Levity, Poignancy Highlight First Nollau Class Retreat

The 2024-2025 class of the Nollau Leadership Institute began its work May 20-24, 2024.

CHHSM’s 2024-2025 Nollau Leadership Institute class experienced its first retreat as it embarked on the year-long journey in leadership development. The retreat took place May 20-24, 2024, at Bellwether Farm in Wakeman, Ohio. For participants, the five days held insights, laughter, surprises, and wonder.

“The Nollau Leadership Institute retreat experience is an introduction to the ways in which faith-based leadership can be so different and enlightening,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “CHHSM is so thankful to be able to engage with another cohort of colleagues seeking the connections and experiences to improve their own leadership skills.”

Joaquin Labour-Acosta, Maic D’Agostino, Danielle Hickman, Amy Johnson, and CHHSM’s Elyse Berry.

The Rev. Dr. Zaria Davis — CHHSM’s engagement coordinator, former CHHSM emerging leader scholar, and Nollau graduate — found being on “the other side of the room” and serving as a facilitator during the retreat a gratifying and exciting experience.

“I enjoyed getting to know the members of the cohort as a group and individually,” she said. “They each bring a unique perspective. There is so much to build on … the deep discussion, the laughter and the vulnerability are aspects that I truly appreciate.”

Each day of a Nollau retreat is divided into large group learning sessions and small group gatherings, interspersed with breaks in the form of listening, ritual, and play activities. Worship also is integral to the week-long experience.

A ritual service was part of day one activities.

“During opening worship on the first day, everyone is invited to dedicate their learning, time, energy, and presence in this program to something,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development who oversees the Nollau program. “For some, it might be a particular person or group, like their team at work or their family. For others, it might be a broader concept or idea, like healing or justice. This year, several folks shared how they’ve been waiting to do Nollau — some for years — as well as how they’ve been ‘putting it off,’ finding any reason or excuse they couldn’t take this much time away for their own development and formation. What came through for these folks, as well as the whole circle, was how grateful people were to be there now that they had finally arrived.”

Following opening worship, the first day was given over to such overview sessions as faith-based leadership theories, an introduction to the work of CHHSM, and an explanation to contemplative listening circles. Inspired by Quaker “clearness committees,” the process is a powerful experience of what it means to deeply listen to yourself, to others, to God, as well as to feel deeply heard. These small group listening sessions took place throughout the week.

Class member Ashley Bills with CHHSM’s Elyse Berry.

Ashley Bills, corporate director of communications and media relations for United Church Homes, based in Marion, Ohio, found the circles eye opening. “I discovered that I like to talk through things, but by refraining from talking and just simply listening, it really helped me focus on what the person was asking and then, the best possible question to ask to help them (rather than the many questions that flew through my mind),” she said. “On the reverse side, when I shared my struggle with the group, I found the exercise to be so helpful and encouraging. It was nice to simply be listened to. We also decided as a group to help each other through these difficulties and check in on each other when we couldn’t be in person — through the exercise, a true faith community was established.”

Thomas Williams, Gloria Hurwitz, Brooke Baker, and Thomas Baynem during the retreat.

The Rev. R. Brooke Baker, senior minister of Church of the Redeemer UCC in Westlake, Ohio, concurred. “I found the individual listening circles very powerful and poignant,” she said. “The willingness of my small group members to share their stories and to help me discover my own Truth demonstrated a sense of vulnerability that is rare among five people who had not met before Monday morning.”

Other topics discussed and reflected upon during the week included extensive work on the enneagram; Race, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (RDEI) in leadership; belonging; and resilience, among others.

Joaquin Labour-Acosta and Amy Johnson (front), and Danielle Hickman and Maic D’Agostino, work in pairs.

The Rev. Wendy Schindler-Chasney, pastor of St. John’s UCC in Milan, Ohio, and 2023-24 Nollau graduate, returned as a small group facilitator for the new class. “Nollau offers a wealth of ideas and experiences for personal and spiritual leadership growth,” she said. “The invitation to be a part of this year’s class as a group facilitator felt like getting an extra helping of dessert.”

“I found the experience of holding space for others to explore what they are carrying in their lives to be a sacred privilege,” she added. “The exchange and caring expressed in the small group time is a lovely example of how we can be the presence of Christ to one another. I never cease to be amazed at the collective wisdom people hold in their lives and offer to each other.”

The class got up close and personal with several farm residents.

Part of the first retreat for each Nollau class is a tour of Bellwether Farm. The farm offers a model for sustainable living that promotes physical and spiritual wellness, environmental awareness, and social justice through incorporating farming, food production, and environmental stewardship into land-based educational programs. In addition to animal enclosures and barns, the farm includes numerous hiking trails. Bellwether Farm emphasizes farm-to-table cuisine, a highlight of each Nollau retreat.

For Baker, the farm experience was a welcome surprise. “The setting of Bellwether Farm and the way the staff there cared for us through excellent farm-to-table food was like being at a four-star resort for the week!” she said. “I had heard that it was an amazing place, but having the opportunity to experience it truly was a pleasure.”

Danielle Hickman (left) and Ashley Bills listen to Bellwether Farm’s tour guide.

Various movement and arts activities were highlights for some classmates. As Schindler-Chasney said, “I find great delight in the ways somatic movement and music are interwoven as ‘breaks’ into our time together. I tend to be a ‘stick to the business’ kind of person, and find something deeply nourishing and freeing about using rhythm instruments, ribbon strings, sand art, etc., to invite me to loosen up and rejuvenate. This really came as a surprise to me at how much such brief activities can reconnect us with our bodies and rejuvenate our energy.”

Others found the contemplative art experiences most meaningful. “I particularly enjoyed all of the poetry incorporated into the retreat,” said Baker, “both those written by others and the opportunity to do our own writing.”

The small groups meshed quickly. From left: Jennifer Trupa, Jennifer Ringgold, Ashley Bills, Zaria Davis, Andrea Nafziger.

One surprise for many participants was how quickly the small group members meshed. As Davis said, “People were comfortable in sharing and offering support and insight to one another.”

“What shone through again this year so strongly was the ‘who’ of the process,” said Berry. “Throughout the week, people kept coming up to me to ask how I put the groups together because it was as if just the ‘right’ people were in the groups they needed to be in. Class member Thomas Williams, Restored Village coordinator at MOLO Village CDC in Louisville Ky., jokingly suggested I take my skills to the lottery or fantasy football.”

The 2024-2025 class with CHHSM’s Zaria Davis (left).

“Though I do set up the groups with intentionality around certain criteria, after that, I feel so much of it is a testament to how God shows up,” Berry added. “And isn’t that the hope and the heart of everything we do? What an extraordinary gift to experience that in a leadership training.”

UCH’s Bills found simply relating to the people in her class to be the most poignant. “The small groups were especially meaningful to me in getting to know a few on a deeper level,” she said. “I never imagined we would get so close in a such a short time. We live in a society and a culture where we’re told we don’t need anyone else, but that couldn’t be further from the truth — we need each other to thrive and survive in this world.”

Brooke Baker and Bellwether Farm’s tour guide with a local resident.

Delving into the enneagram as a useful tool for leadership also was a highlight for the class. “Each group seems to find ways to incorporate this path of growth into their personal and professional lives, creating leaders who are much more self-aware, compassionate, and effective,” said Schindler-Chasney. “Then layered on top of this is the variety and insightful leadership models and examples which are offered in the curriculum, and which can easily be adopted into our work settings.”

Members of the 2024-2025 Nollau class left the retreat feeling inspired and energized. “My biggest takeaway is the need to know myself in order to be a good leader,” said Baker. “Furthermore, the reality that knowing yourself, created in the image of God, is not something that can happen in a one-year cohort, but is a life of learning — much like our faith grows throughout our lives. The need to remain connected to the Divine as a leader of a faith-based organization will help us to be better leaders of our congregations and organizations.”

The class leaves comfort zones behind via a ribbon exercise.

For Bills, the experience was one out of her normal comfort zone. “I was initially reluctant to be so out of my comfort zone,” she said, “but 24 hours into the retreat and I was all-in. Sometimes I think we have to be willing to be uncomfortable and go outside of our comfort zone to see what the beauty of discomfort has in store for us. I didn’t even know what I was missing.”

Perhaps the reflection of Amy Johnson, the UCC’s minister for sexuality education and justice, best captured the retreat.

“It’s hard to describe how healing and meaningful and spiritual and connecting this time has been,” Johnson said. “I leave with new friends, new and deeper connections with colleagues, deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, practical tools for leadership, and confidence in sharing this in my work and life moving ahead. So. Much. Good.”

The Nollau class continues to meet online throughout the year, with a second retreat in October. The class culminates with capstone projects that are presented at CHHSM’s Annual Gathering in March 2025.

Special thanks to Ashley Bills, Elyse Berry, and Zaria Davis for the use of their photos in this article.

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