The agenda for next week's Promise Keepers clergy conference ends with a tiny note saying the "schedule is subject to change."
That's interesting, since the agenda for the Atlanta gathering is sketchy to begin with. It opens with a Tuesday session on "Hope for the Church," ends with "Renewing Our Call" on Thursday and, in between, leaves organizers lots of room to maneuver. The program doesn't even nail down who speaks when.
Strangest of all, Wednesday night is wide open. This is not standard operating procedure when a group expects to draw more than 40,000 men into the expensive confines of the Georgia Dome.
Perhaps there will be a bonus session on a topic that emerges early in the conference, said the Rev. Dale Schlafer, who leads the surging movement's work with clergy. Then again, something more volatile may happen, something along the lines of the dusk-to-dawn marathons of confession and repentance that swept many college and seminary campuses last year.
"I'm not trying to evade the question, but we just don't know," he said. "We've been trying to picture what we could do with 40,000 guys in a dome. How can we let pastors say what they need to say? How can we handle this in a responsible way?"
Two issues have dominated pre-Atlanta planning sessions -- breaking down racial barriers and easing tensions between churches. If thousands of pastors start kneeling in the Georgia Dome, no one doubts that they'll have plenty to pray about.
However, Promise Keepers' leaders already know that many other problems loom overhead. During its brief history, this organization for men has grown from 72 at a 1990 prayer meeting to 727,342 registered at 13 rallies in the summer of 1995. Approximately 10 percent of those in attendance have been pastors.
During a 1994 rally in Boulder, Co., Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney surprised clergy by calling them onto the field. The result was a stadium-rattling ovation that lasted 15 minutes and left many pastors weeping. It was a symbolic moment, because study after study has shown that clergy morale is at an all-time low.
On one level, pastors struggle with the usual issues that drive men to attend Promise Keepers rallies, such as workaholism, sex, money, honesty and accountability. Videos prepared for Atlanta include blunt testimonies about broken marriages and adultery.
Yet clergy also face a unique sense of loneliness that leaves them isolated from the people they serve. Once-solid church and denominational structures are crumbling. While megachurches make headlines, up to 90 percent of America's smaller churches are shrinking or stalled. The bottom line: stress is way up and job satisfaction is way down.
"Pastors today are at risk. ... They're withering on the vine," said McCartney, in a press conference last summer in Indianapolis. "That's not what God ever intended. We should see our clergy as God's treasures handed down to us. ... We should just literally love these guys -- day by day -- as they live out their lives in our presence. But this isn't being done."
Meanwhile, some experts insist that rapidly growing parachurch groups, such as Promise Keepers, have increased pressures on average pastors to preach dynamic sermons and to cuddle every conceivable niche group in the church. Viewed from this perspective, a Promise Keepers conference for clergy is something like a wolf pack holding a rally for sheep.
That tension is real, said Schlafer, but it has helped that clergy have been involved in Promise Keepers from the beginning.
"There have been times when some of us have had to say, `Time out. Let's slow down,'" said Schlafer, who served as a pastor for 28 years before joining the Promise Keepers staff. "We don't need to start our own groups all over the place, with PK this and PK that. It's not in our interest to try to compete with the local church. ... We want to see all kinds of new ministries for men take root in the churches that are already out there. That's what will last in the long run."