‘I Will Remember Being Held’: Essence Ellis Reflects on Her Year as UCC Fellow

Essence Ellis during her workshop at the 2022 Annual Gathering in Louisville.

As her year-long experience of being the inaugural UCC Fellow with the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) and Justice and Local Church Ministries (JLCM) comes to an end, Essence Ellis is in a unique position to reflect. Not only has her year as UCC Fellow taken her in unexpected, rewarding directions, but it built on her experience as CHHSM’s Rev. Jerry Paul Scholar from October 2019 through June 2021.

The Fellowship was developed by CHHSM and JLCM to prepare the Fellow to become a leader working at the intersections of theology, public health, racial justice, gender justice, and other liberative frameworks.

The transition from Scholar to Fellow has been smooth, Ellis said. “I’m grateful that the CHHSM staff was able to be hands-on in developing the Fellowship description,” she added. “Because I got to know the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry [CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development] well during my time as the Jerry Paul Scholar, I think she was able to advocate for this year to include experiences that would help me grow professionally and personally.”

In looking back at the past 2-1/2 years, Berry — one of Ellis’ Fellowship mentors and her Jerry Paul Scholar mentor — sees her growth as a leader. “When I reflect on Essence’s Fellowship, the word that immediately comes to mind is ‘flourish,’” Berry said. “I have seen her grow her skill set, cultivate her gifts, and own her authority as a colleague, facilitator, advocate, and minister. Moreover, I have witnessed how this flourishing has impacted others. Whether facilitating groups virtually, leading workshops in person, reaching out to CHHSM members about social justice, or writing editorials or toolkits for the UCC, Essence’s work has reached far and deep.”

“This Fellowship, and how she personally took ownership as the Fellow, enabled her to have such diverse touchpoints with how the church shows up in the world,” added Berry. “It’s been inspiring to reflect on how much she accomplished in a year, and how much more connected CHHSM is to our members and the UCC more broadly because of her short time with us.

Although her leadership ability is evident to everyone who has worked with her, Ellis said she began the year in a more tentative place. “When I started, I thought it would be an incredibly overwhelming year, but honestly, everyone’s been supportive along the way, and I’ve been able to better evaluate my vocational goals.”

Sandy Sorensen, Elyse Berry, and Essence Ellis during the 2020 Annual Gathering in Memphis.

Ellis said she’s enjoyed continuing her work with CHHSM staff, board members, and member agencies, but also working with JLCM, and particularly the Washington, D.C., office staff. She values the networking she’s been able to do. “I don’t think a lot of people have gotten the opportunity to really network through the national offices and ministries,” said Ellis. “I’ve been a part of different conversations – like being on the Join the Movement Advisory Team, the Reproductive Justice Working Group, and going to the Pension Boards’ Generation University.”

At CHHSM’s Annual Gathering this past March, Ellis conducted a workshop on Embodiment, using the knowledge she gained from the “Embodiment Basics” course she took last fall from the Embodiment Institute. “Being mindful of how I feel in my body and listening to my body really got me through some of my toughest times in the last few years,” she said. “So being able to do an Annual Gathering workshop that felt meaningful to me and beneficial to our attendees was amazing. It was also fulfilling to do something that combined all of my interests into one, which is not something I imagined I would have been able to do last fall.”

The Rev. George Graham, CHHSM vice president and Ellis’ supervisor for both the Fellowship and Jerry Paul Scholar, said he has found the embodiment work to be particularly insightful. “Essence helped CHHSM members and me personally think about the importance of embodiment, the way that we live out our faith and spiritual live as physical beings,” he said. “Demands for the work that CHHSM members do only seem to increase, and that takes a toll, especially for those in direct service — I am grateful to Essence for the ways she has helped us attend to what makes the work sustainable for the long term.”

Ellis gets attendees moving in her workshop on embodiment.

Colleagues who’ve worked with Ellis this year are grateful for her leadership, her teaching, and her collaboration. “Essence is a gifted leader and teacher, a creative and thoughtful collaborator, and an amazing bridge-builder,” said Sandy Sorensen, director of JLCM’s D.C. office, and Ellis’ JLCM mentor. “Because she is so deeply rooted to and committed to her faith and spiritual grounding, it is indeed a delight to work with her.”

The experience as UCC Fellow has helped Ellis discern more about her own call to ministry. “Ministry and my own call seem to evolve every time I feel like I’ve got it all figured out!” she said. “I’ve learned that ministry tends to have a constant sense of urgency, and that doesn’t feel like a part of my call anymore. Coming into this Fellowship, everything in my life, in the world, and in the work I wanted to get done over the course of the year felt urgent. But I’ve noticed that what is fulfilling for me is often not urgent.”

Ellis cites the state-specific reproductive justice toolkits she created for JLCM, which will be released on the heels of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision this summer, as an example. “The need for the kits is urgent, but the process of getting them done was strategic, and working on them with other people was deliberate — they only came about after meeting multiple times and narrowing in on what we had the capacity to do,” she said. “I’m ending this year knowing that there will always be work to do, and as one singular human, I’m allowed to take a deep breath and move forward at a pace that’s sustainable to me — even if that pace doesn’t seem impressive to others.”

While CHHSM and JLCM might seem to some to be an unlikely pairing, it is a much needed partnership, and Ellis’ Fellowship has cemented the partnership going forward. During the Fellowship, Berry and Sorensen coordinated the activities in order to give Ellis the broadest experience possible.

“Essence has helped deepen and expand the critical partnership between CHHSM and our UCC policy advocacy work, something that has been a passion and dream of mine for many years,” said Sorensen. “Her contributions to our UCC work on reproductive justice have been invaluable and right on time for the critical moment we are in.”

For Ellis, working with Sorensen has helped the Fellowship experience flow smoothly. “My work always has felt like a collaboration between CHHSM and JLCM,” she said. “I felt supported by both CHHSM and JLWM. It was also helpful that my supervisor for justice work was Sandy, and she’s also on the CHHSM board — she had a great lay of the land for both ministries, which was incredibly helpful.”

Former CHHSM Scholars Emily Howard and Essence Ellis during the 2022 Annual Gathering.

One of things Ellis is most grateful for is the opportunity to experience the nuts and bolts of the work. “The experience will definitely act as a reminder to always peek behind the curtain,” she said. “Working with CHHSM and JLCM has allowed me to meet the people who get stuff done! There’s someone who had to make the graphic, someone who wrote the liturgy, someone maintaining relationships with organizations that do similar work, and more. Because the Fellowship was curated to help me grow as a leader, this is definitely something I will always keep in mind.”

One of Ellis’ most impressive gifts, said Graham, is her ability to relate to others while still keeping her focus on the subject at hand.

“Essence is able to cut to the heart of any issue,” Graham said. “I have seen her do it when she presents to groups, participates in team meetings, as well as in her writing. She has an extraordinary ability to put people at ease while speaking truth in a very deep way that also just makes sense.”

Some of the journey over the past year has surprised Ellis. “I did a project last November, gathering narratives to supplement policy work that I thought was going to take up more time, but it ended up not being the direction I wanted to go,” she said. “That was a bit surprising because it felt like a great idea that just didn’t work out.”

That experience, along with the others this year, has taught her much about herself. “Sometimes the act of trying to become or be the ‘best version of myself’ is the only thing stopping me from doing exactly that,” Ellis said. “I’ve learned to trust and apply the lessons I’ve learned about myself, instead of thing to dig for something else to ‘fix.’ There were many things beyond my control — that’s probably true for a lot of us — and I had to learn how and when to look at the big picture.”

Berry noted the carryover of Ellis’ experience as Jerry Paul Scholar to the Fellowship. “The heart of the CHHSM Scholar program is to engage the scholar’s imagination and experience with faith-based health and human services, particularly as it relates to leadership and calling,” she said. “As the first CHHSM-JLCM Fellow, it has been incredible to see the spirit of the scholar program come into fruition. Essence truly is a leader and genuine collaborator, and I can’t wait to see how her next chapter unfolds. I am forever grateful to have gotten to work with and learn from her.”

Sorensen agrees. “I am grateful to have been on this part of the journey with Essence, and I am excited to see what unfolds for her,” Sorensen said. “I am hopeful that our paths will cross in the future!”

As the Fellowship comes to a close, one thing stands out for Ellis. “I will remember being held,” she said. “I came into this year nervous that I wouldn’t live up to expectations, but everyone I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with and working with has been generous with their time, energy, and advice. That’s not an experience that many people get to have at the beginning of their professional careers — I’m so grateful to have met people who cared about me having a fulfilling experience.”

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