastors attending the Shepherd Care Conference March 26-27, sponsored by Georgia Baptist Mission Board Church-Minister Relations and held at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. The gathering, explained Marcus Merritt, is comprehensive in nature.

“The conference is designed to equip pastors to assess their emotional and spiritual health while providing resources to aid their overall wellness,” explained Merritt, lead state missionary in Church-Minister Relations. “Also, it aids pastors by setting realistic and attainable goals for life and ministry.”

Anthony George, associate pastor at First Baptist Atlanta, began the conference with an opening session in the Missions and Ministry Center chapel. Preaching out of Titus, he related the story of a minister in a tough spot who needed reassurance from Paul that things were going to work out.

Paul, however, reminded Titus how he’d walked his own tough paths in ministry. In other words, ministry is going to be tough.

“Ministry is people, but people are what make it so hard,” George said. “… don’t let the naysayers rob you of the vision God has given you of the way things should be.”

Steps for better health

The rest of the event consisted of intensive sessions lasting up to an hour-and-half held in a separate conference area. Small group discussions alternated with large-scale presentations led by facilitators Reggie Ogea and Jake Roudkovski, professors at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, on sessions such as:

Chad Hendley, pastor of Cottondale Baptist Church in Eastman, listens during a discussion. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index
  • Intimacy: connecting to the heart of successful pastoring
  • Calling: the power for effectiveness in ministry
  • Stress management: avoiding ineffectiveness and burnout
  • Boundaries: protecting what matters most
  • Re-Creation (recreation): the fuel to re-energize ministry
  • People skills: managing our most valuable resource
  • Leadership skills: setting shepherds apart from the rest of the sheep.

“Time management, strengthening their marriage, and avoiding burnout are always requested topics,” Merritt explained. “Most of our pastors are healthy in these areas but still with to improve. We also frequently get questions on conflict mediation. In fact, we are now developing a separate conference dedicated exclusively to that topic.”

Tony Samples, wearing glasses, listens during a small group discussion at the Shepherd Care Conference last month at the Missions and Ministry Center in Duluth. As an older participant among an evenly-distributed group in terms of age, Samples said he would have liked a similar conference when he started in ministry 30 years ago. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

‘Something every pastor needs’

Tony Samples, a transitional pastor currently serving as an interim, drives each week from his Paulding County home to Macedonia Baptist Church in Ranburne, Alabama. He attended last year’s conference as well as the most recent one, attesting to its necessity for pastors.

“I wish there had been something like this when I started out in ministry 30 years ago,” he testified.

Samples expressed that topics such as pastoral health weren’t looked down upon. It’s just they were rarely brought up.

“To learn about how to stay healthy spiritually, mentally, and physically and the factors that go into it, that was great,” he said.

Johnny Nix agrees with Samples that a similar conference at the beginning of his ministry 22 years ago would have been welcomed.

“This is something every pastor needs,” said Nix, pastor of Pickett’s Mill Baptist Church in Dallas. “It helps to be able to talk to somebody and hear from professionals. The Shepherd Conference allowed for that.”

Nix added how increased reports of pastors committing suicide and ministry failure underscore the event’s importance. “Conferences like this are essential,” he noted.

First Baptist Church Atlanta Associate Pastor Anthony George kicked off the Shepherd Care Conference, speaking on the challenges facing pastors and need for good wellness habits. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

‘You learn you’re not alone’

Merritt testified to the resilience of pastors and dedication to their work. That doesn’t make them invincible, though.

At left John McBride, associational mission strategist for Polk-Harralson Association, shares with his group as JJ Washington, pastor of Woodstock Church-Austell, listens. SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

“The pastors of the Georgia Baptist Convention are some of the finest in the SBC and I commend them for constantly working on their own spiritual and emotional health,” he said. “But even the best pastors are susceptible to burnout and unmanaged stress; just ask Elijah! Pastors are on the job 24/7 and many feel as though they live in a fish bowl.

“While pastors are called to this lifestyle, and most feel greatly honored to serve their congregation, many are struggling emotionally.”

The roundtable discussions opened a lot of doors for participants, said Samples.

Jake Roudkovski of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary talks to ministers during one of the conference's early sessions, titled "Intimacy: Connecting to the heart of successful pastoring." SCOTT BARKLEY/Index

“It gives you the chance to listen to others. A lot of times you think you’re the only one dealing with issues, but you learn you’re not alone. It also gives you a chance for some feedback and see how others’ experiences played out.”

Like Nix, Samples also enjoyed the chance to mingle with some younger participants at the conference.

“In the small group setting I talked to a couple of guys in their 20s at their first pastorate,” Samples related. “It was good for them to get on the front end of some issues they would be facing.”

“That setting showed me there are guys battling the same things I have,” echoed Nix. “I also enjoyed the prayer time together and networking, building relationships.

“Church-Minister Relations is one of the strongest ministries we have going on for Georgia Baptists. It’s been very essential to helping me deal with several aspects of ministry.”

conference, leadership, Pastor health