DENVER -- Here's a great offer for pastors: Want your church to have a reputation as a safe haven for people with broken lives, hearts, homes and hopes?
It can happen, says Tom Elliff, pastor of the Oklahoma City-area First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, who has teamed up with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to offer a series of conferences on "Kingdom Families: Come Home to the Heart of God." The goal of the conferences is to equip pastors, their wives and other church leaders for ministering to the families in their churches. Ultimately, Elliff said, families can be saved and marriages divorce-proofed.
Calling the LifeWay-sponsored Kingdom Families conference "24 hours that can radically change the family life of every person here," Elliff pulled no punches on a pastor's responsibility to keep marriages alive as he addressed a Denver-area Kingdom Families conference.
"There ought not be any issue in your church that you as a pastor are more committed to than marriage. Hoping that things 'work out' is not enough. Hope is not a strategy [and] will not solve marriage problems," said Elliff, who chairs the Southern Baptist Convention's Council on Family Life and is the author of a new book, "Unbreakable: The Seven Pillars of a Kingdom Family."
Jerry Bellis has been pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Deertrail, Colo., for three years. He and wife, Christy, have been married eight years and are committed to each other. "We were high school sweethearts," Christy said, adding, "Our high school was so small that we were half of our graduating class!"
The Bellises said they decided to attend the Kingdom Families conference when they received a letter and brochure from the Colorado Baptist General Convention about the Sept. 4-5 event at the Denver-area Applewood Baptist Church in Wheatridge.
"We know there are families in our community who are struggling," Bellis said. "We really need to be able to help them through the church. Christy and I wanted to learn more about effectively ministering to them, but we also want to strengthen our relationship with each other."
Aubrey Howell has been pastor at First Baptist Church in Burlington, Colo., for 11 years. He and his wife, Jewell, moved there from Texas after she retired from teaching.
Howell said families are struggling in their community of 4,000 people. "I see so many families who are stressed and pulled in a thousand different directions," he said. "They are so busy. Some of them will have about 15 different activities a week."
While he isn't a counselor and doesn't do counseling, Howell does listen and talk to many people in his role as pastor. "I do what I can to help them," he said, and added that attending the Kingdom Families conference gave him tools to make a difference in his ministry.
The Howells celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary at the conference. Elliff surprised the couple by calling them forward, giving them a bouquet of roses and a box of candy. "This is what this conference wants to see happen," Elliff said. "We want every couple to be able to celebrate a 49th anniversary together."
At the end of the conference, Christy Bellis said, "I know there's a lot of what I've learned that I can take back to my church and community. Mostly, though, I think Jerry and I can use what we've learned here to strengthen our own relationship. We've seen that we've been stuck in the stage of demanding our own rights with each other, instead of being servants to each other. We need to let go of that."
Jay Johnston, director of LifeWay's church ministry leadership area, said one of the unexpected surprises during each of the Kingdom Families conferences to date happened during the session on forgiveness. "Couples have been really moved to deal with some forgiveness issues in their own lives and marriages," he said. "Tom [Elliff] has been so capable in leading these people through God's Word and teaching them about forgiving."
This is especially important, Johnson said, because pastors must model marriage for their congregations.
In addition to the Kingdom Families conferences already held in Del City, Okla., and in the Denver area, two more Kingdom Families events are scheduled for 2003: Oct. 2-3 at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., and Nov. 6-7 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland, Calif.