Annual Gathering: Faith Keeps Us Striving for Innovation and Collaboration

A moment of levity for the Rev. Meredith Jackson of Isaiah 58 Ministries and the Rev. Thomas Baynham, board vice chair for Unleashing Potential.

The Council for Health and Human Service Ministries’ (CHHSM) 86th Annual Gathering, held March 12-14, 2024, in St. Louis, explored its theme of Innovation and Collaboration through meaningful worship, inspiring workshops and keynotes, and joyful conversations. This year’s Gathering was based on an Ecclesiastes Bible passage, and its meaning was a thread running throughout the three days:

It’s better to have partner than to go alone. Share the work. Share the wealth. And if one falls down the other helps (Eccl. 4:9-10 The Message).

“Sounds like gospel to me!” said the Rev. Kirsten Peachey, vice president of faith outreach and co-director of the Center for Faith and Community Health Transformation for Advocate Health, based in North Carolina, and newly-elected CHHSM board chair. “And let’s not forget how radical the gospel is. The speakers and workshops at the CHHSM Annual Gathering kept calling us to it.”

Opening Worship Sets the Tone

The Rev. Bethany Johnson-Javois of Deaconess Foundation, preached at St. Peter’s UCC in Ferguson.

From the opening worship — with preacher the Rev. Dr. Bethany Johnson-Javois, president and CEO of Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis — the theme of faith and collaboration took center stage.

“I was deeply inspired by the courageous and prophetic voice of the Rev. Bethany Johnson-Javois,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “Her message illuminated a path of hope amidst injustice, urging us to confront systemic inequities with unwavering courage, compassion and a steadfast dedication to social justice.”

Johnson-Javois “challenged us to face the harsh realities of our world, while also reminding us of the transformative potential inherent in collective action fueled by faith and solidarity,” Doyle added.

The Michael Brown panel discussion was poignant and informative.

Opening worship, held at St. Peter’s UCC in Ferguson, Mo., was followed by a panel discussion reflecting on the ten years since the murder of Michael Brown. Doyle facilitated a panel that included the Rev Dr. Deb Krause, president of Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo.; Dr. Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, activist and founder of Potbangerz, a nonprofit that uses food and love to effect change in St. Louis; and the Rev. Patrick Chandler, pastor of St. Peter’s. The discussion was followed by a lunch prepared by “Mama Cat” and the Potbangerz.

Stephanie Franklin, senior vice president, family & transition services for UCAN in Chicago, thought the panel was the best part of this year’s Gathering. “Mama Cat was authentic and honest regarding her disappointment in elected leaders to do what they promised to do, to enforce police accountability,” said Franklin. “All of the panelists remain committed to changing the trajectory of young people and the families of Ferguson; there dedication is inspiring.”

“I was thankful to experience the Potbangerz team’s care serving a menu for lunch that they prepare for the communities they serve,” Franklin added. “It was by far the best meal at the Annual Gathering because it was made with love and commitment. Food for the soul is the most nutritious. Mama Cat stated to break bread with your people, and we did!”

First-Time Attendees Provide Spark

CHHSM President and CEO Jamar Doyle and the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry talk to first-time attendees.

This year’s Annual Gathering brought a number of first-time attendees to St. Louis, thanks in part to Retirement Housing Foundation (RHF), an Annual Gathering platinum sponsor that provided scholarships to the event. The Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development, facilitated an orientation for the new attendees. The room was bursting with people, she said, but even more so, the room exploded with the energy of the group.

“The conversations got right to the heart of it all and their ministries, all the while laughing and enjoying each other’s company,” Berry said. “We joked that they were the most rambunctious group ever because I struggled to regain their attention after they shared in pairs, and I just thought to myself, ‘This is CHHSM. This is exactly what we’re about: the joy of the gospel, right here in the midst of us.’ What an honor to do the work.”

Wilson Challenges Participants

The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson delivered the opening keynote address.

The Annual Gathering included three keynotes, the first from the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, head of the Children’s Defense Fund. He offered a perspective on the collective work of CHHSM through his storytelling. In “When Children Die in the Streets,” he reminded attendees to slow down and tell the story. “When we hurry, we miss the human condition,” he said. He encouraged participants to reflect on their challenges, put it alongside scripture and take action.

As Peachey recalled, “When our children are lying in our streets, we must draw on the power of our theologies, our social networks, and our institutions of service to fight for the social environment in which our children can thrive.”

“Our ancestors, out of their context and concern, went outside, mobilized their networks, and got started with the work. The legacy of their faithfulness shows up in the institutions that we now lead and work in,” Peachey added. “Rev. Wilson urged us to keep the connection alive, to pause and tell the story — nor for nostalgia, but to find and burrow into the essence, the power of the thing. We cannot even imagine what we can do without proximity to the Divine, deep social connectedness, and our calling to serve.”

Nollau Class Consecration

The diakonal ministers and 2023-2024 Nollau Leadership Institute class.

Another poignant moment of the Annual Gathering took place Wednesday evening, March 13, at Eden Theological Seminary’s chapel, as the 2023-2024 class of the Nollau Leadership Institute were consecrated as diakonal ministers and received their CHHSM bowl and towel symbolizing serving leadership. The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Shari Prestemon, the UCC’s acting associate general minister for Wider Church Ministries and co-executive for Global Ministries. Berry wrote the service, which began with a special blessing honoring all attendees’ ministries and callings.

Nollau graduate Jasmine Quinerly, Settegast Heights board member, explains her capstone project.

Dinner was served following the service. Having additional events in the worship spaces was particularly meaningful to Berry.

“We lingered in these spaces,” said Berry, referring to St. Peter’s UCC and Eden Chapel. “We broke bread together afterwards, we engaged in deeper conversations, and were able to take in more of why we were there.”

Throughout the Annual Gathering, the class members’ final capstone projects were on display, and classmates were on hand to answer questions about their projects.

Closing Keynote an Informative A-Ha Moment

Tyler Hoffman introduced attendees to using emerging technology for innovative collaboration.

The closing keynoter on March 14 was Tyler Hoffman, owner and lead consultant of Digital for Good, which specializes in online identity and presence for nonprofits, and a long-time CHHSM technical consultant. His keynote was on emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence, and how it can be used for collaboration and innovation.

“I felt energized by the closing keynote, and I hope attendees walked away with a little more understanding — and some excitement — for what this technology can offer their ministries,” Hoffman said. “being a nonprofit professional means wearing many hats, and considering artificial intelligence can feel like just one more thing. I hope attendees discovered that they are already using AI, whether they realized it or not, and that recognizing its capabilities and caveats is critical.”

Hoffman focused on the importance of informed decision-making and ethical considerations whenever dealing with emerging technologies.

Nollau graduate the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks and the Rev. Dr. JJ Flag.

“Tyler Hoffman’s insightful presentation illuminated for health and human service nonprofits the opportunities and cautions surrounding emerging technology, particularly AI, said Doyle. “His  blend of funny and inspirational examples with practical caveats provided attendees with invaluable guidance, empowering us to navigate this swiftly evolving landscape with both confidence and discernment.”

Several attendees commented that AI no longer scared them. As CHHSM’s Berry put it, “My anxiety lessened as I learned what AI could do for me in my role with CHHSM.”

For Hoffman, the keynote was particularly meaningful. He had been an emergency substitute for an absent presenter at 2018’s Annual Gathering. “This time, I delivered a presentation designed for an audience of friends and colleagues I have come to know well over the last seven years,” he said.

Wednesday Panel Discussion Emphasizes Collaboration

The panel discussion Wednesday afternoon was both informative and entertaining.

Wednesday afternoon began with an insightful presentation on affiliation and collaboration as the key for struggling older adult communities from Dan Hermann, president and CEO of Chicago-based Ziegler, a privately held investment bank, capital markets and proprietary investments firm specializing in the healthcare, senior living and education sector, and an Annual Gathering platinum sponsor. The rest of the Wednesday keynote session was given over to “Collaboration as the Gateway to Innovation,” a panel discussion featuring  Stuart Hartman, president and CEO of Retirement Housing Foundation in Long Beach, Calif.; the Rev. Dr. Jamesetta Ferguson, president and CEO of MOLO Village and pastor of St. Peter’s UCC in Louisville, Ky.; the Rev. Donna Smith-Pupillo, RN, executive direct of Deaconess Nurse Ministry in St. Louis; and the Rev. Ken Daniel, CEO of United Church Homes and Radiant Alliance in Marion, Ohio.

CHHSM stalwart the Rev. Dr. Dick Ellerbrake and Darlene Sowell, CEO of Unleashing Potential.

The panelists discussed the transformative power of strategic partnerships amidst the evolving landscape of limited resources and rising needs. The discussion encouraged attendees to cultivate their own collaborative systems in order to improve their communities by fostering real-world innovation with their partners.

The Rev. Julie Jennings, vice president of spiritual care and wellbeing for Cedar Community in West Bend, Wis., found meaning in all of the worship services and keynote presentations.

“The keynote presentations, panel discussions and worship experiences highlighted the gravity and urgency of the challenges facing multiple populations in our country today,” Jennings said. “The wisdom, fellowship, collegiality, and authenticity of the gathered body provided a measure of faith, inspiration, and collective will to continue working to meet the challenges before us.”

Workshops and Affinity Groups for Everyone

The workshops were a huge hit at the Annual Gathering.

As is tradition with the Annual Gathering, workshops were a popular attraction. With a wide range of topics, from finances to racism to self-care, attendees came away from the workshops informed, inspired, and eager to take new ideas home to their local communities.

UCAN’s Franklin noted that one workshop in particular, “Healing When Called to Heal,” presented by CHHSM’s Dr. Zaria Davis, tied into Wilson’s keynote address. The workshop dealt with how healers process their own trauma in the wake of emergencies such as the recent pandemic.

“So many of the healers have not paused to tell stories because funders, employers, and others have returned to pre-pandemic expectations without deeply listening to staff who have experience and are carrying with them the trauma from the pandemic,” Franklin said. “Dr. Davis’ workshop gave an opportunity to say things out loud, things that people may not feel comfortable speaking about in their spaces. Her workshop was affirming and, hopefully, we felt a little lighter when we walked out together.”

Emerging Leadership Cohort members Zaria Davis, Nikki Starr, and George Davis-Williams.

For Davis, this was her first time attending the Annual Gathering as a member of CHHSM’s Emerging Leadership Cohort and CHHSM’s new engagement coordinator. All three cohort members — Davis, Nikki Starr, a judge in Minnesota’s Second Judicial District, and George Davis-Williams, RN, a registered nurse supervisor in a Michigan school system — attended the Annual Gathering as part of the 2023-2024 Nollau class. Starr also presented a workshop.

“The Annual Gathering allowed us to spend more time together and to support one another in our presentations,” said Davis. “I look forward to continuing to network and collaborate with my cohort members.”

Affinity Group meetings also lightened the load for many attendees, giving an opportunity for similar ministries to gather in fellowship and collaboration.

Renewing Ties

Incoming and outgoing CHHSM board members are recognized during the business meeting.

During the Business Meeting portion of the Annual Gathering, CHHSM welcomed new board officers the Rev. Kristen Peachey, chair; the Rev. Julie Jennings, vice chair, and Lee Berg, chair of Archway Communities’ Board of Directors and designated minister and pastor of Washington Park UCC in Denver. New board members include Nichelle Simmons from UCAN, Matt Wagner from United Church Funds, and Andrea Asselmeier from Emmaus Homes in St. Louis.

Among the most popular events at the Annual Gathering were the social events. Thanks to some unseasonably good weather, the opening reception moved outside of the Gathering’s meeting place, the Live! By Loews hotel. “During the reception, St. Louis’ Ballpark and Ballpark Village served as a backdrop as music flowed from HEAL Center for the Arts’ Bird Seeds student jazz ensemble,” said Paula Barker, CHHSM’s senior executive assistant for events and administration and corporate secretary.

Music was provided by the Bird Seeds student jazz ensemble.

The HEAL Center in St. Louis presents conflict resolution strategies that address the points of stress and trauma in society and the ways in which they contribute to social change. The Bird Seeds Ensemble studies the historical impact of overt racism in their communities in order to stimulate and inform artistic expression to encourage healing from internal and external conflict.

“The power of networking and intentional human connection extends far beyond the main events,” said Doyle. “It’s in the shared meals, the casual breaks, and the spontaneous social moments where meaningful bonds are forged. This year, with a significant number of first-time attendees, the authenticity of these connections show brightly, underscoring the essence of our Gathering.”

Attendees renew ties. From left: the Rev. Shari Prestemon, UCC Wider Church Ministries, Stacey Parke, Orion Family Services, and Lee Syria, EveryAge.

Another highlight was the closing field trip to the Core Collective, a model of collaboration and innovation in St. Louis, partnering with CHHSM members Deaconess Nurse Ministry, iFM Community Medicine, and Every Child’s Hope, among other community-based organizations. It is invested in the transformational power of youth, and is on a mission to make well-being the standard for St. Louis. The Core Collective improves healthcare for families, advances socioeconomic equity, and activates conscious leaders.

The visit was made even more special, said CHHSM’s Berry, because the presentation at the Core Collective was given by Linda Thompson, RN, MSN, clinical director at Deaconess Nurse Ministry and one of this year’s Nollau graduates.

Attendees found the Core Collective visit a perfect ending to a wonderful meeting.

The Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring, Eden UCC, and Maria Soto, UCC Pension Boards.

“I enjoyed everything!” said Michelle Stehlik-Hurst, customer relations manager at Cedar Community, and 2023 Nollau graduate. “The venue, workshops, Nollau graduation, guest speakers, the visits to St. Peter’s UCC, Eden Theological, and Core Collective at St Vincent were amazing and eye opening. HEAL was inspirational and, of course, so was the interaction among all of us, the openness and freedom to speak our truth, always learning from each other on how to move forward in a struggling world.”

Nichelle Simmons, director of program support for UCAN’s Teen Parenting Service Network, agreed. “I’ve been attending the AG since 2018, and this year was by far my favorite. I thoroughly enjoyed the Opening Keynote by Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, “Healing when Called to Heal” facilitated by Dr. Zaria Davis, and the AI workshop. These events put into perspective for me some suggestions that I’ll bring back to my organization in terms of how we understand our purpose, assessment of our needs, and understanding the cost when we veer away from our theological roots as an organization.”

The Nollau class on the bus.

For Doyle, the Annual Gathering created space for sermons, keynotes, panel discussions, and workshops to “leave an indelible mark on our hearts and minds. They have ignited a renewed sense of purpose and commitment within the CHHSM community, and I am deeply grateful for the passion, dedication, and expertise demonstrated by all who participated in this event.”

Harkening back to the Annual Gathering’s biblical theme from Ecclesiastes, Peachey perhaps summed up this year’s event the best:

“In the midst of these gospel words, we consecrated Nollau Diakonal Ministers, leaders doing the work of locating themselves in their context, concern, calling, and commitment. We considered insurance, technology, purchasing, fundraising, AI, program development, and so many other dimensions that keep our ministries thriving,” she said. “And we caught up with old friends, welcomed new faces, worshiped and sang, and rode the bus. This was a great meeting! And there is more to come —

“Let’s go together.”

Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, Dr. Zaria Davis, the Rev. Dr. Arlene Nehring, the Rev. Shari Prestemon, and Maria Soto for the use of their photos in this article.

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