What was your last taste of life unfettered by COVID-19 concerns? Do you remember? Because there was such a sudden change to the way we do everything (whispers of that possibility notwithstanding), you probably didn’t think at the time, “This is the last chance I get to do this for a really long time.” For me, it was a spiritual retreat for pastors.

The 2020 spiritual retreat for SCC pastors at Pine Springs Ranch on March 1-3 explored the complex competing forces in pastors’ lives, while offering an opportunity for pastors to connect before an unexpected season of social distancing. The theme, “Quest,” was about the search for the elusive balance of work, marriage, parenting, spirituality and physical and mental health. We had no idea then how much more important this balance would become.

Every year, I look forward to this retreat because it’s the only time that my fellow pastors and I gather as a conference without discussing business.  At this retreat, we put aside the copious amounts of information from our workers meetings. We have no cell phone reception to enable us to be concerned with the pile of work waiting for us in our local contexts and at home. Also, because it’s required, there’s no guilt involved in putting these things on pause. We spend these precious few days reconnecting with each other as people and with God as the foundation for everything else we do.

It’s hard to say what I enjoyed more this year: reconnecting with my colleagues who live on the other side of the conference or absorbing the messages by our speaker, Roger Hernandez. In retrospect, the most poignant message he gave was on the need for casual friendships outside of our work contexts. That’s always hard for pastors; but right now it’s hard for everyone.  

Hernandez and his wife also spoke at length about marriage and parenting. As Celeste Harrison put it a week later, “We all ended this retreat really wanting to see our spouses.” My favorite insight was that while some would consider the absence of divorce a sign of a marriage’s success, we can do better than mere marriage survival. Hernandez’s wife talked about moving from “beige” dates (for most people, dinner and a movie) to more creative dates so as to strengthen the marriage.
That was already hard; it’s harder now.

When I think about this retreat now, I get a little nostalgic, even though it was less than two months ago. The excellent content would be possible, of course, with the technologies we are all using to keep our churches open, but the sweetest part of the retreat every year is not the content. It’s the people. It’s those lingering meals in the cafeteria playfully ranging from serious theological debate to punching food. (Yes, this is a thing.) It’s those long walks during the free time when we enter into each other’s lives in a deeper way than we can in the usual course of business. It’s those evenings with our roommates and the conversations in the hallways that reveal what incredible people we work with and how blessed we are to be on the same team.

Originally, this article was supposed to be tailored and destined for the Pacific Union Recorder, but the present crisis has rendered the story less important to the general public than all the various ways we have been scrambling to keep our churches together. I believe this is a good set of priorities, but I also believe that for those who were on the retreat, we can’t afford to forget what we had a mere week and a half before the world went crazy. Those precious days in March were all about the core important stuff of our existence—our families, our friendships and our God.

I bring this precious last memory of normality before a larger readership because I would like to invite you to consider two things: What was your last joyous memory of normal before all of this? How can you use that memory to keep moving forward?

For my part, it acts as a compass. The kind of community we experience each year at this retreat (that is provided each year as a sacrificial act of love by a donor who just really cares about her pastors) is what I desire for believers everywhere. It’s a glimpse of Jesus with His disciples at the Last Supper. It’s a glimpse of the early church in Acts. It’s a taste of the unfettered joy we will experience someday when Jesus returns and we are reunited with everyone we love, with no sickness to separate us.

This Sabbath, I invite you to think back and remember the last time you enjoyed that kind of closeness with people outside your house. I invite you also to look forward to when you can enjoy it again. In the meantime, let’s continue our quest to live in the best way we can until things get better. That’s harder to do than it was two months ago, but that is all the more reason to keep aiming higher. If we quest for the stars, we may not reach them—but we might just get to the moon, which would be incredible enough on its own. Let memory move you forward.