CHHSM’s Day-Long Retreat Hosted by UCC Heartland Conference Offers Unique Leadership Training Experience

The center ‘altar’ during the retreat. /Elyse Berry photo

During a recent one-day leadership retreat led by the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) and hosted by the Heartland Conference, participants gained resources for becoming better leaders. But one of the most unexpected outcomes was leaving the day feeling centered and closer to God.

“Water in Desert Places,” held Aug. 30, 2023, at the Heartland Conference’s Templed Hills retreat center in Bellville, Ohio, began and ended with worship. During the day-long event, participants learned about the ancient monastic practices of desert spirituality and how its practices relate to modern-day leadership, and about current adaptive leadership theory.

The day also included time for healing exercises, including a facilitated drum circle, and time during an extended lunch for the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” (shinrin-yoku). Forest Bathing, or forest therapy, consists of spending meaningful or mindful time in a forest in order to connect to nature via the senses. The practice, bolstered by many scientific studies, promotes both physical and spiritual healing.

The Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry facilitated the Drum Circle workshop. /Liz Bergren photo.

The retreat “blended insightful workshops on leadership with moving worship services and meaningful rituals, providing a holistic approach that addressed both the practical and spiritual aspects of leadership,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “Attendees left equipped with both the tools and spiritual grounding to navigate challenging times and thrive in the desert places of their lives and ministries.”

The agenda was structured so that participants had ample time to reflect on what they had learned. “The retreat provided an opportunity to pause and tune in to the deeper feelings I have surrounding my personal leadership experience, and the role I play in my organization,” said Liz Bergren, chief development officer for Crossroad Child & Family Services in Fort Wayne, Ind. “The opportunity [during the morning sessions] to name our personal desert was impactful for me.”

The Templed Hills grounds provided contemplative space for Forest Bathing. /George Graham photo.

For Dr. Bentley deBardelaben-Phillips, executive associate and team leader of education for faithful action ministries, UCC Justice and Local Church Ministries, the lessons from Forest Bathing were particularly meaningful.

“My main takeaway is that no matter how busy I am on any given day, I can still take a moment to slow down and hypothetically ‘smell the flowers,’” he said. “This retreat invited its participants to do so in a variety of ways, e.g., through worship, music, poetry, and nature.”

The free retreat was hosted by the Heartland Conference. Together, the CHHSM team and Heartland Conference Minister the Rev. David Long-Higgins planned the event, which has turned into an annual event.

The Rev. Brian Russell and the Rev. Dave Long-Higgins offered live retreat music. /Liz Bergren photo.

“Again, our beloved CHHSM partners offered us special blessings by fostering space to explore the interior life as guided by the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers,” said Long-Higgins. “The reminder to cultivate inner silence and stillness in order to discover God’s leading for our outer lives in the world was such a timely reminder for me. The day was rich in teaching, singing, drumming, and through the wonderful gift of in-person conversation. What a blessing!”

Doyle also expressed gratefulness for the CHHSM-Heartland Conference relationship. “The partnership between CHHSM and the Heartland Conference is a powerful testament to our shared commitment to foster strong leadership and spiritual resilience throughout our organizations,” he said.

Participants had their own favorite sessions during the retreat. deBardelaben-Phillips found the Drum Circle most meaningful because “of the ways I felt the drumming connected me/us to my/our ancestors, whether recently passed or long ago. Each beat reminded me of and connected me to the beating heart of those folk long ago, both of a distant past as well as something more recent. It felt transcendental.”

Sharon Graver, director of resident services for United Church Homes’ Parkvue Community in Sandusky, Ohio, couldn’t pick just one session as a favorite, though she admitted to be being surprised by the day. “I was surprised by the connection and emotion I experienced during the retreat,” she said. “I left with a full heart, with a newfound hope.”

Applying the Lectio Divina practice (“divine reading,” a monastic practice often used in scripture reading) to a poetry reading created a surprise for deBardelaben-Phillips. “The poem was Alberto Rios’ December Morning in the Desert. The words toward which I was drawn left me feeling more connected to God, as they led me into a deeper state of reflection and peace.”

The Rev. George Graham led the session on Adaptive Leadership. /Elyse Berry photo.

After a morning spent in workshops related to the lessons and applications of desert spirituality, the afternoon concentrated on activities related to adaptive leadership, the practice of helping people deal with difficult challenges and thrive. Developed to address 21st-century leadership challenges, it requires looking outside the box of previous knowledge and methods to arrive at solutions, a process that involves much inward reflection and asking questions about a goal’s purpose and process. During the afternoon, participants learned how faith-based leadership is connected to adaptive leadership.

“The gift of considering adaptive rather than technical change grew naturally from the spiritual grounding of this retreat,” Long-Higgins said. “We were invited to consider how the challenges we face in our various ministry settings may become a springboard for creativity and blossoming in ever-new directions.”

The Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development, said she always looks forward to the annual retreat with joy and hope. “This is the fifth consecutive year CHHSM has received a grant from the Heartland Conference to put on this one-day leadership event. Each year, we facilitate the retreat using new content in new places, based on the particular needs of the Conference at the time,” said Berry. “Folks attending this year’s retreat were so receptive, engaging, and really took to the content as well as the space.”

One of the activities included making a string of prayer ties out of wildflowers and cloth, each tie representing a prayer of gratitude. /Judy Brizzolara photo.

Berry cited the Forest Bathing time and subsequent exercise as a highlight of the day. But she also praised the live music. “I had already planned on doing a drum circle, but it was such a gift for Dave and the Rev. Brian Russell — pastor of Community Congregational UCC in Amherst, Ohio, to share their talents with us on the guitar and violin. It made the day all the more special.”

Long-Higgins (violin) and Russell (guitar) provided music at the end of retreat breaks to set the contemplative mood for upcoming sessions.

“Live or recorded, the music selections throughout the day were incredibly powerful,” said Crossroad’s Bergren.

The final activities of the day were the Drum Circle workshop and closing worship. Participants left the retreat feeling a closer connection to God and a renewed sense of call to their ministries.

“I loved how the retreat provided the opportunity to quietly reflect on my own leadership journey, while also learning from others and experiences,” Bergren said. “The balance between time for self-reflection and group interaction was well planned and flowed nicely.”

Graver said she “appreciated being together in a group setting. Driving back on the property instantly offered decompression and a sense of serenity and calmness,” she said. “I hope to be able to attend more retreats like this and move closer to God.”

Those retreat attributes also stuck with deBardelaben-Phillips. “I enjoyed the focus on nurturing my/our soul(s), especially as leaders, and the multiple ways those facilitating invited me/us to access it throughout the day,” he said. “Caring for myself — mind, body and soul — will allow me to be more available for and to those who call upon me.”

deBardelaben-Phillips had one more insight to offer: “Next time this retreat is offered, I invite you to do your level best to participate in it. It might change your life.”

Join Our Mailing LIst

Follow on Facebook

Quick Links