Inaugural Fellowship Proving Fruitful for UCC Fellow Essence Ellis and Her UCC Colleagues
In her first six months as the Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM)/Justice and Local Church Ministries (JLCM) UCC Fellow, Essence Ellis has attended meetings, networked with a variety of UCC people across the denomination, worked with experts from various CHHSM member organizations, and found the time to author articles and resources for the UCC. So to date, which experience does she find most meaningful? Simply put, all of them.
The fellowship “is giving me a good foundation in terms of experiencing a range of different aspects of ministry,” said Ellis, who earned her M. Div. degree from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., this past May. “I’m learning that no one can do everything, so having the time, space, and resources to figure out which hat(s) will fit me best has been a wonderful opportunity so far. Also networking and meeting people has been incredibly helpful, because it’s one thing to know what people are doing, and it’s another to know how they’re doing it.”
Ellis has been quick to utilize her current experiences in various projects. After taking a course at The Embodiment Institute, she turned that knowledge around and created and presented a workshop about embodiment and leadership for CHHSM member Deaconess Nurse Ministry in St. Louis as well as for a CHHSM Emergent Leadership session with the UCC’s Heartland Conference. She also conducted the workshop at a retreat of the current Nollau Leadership Institute class held this past June, and will lead an interactive workshop during CHHSM’s Annual Gathering in March 2022.
“Essence started her fellowship with the first Nollau Institute class retreat, serving in a leadership role and facilitating a workshop,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. “She has made connections with just about every level of the UCC in her first six months, which is what we hoped this fellowship would provide. And these connections have formed into relationships, collaborations, and outreach because of how Essence shows up for and embodies her ministry. I use the word ‘embodied’ intentionally, as she has brought a deep, needed, and healing lens to leadership and social justice through her embodiment training and workshop offerings.”
The Deaconess session also included a deep listening experience that Ellis created with guidance from JLCM’s Sandy Sorensen, director of JLCM’s Washington, D.C., office, and Katie Adams the D.C. office’s policy advocate for domestic issues. The goal of the listening session was to hear narratives from people on the frontlines of health care and learn what they’re experiencing. The knowledge gained from the listening session will help inform the public policy and advocacy work that JLCM will be doing in the new year.
Sorensen said that she was grateful for CHHSM’s and Ellis’ partnership as 2022 begins.
“As we move into year three of the global COVID pandemic and its tragic toll on so many levels, addressing public health issues, health care access — including access to the full range of reproductive health care — and adequately supporting vital community services are all challenges that loom large. We are entering a critical midterm election year in 2022, with important public policy decisions in the balance, which makes the work of educating and empowering those we serve more important than ever,” said Sorensen. “Much of the action will be happening on a state level, which makes it an all the more critical opportunity for our UCC Washington public policy advocacy office to be in partnership with CHHSM and Essence Ellis.”
“Essence will expand our capacity to engage state-level policy conversations — particularly around reproductive health care access — in much more robust ways,” Sorensen added. “Essence is a gifted bridge-builder — between individuals, communities and organizations; her deep listening skills and her passion for justice – particularly for the most marginalized — will equip her well for the challenges facing all of us ahead. I am truly grateful to be working with Essence in such a time as this.”
In August, Ellis authored an article on affordable housing for JLCM’s Witness for Justice, which also appeared in CHHSM’s August Diakonie. Most recently, she created liturgical resources for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Nov. 25, and UCC Wider Church Ministries’ Just World Calendar. Ellis created the liturgy to be evergreen, intended to allow users to revisit and reuse the resource over time.
“I am so impressed not only by the content that Essence presents — connecting body, mind, and spirit — but by the way in which she presents,” said the Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM. “Any time I have seen Essence lead a group, she immediately makes everyone feel comfortable, at ease, and open to what she is sharing. We look forward to Essence leading a workshop at the Annual Gathering in March on “Embodying Reproductive Justice.”
In her workshop submission for “Embodying Reproductive Justice,” Ellis wrote that the Annual Gathering workshop will “invite participants to converse and consider the ways intentional embodiment practices can impact their relationship to reproductive justice. It will introduce participants to embodiment practices, discuss the breadth of reproductive justice, and explore how embodiment and reproductive justice intersect.”
Throughout the course of the fellowship, Ellis has met regularly with both Graham and Berry, as well as with staff at JLCM. Prior to becoming the UCC Fellow, she was CHHSM’s Rev. Jerry Paul Scholar — an internship open to seminary students — and Berry served as her mentor.
“Having shifted from being Essence’s mentor to her colleague has been such a gift,” said Berry. “I feel like we’re kindred spirits who care about, read, listen to, and even watch the same kinds of things. And perhaps because of this and the history we already had, I had so much trust in her from day one — which couldn’t have come at a better time with the intensity of projects we had this year.”
In reflecting back on the first six months of the fellowship, Ellis said she has enjoyed the many people she’s met, in the UCC and beyond. One experience — her ongoing attendance at CHHSM affinity group meetings — stands out. Affinity groups are CHHSM member groups, organized either by area of ministry or by geographic area, that meet regularly. Group members offer deep support to, with, and for one another, with a desire to help each other succeed. Affinity groups foster the relationships of genuine caring — both professionally and personally — that is CHHSM’s hallmark.
“Being able to meet and chat with different people throughout the national UCC ministries is a plus, but I’ve really enjoyed being on the CHHSM team and getting to attend our affinity group meetings,” Ellis said. “It’s always encouraging and eye opening to hear what people are up to, and to witness how leaders in the organizations come together to share wisdom and help each other move forward.”
During the second half of her fellowship, Ellis will be taking on a number of new projects. She said she also intends to increase her familiarity with the UCC’s policy and advocacy work through JLCM staff and its partner organizations. Ellis said she hopes to assemble an end-of-fellowship presentation and collaboration with the UCC’s Pension Boards.
A part of Ellis’ fellowship also includes developing relationships and creating programming for local churches and CHHSM organizations in Chicago, where she resides. “I’m looking forward to getting involved with some programming that highlights women’s health and RDEI [Race, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] efforts,” she said.
Although she has learned much from her UCC colleagues, Ellis says one of the most helpful insights she’s gained thus far has been about grace.
“My most helpful insight so far has been accepting and giving genuine grace,” she said. “In my personal experience, and especially during this pandemic, a lot of people have talked about extending and receiving grace — because they feel like it’s a good thing to say aloud — without actually putting action behind the words. I say it quite often in staff meetings, but being a part of the CHHSM team is definitely reshaping how I approach vocation and grace. There’s a lot of patience and accountability involved in the grace that’s being practiced with the people that I’ve been encountering and working with.”
A grace that flows both ways. As Michael J. Readinger, president and CEO of CHHSM, said, “When I reflect on CHHSM’s many accomplishments in 2021, I place the creation of the CHHSM/JLCM Fellowship at the top of the list. Essence Ellis has embraced the role with passion, commitment and a visionary approach to social justice, racial equity and creating a just, caring and compassionate world. The impact of Essence’s work will be felt across the life of the UCC, the wider church, and the United States for years to come.”
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