‘Collaborating to Flourish’ Retreat Creates Renewal, Reflection in Participants

One of the breakout groups during the retreat.

In a time that often feels splintered — from COVID, from ideological divides — clergy and lay leaders of the UCC’s Heartland Conference recently were able to pause and examine how deeper connections, conversations, and collective action might be more effectively accomplished. “Collaborating to Flourish,” a one-day leadership retreat offered Aug. 29 by the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) provided that deep breath and moment of reflection.

The retreat was held at Disciples Christian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and was open to clergy and lay leaders in the conference, national UCC staff members, and CHHSM members affiliated with the conference.

The retreat “offered a vital and life-giving pause for leaders in many different settings of ministry,” said the Rev. David Long-Higgins, conference minister. “Together, we considered the essential motion, energy, and gift of collaboration for the call of leadership in this season of history in the life of the church.”

The day-long gathering was bracketed with worship, and included sessions on belonging and embodiment, sharing mission, and collaborating for justice. Each session included small group and whole group exercises and discussions. Unique to the retreat was the wide range of attendees, including “folks from the UCC national setting, UCC Cornerstone Fund, CHHSM organizations in Ohio and Indiana, and pastors from throughout the conference,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. “And even with that broad range of folks, the topics for the workshops seemed able to speak to issues across disciplines and sectors … the whole day felt conversational.”

For some of the national office staff in attendance, the retreat was a chance to connect and reconnect. “Reconnecting with colleagues is so meaningful after the quarantines,” said the Rev. Elena Larssen, minister for volunteer engagement for the UCC. “I relocated to Cleveland to serve the national offices during COVID and have worked almost entirely remotely, so this was a great chance to meet people and participate in the UCC community here in Ohio.”

The Rev. Roberto Ochoa, the UCC’s minister for ethnic inclusion and congregational support for rural and small churches, agreed. “It was a great opportunity to worship with and meet my colleagues of Ohio and find out more about CHHSM’s vision and mission,” he said. Ochoa added that one of things he found most meaningful was “relationship building and networking with my colleagues, and hearing each other’s stories of ministry.”

Even the local church pastors relished the in-person aspect of the retreat. “Honestly, I wanted to be with people in person,” said the Rev. Beth Gedert, pastor of Zion UCC in Delaware, Ohio. “I appreciated the many different opportunities for reflection in many different mediums. The CHHSM team knows how to engage all senses and learning styles to create a significant spiritual and intellectual experience.”

After a short introduction and visioning session, the retreat delved into belonging — which explored one’s sense of belonging and its effect on well-being. Led by Berry, the session set the tone for the day. “I especially enjoyed how [Berry] started us off and created a relaxed and contemplative atmosphere,” said the Rev. Michael Anthony Howard, minister of faith in action for the UCC’s regional Living Water Association (Ohio NorthEast).

Larssen concurred, adding that Berry’s “insights guided the group to hold a congenial and substantial conversation about well-being.”

With the contemplative work of the morning session as a foundation, the afternoon session examined ideas and discussed ways of working together in mission and justice.

Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM, during the “Collaborating for Justice” session.

Howard found the “Collaborating for Justice” session, run by CHHSM President and CEO Jamar Doyle, the most meaningful part of the day. “I think there are many creative ways to build community but the examples of creative collaboration were extremely helpful,” he said.

Ochoa found meaning in the whole day. “I especially enjoyed the [belonging] exploration of one’s sense of belonging and reflecting its influence of ourselves,” he said. “I appreciated the presentations of ‘Sharing Mission’ and ‘Collaborating for Justice,’ which provided insights and best practice when working with others of common causes to maximize results for building better communities.”

The Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM, led the “Sharing Mission” session. He found that the varied participants added to the impact of the retreat. “The fact that the day drew together local church pastors, conference staff, national staff, and CHHSM member employees really embodied collaboration,” he said. “I was very impressed by the depth of commitment to service shared by those who attended. Gatherings like this one will certainly help the ministries of the church flourish.”

For Berry, the many aspects of collaboration, particularly as given voice in the closing worship service, resonated with her. “Sometimes the collaborations we have are so thoughtful and intentional, and that indeed is a beautiful and needed thing,” she said. “But the retreat also called to mind when that shared work was unexpected and support arrived right at the ‘growing edge’ when I hadn’t planned it to grow there. What a gift that is.”

One aspect of the retreat surprised the Gedert. “I am usually intimidated or skeptical of the different types of reflections, especially doing things with my body or making art,” she said. “This time, I decided to lean in and fully participate in all of it, and it was more powerful than I anticipated it could be.”

Howard reflected on what he took away from the day. “Collaboration allows us to discover seeds for new life” and “developing relationships are more important than any other task,” were two of the insights that stuck with him, he said.

Larssen seemed to represent much of the group when she commented, “It was lovely to feel ‘treated’ to a day of renewal.”

“We are in a time where we are called to think differently about how we resource the ministry we share,” said Long-Higgins. “This is about more than money, though that is a factor. More deeply, it is about how the wisdom that resides among us can be more effectively shared in ever wider connections to build both creativity and capacity to meet the needs of the world.

“The design of the workshop was not just about information and ideas (thought it was rich in this regard), but also invited and offered space for reflection, prayer, and discernment. Even more, it fostered space to build new and renewed, in-person relationships that deeply fed the spirit of those who gathered. Those in attendance shared with me that they didn’t realize how much they needed this day. What a gift!”

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CHHSM Board and Staff are grieved to learn of the death of our friend and colleague, Greg Watson, who died in October 2022. Greg was vice president of operations for Embrace Living Communities, based in Oak Brook, Ill.Greg was a graduate of CHHSM’s Nollau Leadership Institute, class of 2018-2019, and was consecrated as a Diakonal Minister during our 2019 Annual Gathering in Chicago. In an article about his class in June 2018 — not long after the group’s first retreat — Greg said, “The best part is not only beginning the process of clarifying your calling; but also, understanding and accepting one’s personal strength. Recognition of one’s ‘true' self enables us to serve from a place of wholeness.”Greg also served on the CHHSM Board of Directors, and was a beloved friend and colleague to many in the CHHSM family. Embrace Living stated on its website, “Greg was an outstanding servant leader for 17 years at Embrace Living Communities. He will be greatly missed.”CHHSM sends its prayers and love to Greg’s friends, family, and Embrace Living colleagues. ... See MoreSee Less
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