Serving in full-time ministry is consuming. It’s hard to relax and “turn off” at the end of the day. Being a pastor or deacon is an always-on, always-in-demand role with sometimes unrealistically high expectations.
The South Georgia Conference realizes the need to care for those in ministry, and has implemented S3, a program for sustaining excellence in ministry through small-group experiences focused on Sabbath, study, and service.
Brought to South Georgia nearly 13 years ago, the S3 program was designed and begun at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2003 and sponsored by the Lilly Endowment as a part of their “Sustaining Pastoral Excellence” initiative.
Through the South Georgia Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry, South Georgia continues S3 and provides to each approved group $500 per person, per year for the first two years of the group’s learning process or experience.
Even though they haven’t received funding in more than 10 years, South Georgia’s original S3 group still meets regularly. Shortly after Easter six of the members flew to Texas to visit Dr. John Stephens, a member of their group who is now serving as senior pastor of Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.
They golf together, go out to dinner, and enjoy friendships that have developed and deepened over time.
With busy schedules, families, and ministry demands, it hasn’t always been easy to carve out time to rest and recharge, said Dr. Jimmy Asbell, senior pastor of Vineville United Methodist Church and director of South Georgia’s S3 program. But the grant incentive helps individuals make it a priority.
“The time together, the camaraderie, the encouragement, the friendships, far exceeded the value of the money, but we realized that if it hadn’t have been for the grant – if we wouldn’t have been able to play golf for free – we wouldn’t have started,” he said. “And we knew if it was true of us it was probably true of others. But our relationships have outlasted the grant.”
Through births, adoptions, sickness, moves, retirements, deaths, and other life events, nearly 100 clergy in the South Georgia Conference are connected through S3 groups.
Six of them are in the newly formed Parks and Rec S3 group, which formed last September. Revs. Grace Guyton, Stacey Harwell-Dye, Aimee Baxter, Melissa Traver, Devon Smyth, and Kathy Israel-McLeod have met three times and will head to Washington, D.C. next week. Each of their gatherings will involve a state park, national park, or an outside activity.
“We use these times together to have a break from the grind of ministry and to relax and be with people we enjoy, to eat some good food, laugh, and to do some fun things,” Rev. Guyton said. “It’s a time of renewal, and we come back refreshed and revitalized.”
The purpose of S3 groups are to create a sanctuary, a Sabbath experience and environment for participants who want to spend a significant amount of time together. There are study and service components, as well – the Parks and Rec group always talks about best practices and has a visit to a revitalized United Methodist Church planned for their Washington, D.C. trip – but the focus tends to be on Sabbath.
Dr. Ben Martin, senior pastor of Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah and a clergy member in the original S3 group, says his involvement with and participation in S3 is vital to his role as a pastor.
“I think it’s made ministry sustainable for me,” he said. Their group only gets together a few times a year these days, but they communicate with each other via group text message a few times a week. “It’s kept us connected, and we never feel isolated.”
Applications are now being accepted for S3 clergy groups. The deadline is July 1. Click here for more information.