"But God . . ."

A year in planning.
A team of sixteen volunteers.
344 attenders.
45 hours together.
Hope for a lifetime.

The 16th annual mid-winter Marriage Retreat is now in the books and we’re still filled with gratitude and wonder as we reflect on the incredible ways God met us collectively throughout the weekend. 

Within hours of the 2017 conference’s end almost a year ago, Paul’s visionary gifts kicked in as he began dreaming about the 2018 conference. The theme, “But God…” crystalized in his mind quickly. Though not commonly used in the context of marriage, this passage from Ephesians 2:1-10 describes our lostness and our hopelessness due to our trespasses. BUT GOD . . . being rich in mercy . . . rescues us. Reality framed in hope.

Paul, Barbara Steele, Kelly Plosker, and Gabby Warren invested dozens of hours in the months leading up to the conference getting everything ready. Publicity. Registration. Desktop publishing. Decorations. Goody bags. Lining up workshop leaders. Interfacing with the hotel. Rooming lists. Conferring with the worship team. Approaching couples to give testimonies. Arranging airport pick-ups for those coming from afar. The details seem endless, but this team is top shelf and they got it done with excellence.

  Kelly Plosker created a warm welcome at the registration desk as couples checked in and picked up their folders, name tags, and Paul’s World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Kelly Plosker created a warm welcome at the registration desk as couples checked in and picked up their folders, name tags, and Paul’s World Famous Chocolate Chip Cookies.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when the accu-weather forecast for the weekend predicted temps in the 40’s and rain but no snow. This is one time I’m thankful for no snow. :)  Amazingly, the forecasters nailed it and weather that nicely supported the weekend was enjoyed by all.

Returning to “Gurney’s” on Goat Island in Newport, RI, we were served well by the attentive staff in this lovely setting. Kelly Plosker once again did her magic in the ballroom with decorations that created a warm “somebody cares” atmosphere. After checking in at the front desk, and then at the H.I.M. registration table (ably tended by Dave and Cynthia Tipton and Gabby Warren) between 4 and 7:45 Friday night , the conference launched at 8 p.m. with an energetic worship set led by Dave Bullock and his team, consisting of Erik and Marlene Kerr and Paul and Lyss Gandy. The high level of professional musicality was eclipsed only by the genuineness of the worship—and that repeated itself in all four plenary sessions.

  The “goodie bags” and vases of spring-fresh red tulips created an ambience of thoughtful consideration for each attendee.

The “goodie bags” and vases of spring-fresh red tulips created an ambience of thoughtful consideration for each attendee.

  John Nugent, H.I.M. board member, served as emcee during the weekend.

John Nugent, H.I.M. board member, served as emcee during the weekend.

  The house was packed and energy was high.

The house was packed and energy was high.

  The worship team, led by Dave Bullock, knocked it out of the park.

The worship team, led by Dave Bullock, knocked it out of the park.

  Marilyn Nugent gives a warm welcome to Bill and JoAnne Shore, our longest married couple at 65 years!

Marilyn Nugent gives a warm welcome to Bill and JoAnne Shore, our longest married couple at 65 years!

  The audience was consistently engaged and responsive.

The audience was consistently engaged and responsive.

  Almost twenty years in to our friendship with Dave and June Bullock, it was a joy to be partnering in ministry again this weekend. Bullock led worship the first 6 or so years of the marriage retreat.

Almost twenty years in to our friendship with Dave and June Bullock, it was a joy to be partnering in ministry again this weekend. Bullock led worship the first 6 or so years of the marriage retreat.

Paul and I were the featured speakers this year (at our H.I.M. Board’s insistence that we speak at least every other year) and we welcomed the challenge to develop a new series, “But God . . . ”. We know that the teachers always benefit more than the listeners, and this was no exception. God used the preparation for this to impact us deeply as we marinated in the truth of His lavish mercy and grace within the framework of His truth. These must always be partnered: grace without truth is dangerous, and truth without grace is as well. As is always true, we had “fresh illustrations” from our own journey that fleshed out these truths in some humbling ways, making it all very “real.” Based on a lot of feedback, it seems God spoke to hearts through us and we are humbled and amazed. One couple commented:

“Another wonderful experience! Your hard work has saved our marriage over the years. I don’t have a background of a stable Christ-centered childhood to model our marriage upon. You have all provided us a model of hope.” 

The six workshop options were appreciated by many as being relevant and varied. Two new presenters added variety and new voices to the choices, and included Rob Warren (Coast Guard officer and MBA) who led two workshops on finances, and Dr. Andrew and Joanna Sonnekalb (both trained therapists), who led a workshop entitled “From Conflict to Connection.” Both of these were very well received and appreciated. Returning presenters included Christopher and Dorothy Greco, who taught on intimacy; John and Marilyn Nugent, whose workshop on prayer is always appreciated; Doug and Julie Macrae, whose workshop on keeping your marriage FUN was . . . well, fun!; and Paul and I, who taught one day on love and respect and one day on temperaments. All of the workshops received high praise and we feel very fortunate to have such a qualified team of presenters.Another couples’ reflection:

“Great variety of workshops—very relevant—had a hard time choosing! Great speakers, good atmosphere. Appreciated the balance of worship, plenary, workshops, and individual couples time. Thanks to all for all the planning, effort, love, and prayer that went into the conference.” 

Don Hasselbeck made a cameo appearance during Saturday morning’s plenary session, and spoke on the similarities between winning “on the field” and winning in marriage. He vulnerably shared from his own life journey and was really appreciated by the listeners. Throughout the weekend, three couples shared their “But God . . .” stories of redemption very powerfully.

  Don Hasselbeck engaged the crowd with his compelling testimony.

Don Hasselbeck engaged the crowd with his compelling testimony.

“After hours” Saturday night was the debut of the “Couples Awards Night.” Couples wrote answers to questions such as, “Share something unforgettable about your engagement” or “Share something about your spouse that no one would know” and after a committee sorted through them, the top five answers for each question were announced at the “after hours” party. Sipping coffee, munching on homemade cookies, and rolling with laughter, the “closer” was a great success.

The non-programmed Saturday afternoon was as important as the scheduled portions. Five full hours “off” to reconnect, to debrief, to walk, to explore Newport, to take a nap, to watch the Olympics . . . it was a “design your own afternoon” block of time, contributing to the “retreat” aspect of this conference. We feel that most couples need time together as much as they need input, so we purposefully build this time in. Thankfully the weather cooperated and most couples customized the time to suit their needs and/or wants.

  Taking advantage of moderate weather, we took the worship team and Don Hasselbeck out for lunch, hoofing it from the hotel. 

Taking advantage of moderate weather, we took the worship team and Don Hasselbeck out for lunch, hoofing it from the hotel. 

Of the 172 couples in attendance, 47 of them have been married 6 years or less! We love having these young marrieds take seriously a commitment to having an “annual marital check-up” which we propose at Engagement Matters. To honor these young marriages, we host a “young marrieds dinner” Saturday night and answer any questions they pose re: marriage. Rob and Gabby Warren joined us for the Q and A panel and some great insights were shared. 

  Rob and Gabby Warren and Paul are pictured here with the young married’s dinner during the Q and A time.

Rob and Gabby Warren and Paul are pictured here with the young married’s dinner during the Q and A time.

The final session was powerful as the couples were challenged to see their marriage through the lens of His design, with kingdom purposes to fulfill. We reminded them that God is bigger than their problems/challenges and that their hope is in Him. The worship band played a final set, couples were prayed over, and all too quickly the conference ended. 

This couple wrote:

“This is our third HIM marriage conference, and the first we attended was instrumental in turning around our marriage. We love you guys and all the time and energy you put into marriages.” 
  Parting is such sweet sorrow . . . circling up in prayer.

Parting is such sweet sorrow . . . circling up in prayer.

  Berea family campers had a mini-reunion at the conference.

Berea family campers had a mini-reunion at the conference.

Another comment made:

“Thank you for making the gospel crystal clear. Thank you for balancing truth and grace. Thank you for holding true to scripture. Appreciate your transparency and honesty about your own marriage.”

Well, at least our time at the hotel ended. Our prayer is that the conference “went home” with each couple, in some measure or form. That each couple would make a commitment to focus on one area of change they would work on in the weeks and months ahead, and that by next year, they would have a better marriage. By His grace and for His purposes.

The struggles are real. The brokenness is evident. The enemy is on the prowl. 

But God . . .