'Wounded Heroes' tell of crisis & redemption at SBC
SALT LAKE CITY (BP)--At first glance, this luncheon appeared to be just like others scheduled in connection with the June 9-11 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Salt Lake City. The guests of honor were seated at the head table of the Salt Palace Convention Center's packed ballroom. They faced a bevy of "successful" Southern Baptist ministers -- seminary presidents, denominational leaders and pastors with burgeoning churches, expanding budgets and increasing baptisms. The ministers at the head table, though, were being recognized for different distinctions -- depression, forced termination, hospitalization, government persecution and the suicide of a spouse. Approximately 1,100 ministers came to hear the testimonies of their struggling peers June 8 and to provide support for Wounded Heroes, the ministry created by evangelist Freddie Gage to rehabilitate ministers who endure some of life's worst experiences amid Christian service. In 1997, Wounded Heroes, described as a Christian psychotherapy program, held conferences in Texas and Georgia, treating 118 ministers.
The ministers sitting at the head table shared their testimonies in turn, speaking how Wounded Heroes saved their ministries, their marriages and in some cases, their lives.
Don Cotten, pastor of First Baptist Church, Albertville, Ala., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee, said January 1997 was the lowest point in his life. "My church had hired a conflict resolution consultant to 'do what was best for the church.' I attended the Wounded Heroes event in Georgia because I needed help. That week saved my ministry. It gave me a perspective I've never had before. It, without doubt, is the greatest asset to ministry I've ever experienced."
Jim Reimer, pastor of First Baptist Church, Bothell, Wash., said his misery began a few years ago when he bought a set of old deer antlers from a farmer. At the time, Reimer pastored a church in the Midwest and had a ministry to hunters. He unwittingly bought the antlers from the farmer who had never purchased a $2 permit. He then compounded the error by taking the antlers home, across the state line.
"One day, out of the blue, the government came knocking on our door. For years they investigated, but finally dropped the charges. They didn't quit, though. They sent the Internal Revenue Service after us to dig up anything they could. I made the mistake of not keeping good records on all the antler purchases I had made over the years, but that was our worst offense," he said.
"Finally, after continuous pressure, they told us we had a choice. We could plead guilty on two years of under-reporting income and pay a fine or instead be indicted on six years of tax evasion and spend the next several months in an expensive trial where the outcome was unclear," Reimer said.
Faced with two unpleasant options, Reimer and his wife took the option that brought the quickest end to their problems. "We thought our church knew that we would never do anything dishonest and would support us during our troubles," he said. What they didn't know was that the church's deacons and some staff members had been secretly meeting to force the pastor to resign.
The Reimers lost their church, their ministry, their home and their reputation. They said Wounded Heroes reminded them they hadn't lost their relationship with God. "We want to thank the ministers who were our heroes, those who called to support us, who had me come and preach in their churches and who recommended us to the wonderful church where I now pastor," Reimer said.
Gary Miller, pastor of Sagamore Hill Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, and his wife, Dana, went to the Georgia conference after her father told them he had cancer. "We are so thankful for the people who provided the funds for us to go to this even though they had no idea who we were," Miller said. The Millers were so moved by their experience that they donated two months' salary to the ministry. "Things were lean during those two months," Miller said, "but people helped us out. That money was prayerfully given so others can benefit from this ministry."
Renee Scheidt, music evangelist from China Grove, N.C., called her marriage to husband Chuck, "a dream come true. I was marrying a ministerial student, committed to the Lord. Little did I realize at the time, I had married a young man who was bipolar, a manic depressive because of a chemical imbalance of the brain. "For five years, he hid his feelings," she said. "He was ready to conquer the world for Christ, but he was unable to control the great mood swings he fought from within. Finally, in total brokenness, he voluntarily entered a psychiatric clinic, where the bipolar disorder was diagnosed. After eight weeks, he was released, despite my objections. One week later, he walked out of our house to an empty field on the other side of the street, put a gun to his head and ended his life. "At age 32, I was a widow, left alone to raise a four-month-old baby and another child who turned 3 the day after her daddy died," Scheidt said.
Scheidt said the stigma attached to emotional and mental problems often keeps many godly servants from seeking the help they need. "Perhaps our tragedy could have been avoided if Wounded Heroes had existed when we were going through this. Perhaps it wouldn't have happened and Chuck would still be alive if he had not been so ashamed of having this type of problem. Wounded Heroes provides help, hope and healing," she said.
Keynote speaker Fred Lowery, pastor of First Baptist Church, Bossier City, La., told the audience that struggles earlier in his ministry at the church caused him to wonder if his family and the church would have been better off without him. "The very people I was living to bless, I felt like I had burdened. I know what it's like to want to die," he said.
"As bad as my problems were and as much as I hurt," Lowery said, "I found a reason to live and stay in ministry. I remembered that my heavenly Father hurt a million times more to put me into ministry than my sufferings which caused me to consider leaving it."
Jerry Sutton, pastor of Twin Rivers Baptist Church, Nashville, Tenn., said his life changed when a pedestrian stepped in front of his car several months ago. The pedestrian died at the scene and the news spread quickly. "Kids were running up to my children at school and telling them they just heard on the radio that their daddy just killed somebody. Wounded Heroes provided a God-sized healing in my life and my ministry," he said.
James Merritt, pastor of First Baptist Church Snellville, Ga., and president of Wounded Heroes, encouraged all Southern Baptists to support the Wounded Heroes ministry. "For too long we ministers have lived in an atmosphere where we are too ashamed to call someone when there was a problem. With Wounded Heroes, we will be there with you. We will walk through the fire with you and we will be there with you on the other side," he said.
Wounded Heroes has scheduled its next retreat Sept. 21-25 at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas. An outgrowth of the ministry is the newly created group Wounded Partners, an outreach effort ministering to the wives of hurting pastors. The women's group met for the first time at the convention and plans to be a regular component of future Wounded Heroes retreats.
"Our wounded heroes," Merritt said, "will no longer be the 'skeletons' stuffed in the back of our hidden closet. We will work with them and love them so they can be rehabilitated and restored, returning them to the place of Christian service to which God has called them for the duration of their life."