It’s tough out there for pastors and church leaders who sustain our region’s churches. Thanks to this Freeport-area couple, they’re finding much-needed rest and reconnection and fellowship with God.
Five acres of picturesque trees, lush gardens and restful accommodations welcome full-time Christian pastors, missionaries and their spouses for a Sabbath Rest at Deer Ridge Retreat in Freeport.
The five-day Sabbath retreats, offered at no cost to their guests, are designed not only for rest and relaxation but to encourage pastors in their calling, to promote methods of healthy self-care and provide ways to help them keep their ministry, marriage and family in a healthy balance. The retreats afford pastors quiet time to hear from God, allowing them to return to their churches or mission fields refreshed and better able to serve in their ministries.
Five tastefully appointed suites in the 7,000-square-foot retreat house provide a gracious respite for guests; they also come with access to two libraries, a living room, dining room, parlor, home theater, great room and pastor’s kitchen. The beautifully furnished prayer chapel affords intimate space for prayer, solace and reflection while wooded walkways, graceful deer and a nearby park offer the restoring balm of nature.
In addition, a new house called the Lodge has just been completed on the property, and it offers extended-stay accommodations for pastors in need of professional counseling; it also features event space for church presentations, community meetings, leadership seminars, luncheons, Christmas teas, weddings and other income-producing events to support the ministry. There is no use of alcohol or tobacco at Deer Ridge.
Having served some 3,000 pastors, directors and hosts at Deer Ridge, Pastor David and Louise Decker know firsthand there are many needs for harried pastors and spouses who must be available to the congregation, often without someone available for them. David cites recent research showing that these turbulent times of cultural changes, altering worldviews, condemnation of Christian values, COVID mitigations, political divisions, generational differences and society questioning whether or not the church is essential have left pastors feeling embattled, discouraged and exhausted trying to remain faithful to their calling.
“We come from a healthy church that understands and supports the need for their pastor to take a time away,” says Pastor Chris Spitters, of First Church in Stevensville, Mich. “However, some pastors come here from unhealthy churches and are beaten up by life. Deer Ridge is a lifeline for many. All of us come from demanding work. There is so much to do; our congregations have many problems and we want to help everyone, but the inbox is never empty. Sometimes it’s truly overwhelming.”
Spitters and his wife, Candi, have experienced three Sabbath retreats at Deer Ridge. They represent one of three Church of God campuses in their area, and they serve a flock of 300 members at an active, mission-oriented church.
Guests at Deer Ridge are offered a self-directed, interactive study; pastors are encouraged to leave church problems behind, put away their cellphones and experience a media fast in exchange for time to rest and focus on their personal relationship with God.
“At dinner on Sunday evening, we talk about what a retreat is and what it is not,” says Louise Decker. “We tell them it’s a time to crawl up on your father’s lap and rest, not a time for working on the next sermon, setting goals or catching up on correspondence.”
Adds Dave Decker: “We also say that they only have 24 hours of church speak. They are encouraged to move away from shop talk to enjoy what God has prepared for them. A quote in our chapel reads, ‘A relaxing and peaceful environment is the longing of every soul in the inevitable interludes of life.’ That’s what we want them to find here.”
On Monday night, guests are encouraged to talk about influential people in their lives. Dave reminds guests how they’re now influencing others.
On Tuesdays, Louise packs a picnic lunch for couples, including conversation topics as they talk about their lives together. The Deckers meet individually with each couple to get to know them better, to pray with them and encourage them.
“Sometimes, secrets are revealed in these moments because guests know it’s a safe place to unload burdens that won’t be shared with anyone,” says Louise.
Spitters finds it’s a time to unplug from the chaotic world outside, connect with the Holy Spirit and reconnect as a couple. It’s a time for sharing deep conversations about family and church, he says, and it’s proven good for his marriage.
“Before I left home,” says Spitters, “we had just talked about Psalm 23 at church, and looking out on the stretch of green lawn from the Deer Ridge chapel, it was like the words ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’ and ‘He restores my soul’ came to life outside that window. Jesus invites me to come rest. God knows what I need. I’m also inspired to write when I’m here. Getting away frees up something in me to be creative.”
Dave sees this effect in many of his guests. “Their countenance is often lighter, and they start to express how glad they are that they took time for the retreat,” he says.
The Deckers also share their own story to encourage pastors to rest and obey God’s calling, even if it sounds impossible.
With a bachelor’s degree in business management and a Master of Divinity degree, David has served many years as youth pastor, senior pastor and interim pastor. Louise holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and has completed studies toward a Doctorate of Education. She spent 15 years in banking, personnel management and corporate training, all positive assets for managing the retreat.
The “aha moment” came for the Deckers after they attended a life-changing pastor’s retreat for themselves. They recall how they felt a strong calling from God to provide such a ministry for other pastors, closer to their home. With no startup funds and no knowledge of how to proceed, but with great faith and a willingness to obey God’s calling, they formed Deer Ridge Ministries, a 501(c)3 nonprofit ministry, in 2003.
From the original, rented facility outside Freeport, God led the Deckers in miraculous ways, says Louise, including when they purchased their present retreat house, established the Lodge, and welcomed a cadre of donors, a prayer team, board members and committed volunteers who assist with housekeeping, lawn care, maintenance and repair, secretarial needs, meal serving and kitchen help.
“Everything here is so nice, top-notch, impeccable, and the food is so good,” says Spitters. “The house, gardens, grounds and chapel are really beautiful and we feel such a peacefulness here. You feel like, wow, Pastor Dave and Louise are doing this to feed our soul. We feel loved and appreciated, and wonderful, kind volunteers help serve meals. We’re treated like kings and queens.”
His wife, Candi, has also found rest and reconnection for her own church ministries, which include working with children, women and music.
“Sometimes wives are very lonely because it’s hard to have close friends in the church that you can trust with everything,” says Louise. “The women find that they share similar issues that others might not understand. We try to pamper them with nice sheets, towels, flowers and chocolates in their rooms to let them know they are valued and important. It’s like God’s grace to us; we try to do more than they would expect. My motto is that it takes so little to be above average and I try to think, ‘What can we do that would be above average for them?’”
The Deckers continue to experience abundant blessings as they seek God’s leading. More information and stories from those who’ve enjoyed retreats is found at drmretreats.org.
“When I leave Deer Ridge, I feel like I go back to my church rested, with ears more open to God’s voice, better able to hear the Holy Spirit’s leading and able to make wise choices with a clearer vision,” says Spitters. “That’s what is truly important.”