LUTZ – Chaplains and other clergy leading a wide variety of ministries throughout the state gathered near Tampa this week for the first extension ministries retreat organized by the Florida Conference in recent memory.
Plans for the event at Bethany Center, a lakefront conference center in rural Lutz, were launched a year ago, said Rev. Dr. Wayne Wiatt, director of Clergy Excellence for the Florida Conference.
The idea for the daylong retreat arose during a discussion with Florida Bishop Ken.Carter at the Extension Ministries breakfast at last year's annual conference.
“And it came up that because we meet with the bishop once a year at Annual Conference – for an hour – it would be nice to have something else,” said Navy Cmdr. Steve Souders, an ordained elder and chairperson of the Florida Conference Extension Ministries. “We batted around the idea of an actual retreat for extension ministries.”
“From that, the bishop, Wayne and I began discussions and we've been working on bringing this together for the last year,” Souders said during a midday break at the May 27 retreat.
Wiatt said the bishop wanted to personally lead the retreat.
“Because they (extension ministers) are deployed, he doesn't interface with them as often he would the pastors,” Wiatt said.
He said the retreat was the first of its kind in the conference that anyone could remember in the last 20 years.
The nearly 40 in attendance included military, hospital and hospice chaplains, as well as campus ministers, college professors, licensed mental health counselors and others.
“You have a wide variety of almost any type of ministry you can think of,'' said Souders who, as a military chaplain for two decades, is aware of the unique tasks and challenges outreach ministries face.
“Where I am, at Naval Station Mayport, we have over 5,000 sailors and two chaplains,” Souders said. “It's quite an extensive ministry. We provide for our own, so we're able to connect with United Methodists that are serving in the military and help provide for their spiritual needs.”
The helping hand has a long reach. “We care for all. For other faith groups, whether they be Muslim or other Christian denominations or Buddhists, we connect them with chaplains from their own faith group or, if they don't have a chaplain, a lay leader or local community worship center,” Souders said.
“We're the only people in the military that have complete 100 percent confidentiality. So anybody in the military can come talk to us, and there's nothing we have to share with anybody else. Sometimes they just come to talk to us, not necessarily because we're a chaplain; we're just the only person they can talk to with whatever story they want to tell, knowing it's not going anywhere.”
Extension ministry appointees require approval by the bishop and the Board of Ordained Ministry.
While some enter into ordination with a vision of being a chaplain or some other specialty, interest in an extension ministry may also evolve later in life, Wiatt said.
“Sometimes they spend a career in the local church, maybe 20 years, and suddenly they realize their passion is in pastoral counseling, so they may migrate from the church to counseling.” Wiatt said.
“It's different for different people,” he added, citing an example of a pastor who only after earning a degree in counseling “pretty well figured that's where his passions were.”
It was similar for Souders. “I pastored four churches in the conference for about 15 years. Then God opened a door for Navy chaplains and I transitioned to that.”
His vast experience includes serving in Seattle, Alaska, Southern California and Norfolk, Va.
Souders was task force senior chaplain for a challenging four-month humanitarian mission in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. He coordinated 800 volunteers, relief supplies and shelter construction that involved 15 U.S. Navy ships, thousands of sailors and 20 chaplains.
The impoverished Caribbean island of Haiti played an influential role for another extension minister at the Lutz retreat, Rev. Lisa Lefkow. She oversees a Habitat for Humanity chapter in an economically diverse Southwest Florida community that includes ramshackle migrant houses in Immokalee and palatial estates in Naples and Marco Island.
“My background has always had a mission focus, and 15 years ago I went on a clergy retreat to Haiti,” said Lefkow, a United Methodist deacon and executive vice president of Habitat for Humanity Collier County.
“I came back and knew that my time was meant to be spent in a daily ministry context where I could be of service, particularly to the poor,” she said. “I had already been engaged in Habitat for Humanity. The church I had been serving (North Naples UMC) was an active Habitat congregation, so it was a short jump for me to go from the local parish to our Habitat affiliate,” she said.
”We have a very wealthy population that knows Naples as a place of luxury and wealth. It takes a huge service industry to care for those folks,” Lefkow said, noting that an estimated 10 service industry employees are required for every high-end house sold in Collier County.
“We have this very big service industry, folks making minimum wage or just better, and no place for them to live; we have no affordable housing. Folks are living in broken-down trailers or stacked up two and three families in an apartment to be able to afford the rent. Or they're paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their monthly wages to pay for their housing costs.”
She calls it the perfect storm for a successful Habitat affiliate.
“We have wonderful philanthropic partners that contribute the funds. We have great volunteers that retire young to enjoy life in Collier County and want to do something more than just fishing and playing golf,” Lefkow said.
“So they're happy to share one day a week or a couple days a week to come out and build houses. And then we have this wonderful service industry of hard-working families qualified to build and buy their Habitat house,” she said. “All of that has made us the largest-producing affiliate in the nation. We build an average of 100 houses a year.”
Her extension ministry helps provide a platform for “building bridges between churches of all denominations, congregations of all faiths and Habitat,” introducing it as an extension of the other churches' ministries.
Campus ministries also were well-represented at the retreat.
Rev. Narcie Jeter is campus minister of Gator Wesley Foundation in Gainesville, serving the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. “We run the gambit of having to deal with pastoral concerns,” from students who are depressed, away from home for the first time or victims of sexual assault, she said.
Rev. Mike Toluba, her counterpart at Florida State University, said, “Some are working through questions of identity, location, relationships and making decisions that will make an impact on the rest of their lives. It's a critical time in life -- discovering who they are and what they're called to do.”
Souders said feedback from those at the retreat was positive. Lefkow said important lessons included stressing the importance of taking a deep breath.
“I was just sharing with one of my wonderful mentors (that) the day-to-day job is endless; there's always something more to be done. Taking time to be apart, so that you slow down and refocus and reset priorities and refresh self, is really important.
“And it's just extraordinarily beautiful here.”
– George R. Wilkens is a freelance writer based in Wesley Chapel.