As president and CEO of an active global mission agency, the Rev. Max Wilkins is busy, engaged, stretched, excited, motivated and, if he’s not careful, close to being spent.
He says his 40 years of ministry as a pastor in Florida and Hawaii and then leading TMS Global have been faithful, rewarding, demanding and exhausting.
“Looking at patterns of Jesus’ life I see how often in the busiest seasons he’d say, ‘Let’s go to a quiet place and get some rest,’” Wilkins said. “This whole idea of proper rhythms … I’ve never lost my enthusiasm, but I have been noticing weariness in my soul. That’s not a good place to be.”
Turning 60, he says, also prompted him to reflect on what comes next. A renewal leave made possible in part by a $7,000 grant from the Passing the Torch Fund — a cooperative effort between the Florida United Methodist Foundation and Florida Conference to provide resources to clergy — helped him do that.
“It’s not time to retire, but there will be a change, and I wanted to think through finishing this season well,” he said. “My mantra (in renewal) is refresh, reflect and restore.”
Wilkins took a sabbatical in 2009, so he had a clear vision for what he imagined God would accomplish during his renewal leave this year.
“That sabbatical was life-giving and gave me just the spiritual, emotional and physical jumpstart I needed to propel me into the next decade, plus in ministry,” he wrote in his renewal leave grant application. “My relationship with God, my wife, my family, my covenant brothers, my friends and my church were all strengthened by this time of refreshment and renewal.”
That’s one reason he structured his renewal to support his vision for ministry and calling to global mission initiatives.
From July 3 to Oct. 4, Wilkins’ leave took him to Columbia for language immersion school, Spain to complete the Camino de Santiago Francés historic spiritual pilgrimage, Scotland to visit the Outer Hebrides to research the great spiritual awakening of 1949-1952, and England to run the London Marathon and raise money for the Street Child charity.
By October, Wilkins and his wife were both ready for him to return home.
“Dee-Dee was amazing in tolerating the absence,” he said. “But we both appreciated the moments of tranquility.”
The couple have two grown children. Joshua serves as a navigator on a nuclear submarine, while Jennifer works with a foundation in New York City.
“I came back feeling the renewal leave was not only well put together, but I got what I hoped to get out of it,” Wilkins said.
Reclaiming the rhythms
In Spain, Wilkins walked the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and ending at the tomb of St. James, or Santiago, in northwest Spain.
“All three Rs (refresh reflect and restore) were available and really more than I imagined,” Wilkins said of his journey. “I had long times of solitude and tranquility. Many days I walked completely alone — with my own thoughts. I also engaged with people, and that was beautiful.”
Along the way — passing many cathedrals, churches and chapels — he says God’s message was clear: “You are not walking alone. I am with you.”
For more than a thousand years, millions have walked the path, but in 2021, Wilkins says less that 15% walked with any intentional spiritual purpose. Mostly, he said, the small chapels stood empty.
“I stopped and would have a time of prayer or meditation. I really found that to be refreshing and encouraging,” he said. “It made me think about what had happened to the rhythms of my life as it became busy and busy. … And I thought, ‘I sure wish I had this in my normal life.’”
Self-awareness was part of the pilgrimage, and Wilkins realized he no longer had to “wear ‘busy’ as a badge of honor.”
“You have the same amount of time for what you make time for,” he said. “So today, I am working to recover those rhythms that make space for these moments.”
Wilkins’ journey also took him to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland to learn about a spiritual revival that occurred there more than 70 years ago.
“A good portion of my ancestry is in Scotland,” he said. “I’d heard stories about that awakening. Some were literally incredible to me.”
That awakening is called the Hebrides Revival. The Outer Hebrides where the revival was born are one of two major chains of islands off the coast of Scotland. They are located further out in the Atlantic Ocean than the Inner Hebrides and include 70 islands, 15 of which are inhabited.
The revival came on the heels of World War II at a time when people were reeling from the toll both it and the first world war had taken on the population. There was also concern among spiritual leaders and faithful churchgoers of a small town called Barva about the spiritual decay that had taken place in their community. Their prayer campaign was the start of a spiritual renewal that lasted three years.
Wilkins was able to speak with two people who experienced the awakening firsthand and interview younger people who had heard the stories directly.
“I was also interested in looking for residue of the awakening,” he said. “Is it discernable? Could I pick up on it? Did it make any difference?”
He made several observations. “I can say these are the most observantly religious places remaining in Europe and the UK,” he said. “There are still 400 active churches among 22,000 people — still much evidence that faith plays a significant role.”
He also visited many ruins of churches, observing the “downward curve of faith generationally.”
Rather than being discouraged, everything Wilkins witnessed in Scotland reminded him the historical evidence is always “faithful remnants becoming the foundation for the next rising.”
“Any move of God is one generation away from extinction,” he said. “But there is always this sustaining faithful witness that never dies out. An awakening is just one moment among many, and the overall trajectory over time is solid and continuous.”
Wilkins admits he still has questions. “All the things that are rocking our nation and our world, hearing and seeing things that make me wonder,” he said. “Is it all for nothing?”
His renewal also gave him some answers. “A thousand years is as a day for the Lord, and I think of … (the) idea of ‘a long obedience in the same direction,’” he said. “This was a recurring theme for me along the Camino. You have a destination, but the experience is about the journey. That is the story of faith.”
A marathon of a journey
Spiritual growth and renewal weren’t the only focus for Wilkins. Physical challenge and mission were also part of it.
While in Europe, Wilkins ran the London marathon to raise money for the Street Child charity, an NGO that works with at-risk girls in Afghanistan around education.
“God gave me this opportunity to make a significant contribution,” Wilkins said. “We raised close to $5,000.”
Wilkins admits he did not run a personal best.
“Even the marathon was like a microcosm of the Camino; it’s about perseverance and keeping focus on the journey. All the pieces of renewal came together to tell the same story.” — Rev. Max Wilkins
“I like to say I ate my way through Scotland and waddled the London Marathon,” he joked. “But even the marathon was like a microcosm of the Camino. It’s about perseverance and keeping focus on the journey. All the pieces of renewal came together to tell the same story.”
Now that he’s refreshed and had time to reflect on his work, Wilkins has this message for people who make grants like this possible.
“Pass on to them that renewal is an important part of God’s work,” he said. “To make it possible for God’s servants to have this, it strengthens ministry and makes them more effective. By the grace of God, this grant was a huge blessing. Anything the body can do to build health and vitality in shepherds benefits the entire flock.”