What Happiness Retreat Taught Me About Cheerful Giving

by Neal Eller
  • Matt Lett, Seirra Barbour, Chris Thompson, Kristie Medeim and camper, Ashlyn Tilley

Wednesday, July 31, 2013 | 356 days old

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7, ESV)

The following is an interview with myself (Yes, I know it’s a little weird!) on what Happiness Retreats taught me about stewardship, generosity, and cheerful giving.

What are Happiness Retreats?

Five times a year, campers with mild to severe developmental disabilities and delays, along with their care-givers, parents, teachers, and chaperons totaling nearly 800 attend one of the three-day Happiness Retreats sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina through the Special Needs Ministry of Congregational Services Consultant, Donnie Wiltshire.  Campers come from special needs ministries of North Carolina Baptist churches, group homes throughout North Carolina, and individual families that have heard of this retreat by word of mouth.

How would you describe what takes place over the three day retreat?
That’s easy; I would describe the retreats this way: What may seem to the by-stander as spontaneous combustion, planned chaos, implosion before explosion, utter confusion, and pandemonium is really an intentional strategic three-day retreat with one soul purpose: to share the gospel of Christ, the love of Christ, the acceptance of Christ and the joy of Christ with a group of people who experience just the opposite when they go back into their worlds. The end goal for each person serving or attending the retreat is to leave happy!

How did you first come to know about the Happiness Retreats?

A few years ago, my daughter Candice served on the Happiness staff for several years.  Every year, my wife and I would hear the most wonderful and sometimes bazaar stories that took place at the retreats. Candice would always talk about how the campers had made a powerful impact on her life year after year.  While Candice was on staff, my wife, Cherri, and I decided to visit Happiness one year on a Saturday. That day, we saw and experienced just a bite-sized portion of what is served to the campers for three days.  But it wasn’t until this year that I personally had the opportunity to experience the whole menu.

What do you mean by "the whole menu"?
This year I joined the staff for five days as their camp pastor and taught spiritual formation to teachers during morning sessions for retreats one and two at Caraway Conference Center. Campers are treated to dynamic worship experiences designed especially for them and often including them as worship leaders; morning classes teaching them the Gospel, biblical truth, and the Bible; talent show; classes in the afternoons that include creative movement, puppets, and bells; swimming at the pool; an ice cream fellowship; and even a dance with a live band–very cool and loads of fun!  

God taught me so much over those five days about Him, about others, and about myself, especially as it applies to stewardship, generosity, and cheerful giving.

Do you mind sharing some of your learnings with us?
Glad you asked!

Learning #1: God gives us pictures of generous disciples all around us if we just open our eyes.

The Happiness Retreat, coordinated by Judy Autry of the Baptist State Convention, is staffed by the most caring, compassionate, capable, competent and crazy people who exemplify the heart and servant-life of Jesus I have ever known.  Just being with the staff is a blessing.  For the staff, service and giving of themselves is their act of worship and stewardship. I know this to be true, for they not only said and prayed it, but also their actions, attitudes, and behaviors demonstrated this value by such things as carrying camper’s cafeteria trays to the table, swimming and fooling around with them in the pool, bantering with them, dancing with them, teaching them, sharing the gospel and praying with them.

The staff truly gives, gives some more, and expects nothing in return.  This is a picture of generosity in real-time.  And yes, I believe, God will bless them for their sacrificial generous giving because I have experienced it myself.

Question – If I were to take an “Instagram” or snapshot of you, what would your picture of generosity look like?

Learning #2: Cheerful givers are easily identifiable.

2 Corinthians 9:7 tells us cheerful givers give from a heart motivation of abandonment, freedom, liberty, humility, contentment, happiness, satisfaction, pleasure, delight, joy, and love. This cheerful giving is best expressed by the campers themselves.  To paraphrase one of the staffers: “If you come to Happiness and not get loved upon, then there is something wrong with you!”  Unconditional love lavished generously upon you by the campers is evidence of their cheerful giving through their overabundance of hugs, touches, smiles, laughter, and even kisses. It seems the campers never run out of love and their unique ways of showing it.

Question – Would people identify you as a cheerful and generous giver?

Learning #3: Cheerful givers beget cheerful givers.

Furthermore, the staff seemed to feed off the generosity of the campers spurring them to greater heights of service showering them with more love, more patience, more creativity, more encouragement, more humor, and more Jesus. Thus, the campers “stirred up the staff to love and good works.” (Hebrews 10:24)

Question – Are you a “stirrer” of generosity?   Who stirs your generosity? What is your heart motivation for cheerful giving?

Learning #4: God blesses generous and cheerful givers.

At the end of the week when all is said and done, the staff leaves exhausted driving home “on empty,” so to speak. They have given their all and now, Happiness Retreats 2013 are just a memory.  Even in this weakened, bone-weary, dog-tired state, each staff member drives away with a hint of a smile and look of contentment hearing the Holy Spirit whisper in their ears, “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master (Matthew 10:25a). Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).

For one solid week, each staff member generously and cheerfully gave of themselves: their talents, gifts, passions, experiences, and yes, even their money–all for the glory of God, the expansion of His Kingdom, and for the benefit of others. No one is paid an honorarium for their service and contribution.

Their generous and cheerful giving is motivated by the daily generous gift of God’s mercy and grace through the Holy Spirit demonstrated through His Son, Jesus Christ who willing gave himself as a sacrifice for our sin on the cross.  Paul says it best in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21:

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)

And how does God bless each staffer?  They keep coming back, serving each year with greater passion and love for Jesus and for the campers. I wonder how God blesses them throughout the remainder of the year back home. 

Question – Do you give to be blessed or to be a blessing?

Next year is the 40th anniversary of Happiness Retreats in North Carolina sponsored by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina backed by your Cooperative Programs dollars. Thank you, North Carolina Baptist, for your support of this vital ministry. If you wish to become a “Friend of Happiness” or want more information about Happiness Retreats 2014, call or email Donnie Wiltshire

Thank you, Neal, for an awesome interview!  You’re welcome (I was right; that was weird!).