Hurricane-weary pastors buoyed by Fla. conv., NAMB

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (BP) -- When Hurricane Michael barreled through the Florida Gulf Coast last October, it transformed the ministry of First Baptist Church in Port St. Joe. No longer could the church focus on only typical everyday ministry activities.

After Michael, half of the church's families had lost their homes. Many had to move outside the area to find work and housing. The church's own building was battered so intensely that it was no longer usable. Marriages were stressed. Long-held family heirlooms were lost forever.

Those issues weighed heavily on Boyd Evans, senior pastor of FBC Port St. Joe, whose own house will either be torn down or gutted to the studs before his family will be able to rebuild and move back in.

"You want to fix all the problems, but you just can't," Evans said. "If you're an empathetic pastor, you feel it. I was just angry for about four and a half months."

Hitting the Florida Panhandle particularly hard, Hurricane Michael became the strongest storm in terms of sustained wind speed to strike the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew hit the East Coast in 1992. Within the first three months following the hurricane's October onslaught, insured losses had passed $4 billion. The Florida Forestry Service says it will take 2.5 million truckloads to remove debris left behind by the storm.

While it's often easier to tabulate the impact of hurricanes like Michael on the local economy, they also take a toll on local communities of faith and their leaders.

That's why the North American Mission Board and the Florida Baptist Convention worked together to encourage and strengthen pastors through a dinner event at Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City.

"You've inspired us with your faithfulness," Tommy Green, executive director of the Florida convention, told the church leaders in attendance.

"Your homes have been damaged. Your churches have been through incredible things to just get back and find out what the new normal is. But so many of you have said this almost verbatim to what I'm about to say. … As you've looked at your buildings, you've said, "That's not the church. We're the church." God is using you to do something special across this Panhandle. You're inspiring our entire state," Green said.

The event was called "Night of Sharper." The Florida convention has been hosting a series of Sharper Ministry Conference events across the state, focused on helping pastors sharpen their ministry skills. After church leaders shared a meal together, worship leader Charles Billingsley led worship and speaker Charles Lowery shared words of humor of encouragement. Every minister who participated in the event also received a bag full of special gifts from NAMB. More than 200 attended the March 14 event.

"Everybody needs to be loved," Johnny Hunt, NAMB's senior vice president of evangelism and leadership, told the Florida Panhandle pastors. "Everybody needs to be prayed for. Everybody needs someone to invest in them. Anyone that ever amounts to anything will be because of the people who poured into them.

"So, we're here just to say we love you. We want to encourage you," Hunt said. "We want you to be enthusiastic about whatever God has you doing."

Earlier in the month, NAMB invited pastors impacted by Hurricane Michael to a special Timothy+Barnabas Retreat. Hunt started Timothy+Barnabas events 25 years ago to encourage and train pastors worldwide. It's now a NAMB ministry under Hunt's leadership.

Evans credits these two events for pastors as key turning points in helping him and FBC Port St. Joe refocus on the task before them.

"In the face of discouragement, this was very encouraging," Boyd said. "Just being there and for NAMB to say, "Come on at our expense," was huge. It really gave my wife a great night out. She really enjoyed it."

Evans said his experience at the Timothy+Barnabas retreat and the Night of Sharper were the most recent examples of Southern Baptists supporting his ministry in Hurricane Michael's aftermath. He also noted the support of Green and the rest of the state convention staff, along with the ministry of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.

"We have definitely not been in this by ourselves," Boyd said. "It has been very encouraging. The larger body of Christ has been there with us. That has been huge."

Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.
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