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Church Culture

SonScape’s Ministry to Ministers Has Helped Thousands

Pastors faced a series of difficult decisions during the COVID era. None of them were easy, and some became as controversial and divisive as the worship wars that divided hymn-lovers from contemporary music fans.

Giles Armstrong, president of SonScape Retreats, a Colorado ministry that has helped 3,000 pastors, missionaries, and other Christian leaders cope with the pressures of ministry, hears pastors talk about the stress and depression they’ve suffered as a result.

“Some people said, ‘If we wear masks, I’m not coming.’ Others said, ‘If we don’t wear masks, I’m not coming,’” Armstrong remembers one pastor saying.

“Basically, no matter what choice they made, there were going to be a lot of people upset,” says Armstrong.

Similar fights raged over when and how to resume in-person meetings.

“Pastors ran themselves ragged trying to meet the needs of their people in a constantly shifting system that might change in a week or two,” he says.

Armstrong, who pastored Berean churches before joining SonScape in 2019, says COVID’s pressures exposed churches’ lack of spiritual vitality and maturity, making it more difficult for pastors to shepherd their flocks.

“Pastors are trying to figure out how to shepherd sheep that don’t love the other sheep,” Armstrong said. “And if we can’t love the person in the pew next to us, how can we love the person in our community that we’re supposed to be reaching for Christ?

“In their hearts, shepherds want to serve people and love people. To have a lot of people upset with them devastates a pastor’s heart.”

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The results can be seen in polls. For decades, more than two-thirds of Americans belonged to a church. But by 2020, less than half were church members, an unprecedented low since Gallup started keeping track in 1937.

Americans’ trust in churches and pastors has fallen, too. Only 37% of adults have confidence in the church as an institution, down from 52% in 2019. Only 36% trust pastors, a new low.

Founded in pain

Founded in 1984, SonScape was born out of pastoral failure. Founder Bob Sewell was on the pastoral staff of a Texas megachurch when the senior pastor—a close friend—had an affair.

Stunned, Sewell became determined to do something to help pastors who labored with “full plates but empty cups.” He saw that pastors’ schedules and lifestyles led many to drop spiritual practices such as prayer and Bible reading that sustain spiritual growth. Others struggled to set aside time for spouse and family, or to find 30 seconds to relax.

SonScape tries to help pastors and leaders build these healthy practices back into their lives during weeklong retreats that offer:

  • Quiet mornings with God
  • Delicious meals
  • Personal times with Retreat Leaders
  • Afternoons for fun and play
  • Quiet evenings for reading, talking, time in the hot tub.

Teaching and discussion topics include:

  • Intimacy with Jesus
  • Living as “You” in Ministry
  • Wounds and Losses
  • Biblical Ministry
  • Sabbath Rest.

This year, some 300 leaders and spouses will attend SonScape’s retreats at its center in Divide, a half-hour west of Colorado Springs, and in Texas, Michigan, New York, India, and Colombia.

The ministry raised $550,000 in 2020 from donations and retreat revenue, and is a member of ECFA.

Research with retreat alumni has shown 89% of attending pastors remained or retired in ministry, and 96% of pastoral couples stayed married. The results have gained the ministry many devoted fans, including the late Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary.

“I do not know of a ministry in America that I endorse with greater personal enthusiasm than SonScape,” said Hendricks. “The reason is I have personally witnessed the results of SonScape in the changed lives of many pastors.”

Armstrong says pastors need all the help they can get.

“Pastors don’t do a good job of taking care of ourselves,” said Armstrong, who attended SonScape retreats when he was a pastor. “Soul care and self-care are not high on pastors’ to do lists.

“If pastors don’t build these things into their lives ahead of a crisis, they won’t be able to build these things during a crisis.”

Photo: SonScape’s Colorado retreat center / Courtesy of SonScape Retreats

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.