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Helping the helpers

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Oasis Retreats gives pastoral care to pastors

ABBOTSFORD, B.C.

Helpers

Bob and Penny Armstrong
Photo: courtesy Bob Armstrong

When Average Joe’s life blows up, he talks to pastor Jake, but when pastor Jake needs help, where does he go?

Founded to provide support, counselling, and healing for pastors, missionaries, and leaders, Oasis Retreats is an inter-denominational organization based in Abbotsford, B.C. Since its beginning in 1999, Oasis has helped more than a thousand Christian leaders representing 62 denominations and agencies from all 10 provinces, some 20 states, and 32 other countries.

“We are not a regular pastoral care group,” says director Bob Armstrong. “Each member of our staff has either pastoral or missionary experience, along with being seasoned counsellors. We’re able to address the deeper places within people, the ‘core issues,’ and help them move from where they are to where they need to go…in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. God is the one who brings healing to a wounded heart.”

Envisioned as a way to “redeem” their own challenging experiences in ministry, founders Pete and Shirley Unrau used Oasis to share difficult lessons they had learned, before passing leadership to Bob and Penny Armstrong three years ago.

The ministry’s flagship program is a five-night retreat for people in ministry experiencing personal or professional crises. Bob and Penny organize six retreats per year, with four to five ministers (and spouses) per retreat and no denominational crossover. “At each retreat, we only take one from each denomination, so people feel totally safe and comfortable to share whatever they need to share,” says Armstrong. “We have built this ministry on confidentiality, and whatever is said at the retreat stays there.”

Abbotsford pastor Art Birch contacted Oasis after a 15-year pastoral ministry ended in a way he found “unexpected and hurtful.” In his early 60s at the time, Birch says the experience was deeply traumatic for him and his wife Rosabelle.

“It left me with wounded confidence; it left me fearful of the future,” he says. “Who would want me?”

Oasis was an integral part of the couple’s healing process, providing a supportive community, counselling sessions, and forgiveness training. For Birch, who has now returned to pastoring (at Ross Road Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C.), the experience was pivotal.

“It gave [my wife and me] the tools to continue our church ministry together,” he says.

Under Armstrong, Oasis has expanded. The organization now offers individualized four-night retreats in the Abbotsford area for couples requiring immediate assistance, and single-day “health check” workshop modules. These events are designed to prevent burnout and address leadership crises before they happen. By helping pastors and leaders deal with issues before they become critical, Oasis staff hope to improve ministry longevity and quality.

Gracepoint Community Church pastor Phil Wagler and his wife Jen connected with Oasis while discerning whether to accept his current role as lead pastor of the Surrey church. They chose the individualized retreat, and were amazed by the professional ability and the generosity of the staff and volunteers.

“If you’re a ministry couple and you go away to a marriage retreat, you end up still being a pastor,” says Wagler. “So here, as a pastor, the difference is that you’re free to just be you, to be understood, and you don’t have to pretend anything. They had a great ability to ask the right questions.”

Both Birch and Wagler have begun inviting Oasis to their churches for annual health check workshops with staff and volunteers. They recommend Oasis not only as a crisis resolution tool, but also as a reliable training resource.

The organization is run as a ministry rather than a business, so Oasis faces a persistent funding challenge. Acknowledging that people in ministry often have reduced financial resources, Oasis has always offered scholarships. “Even with keeping the retreat costs competitive, we lose money every retreat,” says Armstrong. However, “We never turn anyone down.”

For those in the often-lonely role of leadership, Oasis “creates a safe place to wrestle with life and ministry,” says Wagler.

—Paul Esau, intern for MB Herald and CCMBC communications, summer 2013.

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