Worship and friendship are the bedrock of pastors’ hiking trip on Appalachian Trail
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — With the overwhelming stress of the past few months beginning to take a toll, pastor David Simmerman decided he would heed the advice of a friend.
The friend’s name? Jesus.
“In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, the apostles were reporting to Jesus about their very busy ministry schedules,” said Simmerman, pastor of Leoma Baptist Church, Leoma. “Jesus said to them in verse 31, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ ”
So, that’s just what Simmerman, and several other pastors, elected to do.
In late August, a group of 11 pastors took a three-day hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail, using the getaway as a chance to fellowship with one another and to disconnect from their everyday routines.
The excursion was the first in a series of trips — called “Off The Grid” adventures — being hosted by Tennessee Baptist Mission Board conference centers. Kevin Perrigan, camp manager at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center, was the organizer of the trip, which took place Aug. 24-26.
Perrigan, an avid hiker, served as a “tour guide” for the trip. “This is something that I have been dreaming of doing for 30 years,” said Perrigan, “but the pieces never came together until now.”
The group of pastors on the recent trip included: Chad Ashman, Creekside Fellowship, Castalian Springs; Earnie Burfitt, New Bethel Baptist Church, Harrison; Adam Cutshaw, Encounter Life Church, Manchester; Drew Byers, Creekside Fellowship; Brian Nulf, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Jonesboro; Marty Shadoan, First Baptist Church, Rockwood; Bert Spann, First Baptist Church, Hohenwald; Rocky Sickel, First Baptist Church, Woodlawn; Matthew Nance, First Baptist Church, Union City; Jeff Vanlandingham, First Baptist Church, Lawrenceburg; and Simmerman.
The trip represented the start of a new ministry that Perrigan hopes will continue for many years to come. Perrigan plans to have four “outings” each year, with groups of pastors and ministry leaders going on various outdoor trips, including hikes and fly fishing.
The next trip is planned for Oct. 12-14 and will once again include hiking on the Appalachian Trail. There is also a fly-fishing trip planned for May. (Those interested in attending any of the upcoming trips can contact Perrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org).
“I believe there will be some special bonds formed (on these trips),” said Perrigan. “We saw that happen on this first trip. The pastors were praying for each other, forming friendships and walls were coming down. This isn’t like a conference, where the pastors attend meetings and mostly listen. This is an opportunity for them to share their stories with others who have been where they are and who are going through the same struggles that they might be going through.”
Hitting the trail
The members of the group arrived at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center on Sunday night at various times. Some of the pastors were there by supper time, while others, some of whom preached on Sunday night, didn’t arrive until late in the evening.
After a night of rest and a big breakfast at the conference center, the group departed on Monday morning and made the roughly 15-minute trip to one of the entrances to the trail near Green Corner Road, just outside of Smoky Mountains National Park.
Over the next three days, they hiked and climbed five miles each day, taking in the stunning views and intriguing terrain.
Simmerman said the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the trail — and to focus on the details of the trip instead of staring at e-mails and text messages — was like a dose of medicine. He said he sensed that others in the group felt the same way.
“We have all had busy ministry schedules, we have all dealt with the struggles of pastoring and leading through these difficult times, and we all needed this trip,” he said. “Focusing on following the white blazes on the trees, staying dry, deciding what to have for my next meal and making it through our next hike was just the diversion I needed to reenergize and refocus.”
The first day, the group hiked to Snowbird Mountain, with an altitude of 4,200 feet (an increase of 2,600 feet from where they began). There, they camped for the night, sleeping in tents and enjoying fellowship around a campfire.
The following day, after five more miles, the group arrived at Brown’s Gap, where they stayed the night and again slept under the stars in their tents.
“We took our time,” said Perrigan. “We didn’t want to rush through it.”
The final day included making the five-mile hike to Max Patch, which features a stunning 360 degree view of mountains from an altitude of about 4,600 feet.
“The beauty of God’s creation, combined with the fellowship of Godly brothers, refreshed my soul,” Vanlandingham said.
In the beginning
Perrigan noted that he and Vanlandingham came up with the idea for the trip during a recent conversation. The two men were both feeling concern for their fellow ministry leaders who have faced high levels of pressure in recent months while dealing with the pandemic, racial unrest and other emotionally heavy circumstances.
“(Vanlandingham) has been a good friend of mine for many years, and he approached me during the state convention about his deep burden for local pastors in his area,” Perrigan said. “They are being overwhelmed by their ministries and they are hurting. We began to talk about their need to disconnect and their need to be with other pastors to talk, laugh and build friendships. So, our discussion started with a camping trip and then evolved into a pastor backpacking trip.”
The trip proved to be exactly what Perrigan and Vanlandingham had hoped it would be — a chance for the group of ministers to relax and recharge.
“(It) was just what I needed,” said Simmerman. “It was truly amazing to see how 11 pastors could bond so quickly and encourage one another while hiking and camping on the trail.”
Vanlandingham said the circumstances surrounding the trip, especially the pandemic, made the trip all the more memorable — and all the more important — for pastors.
“Doing this ‘off the grid’ backpacking trip was a discussion that Kevin and I had for a couple of years,” said Vanlandingham. “When Kevin set the date early in 2020, we had no idea of how crazy this year would become — but God did. This was exactly the right timing and exactly what was needed. Funny how God comes through that way when we follow Him.”
Simmerman and Vanlandingham both indicated that the past few months have been among the toughest stretches of their ministries.
“As a pastor, I have never worked so hard,” said Simmerman. “Trying to manage marriage, family, and ministry in the midst of a global pandemic, an election year and amidst ongoing racial tensions in our country — not to mention managing my own personal, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being during this time — has been very challenging.”
Vanlandingham said he has found himself exhausted in recent days, and said that the trip was rejuvenating on several fronts.
“As a pastor, I personally needed to get away for some emotional, mental and spiritual healing while being pushed physically,” he said.” I have no doubt that each of us walked back into our families and churches restored and ready for action!”
Perrigan, who has enjoyed hiking and backpacking since high school, has hiked approximately 300 miles of the Appalachian Trail. He noted that he had hiked “the particular trail that we traveled with the pastors” on several previous occasions. He hiked the same section of the trail a few days before the pastors’ trip to “make sure there were no obstacles or surprises,” he said.
He said the course that was traveled by the group was just the right speed: It provided some challenges, but also provided plenty of opportunities for rest and relaxation.
“My favorite times during our trip were when I heard the pastors talking,” he said.
“Only a couple of the pastors knew each other but it seemed like they had always been friends,” Perrigan said. “The talk started at the beginning and did not end until they left. They all seemed to be relaxed and there was a lot of laughter. I knew they were really needing this trip.”
Vanlandingham praised Perrigan and others at Carson Springs for their leadership in organizing the trip.
“I really want to thank Kevin, the Carson Springs staff and our TBMB for making this possible,” he said. “My prayer is that many other pastors will take advantage of this opportunity to get ‘off the grid.’ My encouragement is, if your pastor is not getting the time he needs with God, that our church lay leaders will send him to the mountains. He will return a little sore but a healthier leader.”