Retreat focuses on practical skills, renews energy for calling to ministry

Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson

By Matthew Johnson
Special Contributor

In one of my recent sermons, I offhandedly said that we are a nation of cynical skeptics. I’m one of those people, too. When I attend continuing education events, I tend to arrive with my guard up, sure that the experience will be another experience in a long line of similar ones I’ve attended, giving me just a couple of tips or tricks to lead the church I serve. A recent retreat, however, destroyed my expectations in the best way possible.

The Empowering Effective Leadership retreat convened Feb. 15-19 at the Prothro Retreat Center on Lake Texoma. Sponsored by the Center for Religious Leadership at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, it was led by Arkansas native and retired Bishop Max Whitfield and Dr. Mary Anne Reed, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist. I attended with fellow Arkansas clergy the Revs. Ronnie Miller-Yow and J.J. Galloway, and while I cannot speak for my colleagues, I will say that this retreat affected me tremendously.

The focus of the retreat was increasing emotional intelligence, which serves as a pathway to developing the ability to exercise adaptive leadership as pastors and leaders within the respective conferences they serve in. The group of pastors came from three different United Methodist annual conferences, one Catholic diocese and one Christian Methodist Episcopal district.

The sessions on emotional awareness and management provided some of the most helpful lessons I’ve learned since graduating from seminary in 2003. I’ve read articles and books on this material a number of times during the last few years, but Dr. Reed pieced them together in a way that clicked. I’ve no other word to describe the experience. It clicked. It left me feeling more hopeful and capable of doing that which God called me to more than 20 years ago.

Learning to become aware of and manage emotions leads to better relationships in terms of social awareness and management, and, as Dr. Reed showed us, it gives us a clearer path toward practicing adaptive leadership—a better kind of change than merely retooling and renaming the same practices we’ve developed over the years.

Since returning from the retreat, I’ve been taking notes about my responses to stress, identifying emotions, and learning how to control my responses to stress with much more success than before. I feel more confident in my responses to conflict and in decision-making which are key components to adaptive leadership.

As a United Methodist, I wholeheartedly believe in going on to perfection, and I think part of the “going on” means that we never stop growing as Christians or human beings. Dr. Reed and Bishop Whitfield provided the tools and teaching to help us go on and become the best of what God desires. If the opportunity arises in the future, I encourage our clergy to prayerfully consider attending if invited to go.

The Rev. Johnson serves as pastor of St. Paul UMC Searcy. Contact him at

The Center for Religious Leadership provides training in the theology of leadership and practical skills for leadership.