I returned today from a pastor's retreat at Olmsted Manor, a beautiful facility in a remote outpost known as "Kane District". At the invitation of Jeff Vanderhoff, who is the director of the probationer's program in our Conference (astoundingly, considering his antics during our own probationary years - setting off mini-bombs in the Conference Center and such), and given the unavailability of #1 draft pick Eric Park (who has led this event in the past), I was the facilitator of a retreat entitled "Life Altar-ing Experiences". The retreat focused on the theology and practice of worship, liturgy, and sacraments.
1) I found this group of new probationers (all commissioned in June 2007) to be very impressive. They seemed theologically sound, wise, and eager to do ministry. That's encouraging.
2) Several members of the class are as much as ten years younger than I am. While I certainly don't want to discount the gifts of those who are older than my 36 years (several of whom seem to be outstanding pastors, with whom I could trust my family), it was refreshing to see first hand that our Conference is, in fact, raising up young leaders of the new emerging generations. It was particularly nice to spend some time with Seth McPherson, who is serving in Johnstown District. When Seth was a youth at Brookville: Evangelical UMC, we attended several retreats together at Wesley Woods, as I was an adult youth leader at Indiana: Trinity UMC. It's great to see him "grown up", so committed to the Lord, and doing good things for the Kingdom.
3) I could not help but laugh during my stay at Olmsted. Not too long ago, my own probationer class gathered twice a year in the lovely forest setting to hear the latest propaganda speaker the Conference sent our way. I felt that in many ways our class was extremely subversive, and at times, probably, needlessly disrespectful toward our well-meaning facilitators, several of whom left Olmsted scratching their heads and seriously concerned about the future of the Church. Now, most of our class is involved in some form of Conference leadership (have we sold out? are we too "respectable"?), and here I was in a role we lambasted a few years ago. My, oh, my. God's dark sense of humor is always surprising.
4) I found myself missing my old probationer class. We were (and remain) very different people, with very different styles and ministry tastes, yet we shared a passion for Jesus and for ministry, and grew very close as Christian brethren. We were often ruthless in our behavior toward our facilitators and one another, but shared a love and respect that was (and remains) special. Good times, good people, who will always remain close to my heart.
Knowing that, I was very deliberate in my allocation of time. While we did cover sacraments, weddings, funerals, worship styles, and related matters, I was intentional about scheduling time for the group to explore the mansion together, go bowling together, and go out "after hours" to watch Monday Night Football together (they ended up with a great story, too, as they invaded the home of David Lake, pastor of Kane: 1st UMC). It warmed my heart that when we concluded our retreat, several group members remained to walk the prayer labyrinth together. I made no secret of the fact that if they emerged from their probationary years with these relationships and close connections, that would be by far the most important aspect of their probation. I pray those blessings upon them.
At any rate, it was good to get away and get to know these wonderful colleagues, but it was even better to come home to my four lovely children and my astonishingly beautiful wife. And a good sleep in my own bed is quite welcome tonight.