In mid-December every year, the Wisconsin Council of Churches sponsors a two-day gathering for folks called “Denominational Leaders.” It is labeled an annual “retreat,” in the sense of providing a brief opportunity to step away from one’s desk, mail and phone, as well as daily responsibilities and worries. The focus is more on privileged conversation than personal prayer, though we have the blessing of shared morning prayer together each day.

People come from various Wisconsin churches and denominations such as Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Disciples of Christ and United Churches of Christ. Whatever the title, the joys and burdens of serving larger geographical areas comprised of multiple congregations remain remarkably the same. We each have pastors of whom we are very proud as well as parishes which are beacons of faith and charity in their neighborhoods. We all have problem children as well.

I have been privileged to be a participant in the group for some 35 years and always enjoyed returning each December to people who have become good friends. The actual participants have, in fact, changed over time as terms ended and new individuals were selected by each group and then ordained to that larger ministry of apostolic “oversight” as the New Testament might term it. (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-7)

The annual gatherings provide an opportunity to talk candidly about the burdens we share with others who understand. Everyone knows very well the confidentiality demanded in some areas of pastoral work, but also feels free to seek the wisdom of others who have walked similar paths in their respective denominations. I see great commonalities, but also inevitably learn of at least some problem I may not have at the moment. (That also offers its own consolation.)

Everyone spoke again this year of the joyful pride of watching parishes work well together in service to God’s Kingdom in their respective geographical areas. We spoke of the fundamental necessity of personal prayer to make sure that we allowed God to be God in our daily work. I saw first-hand the blessing of men and women working together in these same shared areas of Christian leadership.

In one of the sharing sessions this year, I looked backward over my own almost 40 years of “denominational service.” I mused about the perennial dangers of either intruding too early in parish conflicts, thus preventing people from finding their own reconciliation, or waiting too long prior to such intervention and thus allowing disagreements to fester, harden and resist easy healing.

A major theme in this year’s gathering was a presentation followed by shared reflection on the challenge of racism in our churches and in our society. I confess that I had never quite fully thought of the burdens of either being invisible because of being unrecognized as being a different color, on the one hand, or being singled out in a token fashion and feeling isolated as if facial skin hue were one’s only contribution. In my own mind, I concluded that similar guided conversations could be very valuable in every one of our Catholic parishes in the archdiocese, and in our annual priest gatherings as well.

The central office of the Wisconsin Council of Churches is located in Sun Prairie; so we made it a point to gather for our final luncheon at one of the restaurants recently reopened after the tragic blast and fire in their downtown area earlier this year.

As I drove home afterward, I mused about the marvelous wisdom of such a meeting in Advent each year, when the liturgical season and its biblical readings summon people to gather, to seek new areas of divine convergence and to discover the new future unity envisioned by the prophets for all God’s people. Our Catholic Advent liturgy celebrates the call to all nations to gather in Jerusalem’s temple, and the vision of swords turned into plowshares. (Isaiah 2:4) This is a dream not only for the people who gather in the great hall of the United Nations, inscribed as it is on its walls, but for all Christian churches as well, called by God’s Spirit to discover the final unity which God has given and to which we are summoned. A Blessed Advent into Christmas.