Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season . ..” – 2 Timothy 4: 2

The annual Florida Leaders Retreat in Melbourne last month felt more like a reunion than a typical “meeting.” From veteran ministers and elders to newly hired interns, everyone appreciated meeting in-person, masks and all! Over 90 full-time and part-time staff, elders and their wives and lay leaders represented the 15 Florida congregations. Despite leading differing sized churches, from house church size to 500+ size, everyone expressed an eagerness to be together and learn about preaching the Word in pandemic season and post-pandemic season from each other.

Retreat planning falls in the purview of the Florida OPS (Organization, Planning and Strategy) Team. The OPS Team meets throughout the year and considers ideas and solutions for the challenges facing Florida churches. 2020 threw plenty of curve balls to planning committees worldwide. So, the 2021 retreat came up with a different plan and focused on addressing the isolation and burnout that accompanied the pandemic, with a special emphasis on fellowship time and relationship building. Mitch Lavender, evangelist and campus minister for the Crossway Church in Tallahassee, appreciated the non-typical nature of the classes. “I came to the retreat very tired – sharing with people who reject the gospel. The very first class (Deep Rest) was good in a different way with a greater awareness of our mental health. It was so refreshing.”

Caroline Ramos, a missionary who works with the campus ministry in Sao Paulo, Brazil, caught up with the retreat during a visit to Florida. “I feel like so many of us have come out of the pandemic lockdown somewhat handicapped – emotionally and spiritually. We all shared the hard things and at this retreat it felt like we were a different kind of honest; I feel very close to my peers.” This is Caroline’s third retreat and she enjoyed the fact that “the young leaders are not competitive with one another. We celebrate our differences and ask each other for help. A common question was, ‘Do you feel loved and inspired?’” 

Campus Ministry leaders enjoy a Friday fellowship time.

Because COVID has increased a sense of isolation, the retreat schedule allowed for different ministry groups to spend unstructured Friday night fellowship time together. Campus, singles, youth and family ministers and the elders could use that time to meet needs. “There’s nothing like being with somebody who does your job,” exclaimed Julia Cobb, campus ministry intern for the Anchor Point Church in Tampa. “The campus women laughed and then we talked and then . . . we cried! There were so many empowering conversations. Then we joined up with the campus guys and played some fun games.”

LauriAnne Conking (L) and Kim Campbell (R) share during a women’s class.

Reese Neyland, interim Chief Evangelist for HOPE worldwide, presented a HOPE news update. Reese and his wife, Mary Kay, were baptized at the University of Florida over 40 years ago. “It was so encouraging to see all the people we knew from the old days who are still loving the Lord and serving the churches! The schedule allowed for a great combination of biblical lessons and significant times of fellowship. I especially enjoyed a lesson by Marcus Overstreet, evangelist for the Orlando Church of Christ, from Jeremiah on ‘Hope While We Wait.’ It felt like a powerful Spirit-filled time where I was fed by the Word and some very humble personal sharing. I am now a part-time Evangelist for HOPE worldwide and I was very grateful to be given time to give an update on what we are doing.”

The pandemic forced us to find new ways to do church and stay connected, building stronger bonds between ministries across the state. “I think there is more trust throughout the state,” opined Ron Conkling, evangelist for the Anchor Point Church in Tampa. Ron serves as the Florida Regional Family Chairman and has witnessed an OPS team group dynamic of “working together with authenticity and healthy disagreement – a great cross-section of personalities.”

This Florida Leaders “reunion” brought together a diverse mix, ranging from twenty-somethings to grandparents, who share a common devotion to leading and shepherding God’s people – in season and out of season. 

Caroline Ramos (L), Joy Garcia (Center) and Josh Franco demonstrate their paddle boarding prowess.