New Location, New Class Bring Renewed Energy to Nollau Leadership Institute

The retreat closed with a burning ritual that enabled participants to symbolically release something holding them back. /All photos by Elyse Berry.

With much enthusiasm, the members of the 2023-2024 Nollau Leadership Institute met May 22-26 at Bellwether Farm in Wakeman, Ohio, for their first retreat of the year-long program. To say that people came away refreshed and grounded would be an understatement.

“The biggest thing is we had to work on ourselves first,” said Melinda Love, a seminary student at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo., “work I thought I had done already — but there was more! Being gathered with diverse persons also gave me a lens to see myself from different angles.”

Melinda Love during one of the Nollau sessions.

As with all Nollau retreats, the five days were divided into learning, listening, and reflection work, along with exercises geared to helping the participants get to know each other. Julie Neuner, chief program officer at Hoyleton Youth and Family Services based in Fairview Heights, Ill., found “getting to know other like-minded, passionate leaders all coming from different ministries” to be one of the most meaningful aspects of the retreat. “There were friendships formed and an unspoken bond that will continue to grow,” she added. “Hearing different perspectives and experiences helps me gain greater spiritual meaning.”

Location a Plus

Jamar Doyle meets a local resident of Bellwether Farm during the farm tour.

The retreat location also was one of the biggest features of the week, which included a two-hour tour of the farm. The farm is a retreat center and education farm camp offering a model of sustainable living that promotes physical and spiritual wellness, fidelity to the environment meant, and social justice. The center exemplifies green building and energy-efficient structures, renewable energy technology, water reclamation systems, and repurposed materials.

“As our first time holding a retreat there, we didn’t know what to expect, but boy, did Bellwether Farm blow us away,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. “Everything — from the farm-to-table meals, the comfort of the private bedrooms, the spacious meeting rooms with natural light and views of the farm, and the farm itself — was incredible!”

Berry added that during the farm tour, it was “so powerful to hear how they are living into their values in every decision and on every inch of the center.”

The retreat location offered a chance for class members to separate from their day-to-day responsibilities.

For class participants, the setting added to their ability to separate from their day-to-day responsibilities and concentrate on what the retreat had to offer.

“The peace and serenity of our location was surprising,” said Neuner. “I didn’t know what to expect and was pleasantly surprised by how great it was to truly be unplugged from technology and enjoy nature. I didn’t know I needed that, but I did.”

Moments and Highlights

Each member of this year’s class had moments they found particularly beneficial. Melinda Love called the sessions involving the Quaker practice of contemplative listening circles “amazing. I never would have done this on my own, but it gave me ‘pause’ to see situations from different perspectives by asking me about my situation.”

For George Davis-Williams, a registered nurse and seminarian at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, Minn., the worship and listening circles were the most meaningful. “I looked forward to the daily worship time to center the soul,” he said. “These included rituals, body movement, singing, and reflection. I found these times to be very effective in keeping us grounded in various ways we sense the Spirit moving through our lives and work.”

The week included plenty of time for socializing and getting to know other classmates.

Davis-Williams called the listening circles “one of the most effective small group experiences I have ever participated in.”

“While it required us to be a little vulnerable,” he added, “it was mediated fantastically by CHHSM staff and allowed us to build more intimate relationships while receiving support for something that was causing us to struggle.”

Davis-Williams is part of CHHSM’s Emerging Leadership Cohort, a one-year program that includes the Nollau Institute. Nollau classmate Nicole Starr, a judge in the Minnesota Second Judicial District and also a student at United, is part of the cohort.

Starr brought to the listening circles the struggle she faces in discerning the role of spirituality and faith during her treatment court sessions. A treatment court is one that upholds the separation of church and state, but recognizes that criminal justice must be about more than punishment — and that the root of many problems is related to such issues as mental health, chemical health, and spiritual health. She found company on what she said “can be a lonely journey.”

The tour of the farm included breathtaking views of the pond.

“We do not know each other well, but during our week-long retreat, we built trust,” Starr said. “We built a relationship that does not need to explain itself. So I asked them to hold me in their hearts as I made hard decisions.”

“Together at the Bellwether Farm, my small group talked about the idea of courage. [During one particularly difficult court case], my courage came from a deep sense of belonging and knowing,” she added. “My training in the law, my work in our cohort and our retreat, and the many other experiences in my life prepared me to open the courtroom door and live out the messages of compassion and accountability.”

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Pagán-Banks plays the djembe during a drum circle in the session on resilience.

Hoyleton’s Neuner was one of the many participants who found the day spent on learning about the Enneagram most helpful. The sessions helped “me to better understand how I am motivated and perceived as a leader,” she said. “I plan to expand this work and bring the learning to our leadership team. I also enjoyed all the writing and reflection activities, which gave me time to think and process.”

Berry said she was thrilled to learn from several participants that they wanted to take the exercises back to their own communities. “The first intention of the retreat is for the class to experience and engage with the material, but the hope is also that they use and share what’s been helpful for them — and build off of or modify it to meet their needs, too,” she said. “What many of them seem to be taking away is both a very personal recharging experience and new ideas to take back to their home communities, which is just fantastic.”

In addition to the exercises and worship/reflection times, the week also included learning sessions on the UCC and CHHSM from Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM; faith-based leadership theories from the Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM; Race, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (RDEI) in leadership with Erica Merritt of Equius Group; social justice and leadership, and resilience and belonging from Berry.

“Through the transformative experience of the Nollau Leadership Institute’s retreat, leaders emerge with renewed vision, enriched collaboration, and a profound commitment to serving leadership that empowers them to navigate the complexities of our world with compassion, courage, and unwavering purpose,” said Doyle.

What We Take Away …

The retreat offered participants a chance to reset and refresh.

Each participant took something unique and personal away from the week at Bellwether Farm.

“I was surprised how much I needed to pull away to recalibrate,” reflected seminarian Love, to “shift from a ‘human doing’ to a human being.”

For Nikki Starr, the week emphasized the need for community. “This program is about finding a community that believes in the language of love, understands the demands of justice, and will walk with me — as I will with them — as we try to live out our best intentions,” she said.

Davis-Williams referred back to his first contact with CHHSM. When he heard about the opportunity to participate, “that was the first time I had ever heard of CHHSM. Up until that point, I struggled to understand my call into ministry as a nurse and where I could fit into the life and mission of the church. Nollau offered an opportunity to network meaningfully, to develop as a leader,” he said. In the retreat, “it also offered opportunities for stillness to listen to the Spirit and see it working through our any peers.”

“In health and human services work, let alone ministry, isolation and burnout creeps in insidiously,” he added. “This retreat reminded me that none of us are alone in this work.

“CHHSM was described to me as a ‘community of communities.’ What I saw at this retreat was a group of people who love to live the lessons of Christ’s love and to love God. This work truly requires a community, and we are part of a larger community in the UCC that is expansive.”

The second Nollau Leadership Institute Retreat takes place Oct. 2-6 at Bellwether Farm. The class also will have an additional day of programming during CHHSM’s 86th Annual Gathering, March 7-9, 2024. During the Gathering’s closing workshop service, the Nollau class members will be consecrated and commissioned as Diakonal Ministers.

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