If you have a difficult time communicating with your teenager, Walt Merrell has a simple piece of advice for you: get outdoors. Merrell, founder of the “Shepherding Outdoors” community and author of two books of the same name, believes that enjoying God’s natural creation is key to building relationships, starting conversations, and strengthening families. Today he shares his experiences and wisdom through his books, church ministry, and work in the community as the elected district attorney for Alabama’s Covington County.
Stepping Outside his Comfort Zone. Merrell lives in Andalusia with his wife Hannah and three daughters Bay, Cape, and Banks. He was raised in church and in a close family but said that meeting Hannah and joining her family made him have a more “appropriate” understanding of what being a Christian meant. He and Hannah met at the University of Montevallo, and he points to that as a turning point. “God had a plan all along, and I was oblivious to it until he brought us together,” he said. An additional turning point–and one that changed the trajectory of his calling–came in 2015, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I had an ocular tumor in my eye socket, and doctors had a hard time diagnosing me. I had biopsies that said it was sarcoma, after almost every pathological lab couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” he recalled. “At the time I figured I had about two years to live, and I was going to use that time to pour into my children.”
“I prayed that I could take advantage of those two years, and one day I was walking around with my daughter in our yard and we were picking up sweet gum nuts and throwing them against a tree,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘here’s our common ground.’ Spending time together outdoors was what we could do together, and I began to ask myself questions. What about kayaking? What about camping?” The idea for Shepherding Outdoors came from that time in his life and when Merrell experienced healing from his cancer the ministry remained. “I don’t like to call myself a miracle, but I do acknowledge His authority and ability. But I don’t like to shine that light on me,” Merrell said, “but I’m grateful for that time because it was when Shepherding Outdoors was born.”
Merrell encourages parents to spend quality time with their children outside and said that the process doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply find what works for you and your family. He, in fact, had never had much experience growing up doing such activities. And he and his daughters had rarely done so. “We’d hunted a little bit, but we started doing more things outdoors,” he said. “The first time I took my girls camping, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to light the fire. Not being able to do something like that can be hard on a man, but all you have to do is try. You don’t have to be an expert.” Over the years, Merrell has taken all of his daughters on solo outdoor trips–including ones when they each turned 12 years old. He took his oldest daughter Bay, now 20, on a five-day trip down the Buffalo River in Ark., paddled across the Everglades with middle daughter Cape, and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail with youngest daughter Banks.
“When I took Bay on that first trip, it was really transformative and she came back stronger,” he said. “We camped, built fires, and it forced both of us to engage with each other. At 12, children are beyond mindless chatter and want to have meaningful conversations. And it gives us a chance to get to know each other as maturing adults.” Merrell said that 12 is the perfect age to spend one-on-one time with daughters, and he also encourages fathers to spend time outdoors with their sons. Lessons from the outdoors, according to Merrell, can be varied and valuable. “Anytime you go outside with your kids you have the opportunity to say look around and consider whether you think this was all happenstance or intentional. Being outdoors gives you the opportunity to talk about how awesome God is,” he said.
Writing His Story. Alongside spending time with his daughters while he was sick, Merrell also began to write down the lessons he wanted to leave behind to them. “When I was sick, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to tell them everything, and that evolved into me writing stories for them. They were stories just for the girls,” he said. “And when I found out my tumor wasn’t a tumor anymore, I just kept writing.” He eventually built up the courage to share one of his stories on Facebook, and he received affirmation from readers and God about this new way of sharing. He’d learned about the practical side of sharing his stories online from his mother-in-law Brenda Gantt, who has gained a substantial following through her “Cooking with Brenda Gantt” Facebook page, videos, and books. She encouraged him to share his stories, and he started the “Shepherding Outdoors” page on Facebook. According to Merrell, his stories are “all 95% true” and focus on personal experiences and lessons learned from them. His audience is other parents like himself who yearn to build experiences with their family members; he also strives to share his faith with his readers.
While he’s a trained attorney, he grew up writing and he remembers his first real experience with recording his stories. “When I was 12, I went to Dog Island, Fla., to work at an inn there called Pelican Inn. There was no television and no telephone, and before I went my mom gave me a notebook and pack of pens. I still have that original journal, and dozens of others filled with stories or just rambling thoughts, even speeches I wrote as an adult.” Birmingham based Hoffman Media published Merrell’s first book of stories, Shepherding Outdoors: Short Stories from a Southern Father in 2017 and also recently published his second book, Shepherding Outdoors, Volume 2: More Short Stories from a Southern Father (www.hoffmanmediastore.com). The book’s synopsis describes its contents like this: “Armed with the knowledge of trusted fellow outdoorsmen, the love of his wife, Hannah, and his ever-faithful dog, Lincoln, follow Walt through even more tales of fatherhood, the teachings of nature, and the strengthening power of faith and family.”
To keep up with his writing demands and deadlines, Merrell said he writes almost every day; some of his stories are posted immediately to his social media accounts, while others are saved for later or not used at all. “I write every morning from about 4:30 a.m. – to 6 a.m., then I go to work. I leave evenings with the girls,” Merrell explained. “I’ll continue to serve as District Attorney, because I believe God called me to that job.”
Ministering to Men and Families. Merrell’s outdoors ministry stems from what he has learned from work as a district attorney and a church ministry he’s been involved with that serves fathers and their families. “A lot of my men’s ministry efforts come from what I’ve seen at work,” he said. “Years ago, our church put together an event where we had a WWF wrestler come speak and had steak and baked potatoes. We never said a thing about Jesus when promoting it, but we had more than 400 men come, and they heard the testimony. Twelve people were saved that night.” The ministry was aimed at unchurched men, and his church began doing a similar event every month. “It’s amazing to see what God did through that,” he said. “I’ve seen lives changed professionally and personally.” Today Merrell’s ministry has extended into other churches, schools, and other groups where his message of enjoying the outdoors is shared with both parents and children.
His message to fathers? Children have many things vying for their attention, and that the outdoors provides a them with common ground. “You may wonder how to communicate with your daughter who just dyed her hair pink,” he said, “but you still have things in common.”And his message to teenagers? Life is changing at your age, but you can still trust God and His leadership. “I try to speak to the issues that children or teenagers of a particular age are facing,” he said. “I recently spoke to 1500 students of different ages at a private school in Tenn., and I did a revival not long at a 2000-member church in Ga. I tell my story and pray that it makes a difference in an individual or family’s life.” Learn more about Shepherding Outdoors on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and at www.shepherdingoutdoors.com.
–Cheryl Wray writes from Hueytown, Ala., and is the mother of three and grandmother of six. She coordinates the Southern Christian Writers Conference.