Academy takes aim at pastor burnout

Spiritual soul food is a major component

Rev. Gary Spencer, Atlantic Central District superintendent, shares insight from his days as a church planter with participants in New Church Start Academy at the Florida United Methodist Center. Photos by Susan Green.

LAKELAND – A passion for Jesus and His people likely shows up at the top of the list of characteristics for successful church leaders.

But can that passion burn too bright? Can pastors get so caught up in making and caring for disciples that they forget what stoked the flames in the first place?

It happens, says Dr. Matt Lewis, who founded the Pastors of Excellence program at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio 12 years ago and this week finished leading a condensed version of it at the Florida United Methodist Center.

Dr. Matt Lewis speaks to New Church Start Academy
Dr. Matt Lewis, founder of the Pastors of Excellence program at Ashland Theological Seminary, speaks to participants during the first session of the Florida Conference New Church Start Academy.

He believes church planters in particular are among those at highest risk because of the energy involved in building a church from the ground up. Many forget to carve out time for personal reflection and soul-searching.

“The danger is heightened for this group,” Lewis said. “This was a lesson I learned when I was a church planter. … The ministry was growing. My soul was empty.”

Nineteen clergy members who are in some stage of planting a new church, shepherding a church created from merging congregations or starting a satellite campus for an existing church participated in the Florida Conference’s first New Church Start Academy, a series of four retreats that started in August.

The program also targets competencies such as fundraising, stewardship and entrepreneurship – or creative approaches to ministry – but Lewis said he’s aware of no other similar program that allocates 25 percent of its time to guarding and nurturing the pastor’s soul. 

The academy was a pilot project for Ashland, which has previously hosted ecumenical pastor renewal retreats at its campuses in Ohio and Detroit. Rev.
Dan Jackson, New Church Development director for the Florida Conference, was impressed with the Ashland program when he attended years ago and wanted to bring it to United Methodist clergy in Florida.

He said he wants to repeat the academy again starting in the fall, but with a smaller group of participants. An important part of the program, he and Lewis said, is forming small groups of clergy who can share experiences and hold one another responsible for nurturing spiritual health.

“What we’re trying to do is create a pool of prepared pastors to do this in the future,” Jackson said, adding that he expects the same concepts can apply to pastors involved in church revitalization.

As part of the final three-day retreat, Rev. Gary Spencer, Atlantic Central District superintendent, reflected on his early days as a church planter. He said he was asked to start a church in the Cooper City area of South Florida. He received two hours of training and arrived to find an isolated, 5-acre field. 

“I literally walked around the neighborhood and knocked on doors,” Spencer recalled. Although he didn’t enjoy having doors close in his face, his mission was straightforward.

“It was very easy to figure out what my job was: Go get some people,” he said, adding that the church grew to 800 members in eight years. 

For Spencer, the challenges came as the church matured.

“The older the church is, the harder it is to stay on mission, and the mission is people,” he told the group. “It doesn’t take long for a church to get tied up in things.”

Spencer said he loved the work of a church planter, but he stepped away from his calling and worked in his family’s moving and storage business for a time. Learning to delegate tasks and knowing personal strengths and weaknesses are critical to being a successful pastor, he said.

“Self-awareness is what will make or break you in leadership.”

Leadership books on a table at New Church Start Academy
Leadership and teamwork materials are part of the New Church Start Academy curriculum.

Academy participant Rev. Gary Marcelin, who is moving to campus ministry in Miami after serving as pastor of Ametros in Coral Gables, said hearing from experienced church planters added value to the reading materials provided. He also enjoyed sharing his experiences with other church planters in his small group and getting their support.

“It can be so lonely being in New Church Start (ministry),” he said. 

Fenel Conserve, pastor of Faith UMC’s Haitian mission in Boynton Beach, said the academy gave him practical ideas for working in his mission field.

“What we are trying to do right now is bring more Creole people back to the Creole church,” he said. Conserve said he is working with Haitian ministry lay members interested in leadership roles to help them develop skills to serve on church committees and take responsibility for funding ministry needs. He said he was encouraged recently when the mission’s van broke down and the Haitian ministry raised the money to fix it in two weeks without seeking help from the predominantly Anglo congregation. 

“When people understand what they’re doing, it brings more excitement,” Conserve said. “I want to help them take more ownership of the church.”

Rev. Rebecca Hyvonen, pastor of Venetian Bay UMC, New Smyrna Beach, and a self-described “workaholic,” said her church started with eight people in 2008 and now has more than 100 attending worship.

“To me, it (the academy) feels like a gift … to be able to get away for a few days and to be with other pastors who know what it’s like to be a New Church Start pastor,” she said.

“I had a tremendously deep experience in August,” she said, referring to the start of the academy. “It really helped me fall back in love with Jesus on an intimate level.”

She said ideas she brought back to her church from the academy – such as an emphasis on small groups -- already are bearing fruit.

“I think it’s going to take us to the next level.”

-- Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.

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