First Retreat Fills 2022-2023 Nollau Leadership Institute Class with Personal Leadership Discoveries

The 2022-2023 Nollau class and faculty.

The newest class of CHHSM’s Nollau Leadership Institute began its year in retreat, held June 27-July 1 at the Cedar Valley Retreat Center in West Bend, Wis. The first of three retreats held during the year-long Institute, the June gathering focused on personal leadership growth and experiences.

“During the retreat, we discussed not only what leadership is, but who each participant is as a leader, what influenced that journey, and how their unique gifts and purpose impact their leadership,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. “Workshop content during the retreat helped us to dive into these concepts, but what really invited the class and faculty alike into the depths is the time and ways we spent sharing honestly, listening deeply and asking questions.”

Each day of the retreat centered on specific topics, which were interspersed with Contemplative Listening Circles, worship, and reflection time. Day one focused on faith-based leadership theories; day two was centered on grounding and embodiment work; day three delved into the study of Enneagram types; day four examined issues around Race, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (RDEI) and social justice leadership; and day five looked at resilience and practicing care and community.

“I love to be surprised by experiential learnings!” said Kristen Orion, M.Div., chaplain at Pilgrim Manor, United Church Homes, in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I was surprised at the exquisiteness of the holistic design of the week. … All of the days fit together in ‘right flow’ for the week, while the schedule for each individual day also had ‘right flow,’ as did each particular offering within each day. The movement from internal to expressive, from reflective to absorbing, from conceptual to imaginative, from passive to active was really beautifully and effectively created.”

This Nollau class marks the first time CHHSM President and CEO Jamar Doyle is serving as a faculty member. “It was such a blessing to spend the week with people who are passionate about making the world a better place through the work that they do,” Doyle said. “I look forward to learning and growing with the 2022-20223 Nollau class as, together, we explore leadership through service.”

The retreat focused on cultivating a community of learners and leaders, and included a lot of small group time. Nollau faculty included the CHHSM staff, as well as special guest Erica Merritt of the Equius Group in Cleveland, which conducted CHHSM’s RDEI Assessment in 2020-2021. Merritt brought her wisdom in RDEI development to the retreat.

Cedar Community’s Julie Jennings, vice president of spiritual care and well being; Michelle Stehlik Hurst, customer relations manager, and Nicole Pretre, CEO.

“The retreat was so different than any work-related function I have ever attended. The topics of discussion were so relevant and relatable to what is going on in our world today,” said Michelle Stehlik-Hurst, customer relations manager at Cedar Community in West Bend, Wis. “The entire Nollau team was amazing — they made me feel so comfortable, and were so genuine. I have never been around so many people who made me feel as if I had known each of them before. I walked away from this first retreat wanting to be a stronger, more positive employee and individual, knowing that I need to listen, understand and be compassionate to everyone who may cross my path, as I have no idea what their struggle may be in a world that is struggling as well.”

The Rev. Deb Worley, a UCC minister serving as pastor of White Rock (N.M.) Presbyterian Church, also noted the uniqueness of the retreat. “There was so much depth and breadth in the first retreat that it’s hard to believe it was only 4-1/2 days long,” Worley said. “The depth of connection experienced within the group — attendees and CHHSM faculty alike — was profound and felt holy. In a very short period of time, we moved into what felt like sacred space, where we listened and learned and gave and received.”

Jonathan Paredes, a Member In Discernment (MID) in UCC Penn Central Conference and the pastoral associate at New Harmony Presbyterian Church in Brogue, Pa., concurred. “I was surprised by my small group — that five randomly picked strangers with their own life stories and own ministry experience from diverse locations in the U.S. can come together in a week and forge a bond that is life-giving and affirming,” he said. “I think we all just became best friends.”

Julie Jennings leads an activity during the retreat.

Two of the more impactful topics at the retreat were the sessions on enneagrams, which wove portions of the group’s reading assignment, The Enneagram for Black Liberation by Chichi Agorom, into the presentation; and the Contemplative Listening Circles.

The circles are based on the Quaker model of Clearness Committee, Berry said. Retreat participants were divided into groups. “Each person in the small group is asked to bring something to the circle that they’d like to get more clarity or more support for,” Berry said. “The key, though, is that the answers are to be found within the person sharing. The rest of the group is there to help that person access their own inner wisdom — so no advice giving, fixing, etc. It’s a very powerful process that has a lot of benefits. It offers a unique time in which to be deeply listened to, and allows serious practice at offering deep listening to others, small group bonding, vulnerability, and story sharing — all key skills for leadership.”

“It’s one thing to talk about the need to learn how to deeply listen,” Berry added, “and another to spend that much time practicing it.”

For Christina Ryan Perkins, chaplain at Crossroad Child & Family Services in Fort Wayne, Ind., the circles were among the most meaningful moments of the retreat. “I knew within seconds of our small group gathering that it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The four of us ‘clicked,’ each of us unique but fitting in just the same,” said Ryan Perkins. “We are all cautious, somewhat introverted, individuals and yet we knew we could trust one another. This trust was vital as we entered our Listening Circles, a hallowed practice where an individual shares and reflects on a dilemma, decision, or crossroad while the group listens, asks questions, and shares encouragement.”

Ryan Perkins explained that each circle begins with a poem read by the facilitator, followed by the person sharing their situation. “It’s a time of sacred sharing and holy listening,” she added. “I shared first and to close my time, I read the opening poem as the closing. I immediately realized the poem seemed to have been written for my situation. The next day, we had two more Listening Circles, two different people and two new poems. Each time, the poem for the Listening Circle seemed to have been written for the person sharing and spoke to the situation at hand. We left our listening circles and our small group time convinced the Holy Spirit was still speaking.”

Each participant at the retreat took different lessons from the experience. For Sean Riley, executive director of senior living operations for United Church Homes, “next level” listening skills topped his list of retreat takeaways. “Examples include the practice of ‘giving space between stimulus and response to provide for growth and freedom,’ which was explained beautifully in our reading assignment, The Enneagram for Black Liberation,” said Riley. “And the introduction and practice of contemplative listening circles provided each of our group members real world practice to address issues of significance from our various work places.”

Classmates Jonathan Paredes, Kristen Orion, Deb Worley, and Paul Ramsey during a small group session.

Paredes also found the reading selections meaningful. “My initial thought was that the books selected were predominantly from BIPOC authors. I assumed that it was just to brand CHHSM as relevant, but after a week with the presenters, I can truly see that they are intentionally and purposely making these selections for the curriculum of the Nollau Leadership Institute,” Paredes said. “I’m excited to see what other sources I am exposed to through the remainder of the year, and how that will influence my perspective and ministry work going forward.”

This year’s class is comprised not only of leadership from various CHHSM members, but also from UCC local and regional leaders. “The new class represents not only CHHSM member organizations, but also several conference staff and local church staff,” said the Rev. George Graham, CHHSM vice president. “One of CHHSM’s strategic goals has been to increase our engagement with the wider United Church of Christ. The make up of the class shows that we have definitely taken some steps forward.”

Berry concurred. “We have more UCC local and regional people this year than perhaps ever before, and noticing the fresh questions and perspectives that come up when they engage each other from such different sectors has been incredible to see. It’s one of the benefits and unique aspects of Nollau.”

The benefit of having diverse UCC voices in attendance was evident after participants returned home. Worley, for example, incorporated some of the retreat into the opening of her sermon July 3:

The retreat in which I participated for the past six days was wonderful, with opportunities for authentic connections with colleagues and new friends; opportunities to learn about and reflect thoughtfully, both as individuals and as a group, on leadership and liberation, and what that looks like; opportunities to listen deeply and be deeply listened to; opportunities to worship and pray and be vulnerable and be brave; opportunities to laugh and cry and think and feel and be moved in our spirits and move our bodies … It was a profound gift and a taste, I think, in some ways, of God’s beloved community. And I look forward to sharing more of my experiences with you in coming weeks and months.

Paredes reflected on the gift of Nollau. “The material and the pace was full, but not overwhelming with time to pause and purposely reflect over the information covered,” he said. “I feel that every session had deep value, and every day I was able to learn about myself and learn things about myself that I’ve never focused on — which is a luxury … in leadership positions where producing and hard deadlines  come weekly, stopping to think, reflect, and internalize new concepts is difficult and always gets pushed to the proverbial and infinite next week to-do list.”

The first retreat of this Nollau Class also marked a final activity for UCC Fellow Essence Ellis, who has spent the past year working with CHHSM and the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries. The retreat’s closing worship service honored Ellis’ work with the UCC and CHHSM.

UCC Fellow Essence Ellis runs a “get-to-know-you” game Monday evening. Seated, from left: CHHSM’s the Rev. George Graham and Nollau classmates Sean Reillly and Jared Woods.

“Celebrating the culmination of Essence Ellis’ fellowship year at closing worship was an especially touching moment of the week for me,” said Graham. “Essence began her fellowship at the Nollau retreat a year ago, and so it seems fitting that she would end it at this year’s retreat in June. It has meant so much to have her work as a member of the CHHSM staff this year, and she has given so much to our members as she has interacted with them.”

The 2022-2023 Nollau class will participate in two more retreats, including one next March during CHHSM’s Annual Gathering in Denver. In between, the class will meet each month in small groups online. The groups are facilitated by CHHSM staff, and the goal is for participants to develop their own leadership learning goals and to have the support of their peers as they work on them.

The class also prepares final Capstone Projects, which offer a unique way for each participant to articulate what they have learned during the year. Capstones include expressions of leadership that most deeply resonates with the participants. Capstones vary widely, and the expressions of leadership can include photographs, artwork, poems, scripture, sculpture, song lyrics and more. The capstone includes a description of what the selected piece means to the participant and whey they chose it. The Nollau experience ends with participants being consecrated as Diakonal Ministers during the closing worship service of the Annual Gathering.

Each new Nollau class brings inspiration and hope, not only to the classmates, but to the faculty; and each class completes the year equally inspired to be the serving leaders their communities need.

For Pilgrim Manor’s Orion, the lessons from the retreat are already manifesting themselves. “My initial thought was that God was spoiling me!” she said. “At this point, I am already having clarity and forward creative movement in a leadership space which had felt blocked prior to the retreat. I am much more attuned to the relational interconnectedness of our daily staff-resident ‘ecosystem’ and thoughtful about how I might participate in generous and generative presence, skillful engagement, with time, energy and spirit.”

A reflection moment during the retreat.

Paredes found hope in the retreat’s content. “The most meaningful thing was the hopefulness for the future,” he said. “In learning about myself and my blind spots as a leader, I’m able to look forward to the possibilities for impactful change and do life-affirming work in ministry.”

Worley agreed. “Yes, we talked about leadership and what it looks like in today’s world … but our time at this first retreat was so much more than that,” she said. “It was about moving toward healing and wholeness within ourselves; it was about fostering deep connections amongst ourselves; it was about using all of that to move us closer to claiming our identity as God’s beloved. And all of that then nourishes our capacity, as leaders, to more authentically offer that belovedness to those around us, as we continue to work for healing and wholeness for the world with courage and vulnerability and boldness and conviction.”

“This new class has a boldness about them. They laugh easily, welcome tears, and are willing to try and engage with whatever we have presented them with,” said Berry in reflection. “I left the retreat feeling so connected and also feel like I witnessed true belonging within this class I can’t wait to see how the second retreat unfolds from this communal bond, especially as we focus on the themes within organizational life and leadership.”

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