Methodist clergy take time to heal


By Woody Woodrick

Advocate Editor

Guiding a church through recovery from a disaster takes a toll.

United Methodist clergy dealing with the impact of Hurricane Katrina found some healing of their own and added to their pastoral skills Feb. 6-8 at the Clergy Leadership Conference at Alta Woods United Methodist Church in Jackson.

Led by a team from Duke University Divinity School, the pastors examined how to guide their congregations toward healing, but also how to deal with their own losses resulting from the Aug. 29 storm.

“We hoped to provide time for all of us from across the conference to reconnect post-storm,” said Rebecca Youngblood, director of the Center for Ministry, which sponsored the event. “It numbed all our souls regardless of where we are in Mississippi.”

Among the resource leaders for the event, formerly known as Ministers’ Week, was Bishop Kenneth Carder, who served the Mississippi Area for four years before retiring in 2004. Carder, who now teaches at Duke, led a session that focused on storytelling – how to let those affected share their stories. It also gave some of the storm’s victims a chance to tell their stories.

Rachel Benefield-Pfaff of Handsboro UMC in Gulfport was one of three who told of their experiences. “My story was honored,” she said. “That offered healing.”

Benfield-Pfaff, a Gulfport native, told how she and her family didn’t heed evacuation warnings based on their previous hurricane experiences. However, before long they found themselves huddled in the attic of their house as the storm surge climbed higher and higher up the walls.

Rick Brooks of Bay St. Louis, one of the hardest hit cities, told how his church, Main Street UMC, was heavily damaged, as were the homes of his congregation and his own parsonage.

Ed Moses of Gulfport told how difficult it was to leave, knowing that the storm would be dangerous. He shared the story of a death in the church’s neighborhood, but also the joy of finding his church and parsonage still standing when all around them was destruction.

While the greatest impact of the storm was felt along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, pastors all over the state have had to deal with storm issues. “Even those not affected directly were impacted by receiving many victims into the community,” said Michael Culbreth of Holly Springs. “The storm taught how to be caring and compassionate people. We are involved in the healing process.”

Culbreth said he had to help move an aunt from New Orleans to Memphis as a result of the storm.

Others from Duke providing leadership were former Mississippian the Rev. Connie Shelton, Dr. Keith Meador, Dr. Pam Hawkins and Dr. Bill Turner.

Benefield-Pfaff said one of Turner’s sermons reminded her of what the call to ministry is all about. “Bill Turner said we are called to be vessels and to preach the Gospel. That was a reminder that it’s not about our own agenda but God’s agenda. That’s a gift I hope to bring to my church,” she said.

The unquestioned highlight of the event, however, came Monday night when blues musician Willie King performed. King and Carder became friends during Carder’s tenure in Mississippi, and they still keep in touch. Playing with his regular drummer and joined by pastors Raggy Ragsdale on guitar and Jerry Chapman on piano, King sang and played guitar to the delight of about 150 people.

“Those present when Willie was here loved it,” Youngblood said.

She said those who attended the conference said they liked having time for less-structured events. “People have expressed appreciation for having time to talk with each other. Space was left to be in communion with each other.”

Bishop Hope Morgan Ward preached the closing worship service, which included communion. The communion table was decorated with flowers and three replicas of churches, two with their roofs removed and one with a damaged steeple, representing the storm-damaged churches. However, just before communion, pastors from damaged churches repaired the models, symbolizing their churches’ desire to be healed.

Youngblood estimated that about 250 pastors attended the CLC. In addition to the concert, the conference was able to secure tickets to a tribute to Medgar Evers held Jan. 7.