Nollau Leadership Institute: Walking Together in Faith
The participants in the 2023-2024 Nollau Leadership Institute class are two-thirds the way through their year-long experience, and starting to work on their final capstone projects, which will be displayed at CHHSM’s 86th Annual Gathering, March 12-14, 2024, in St. Louis. As with all Nollau classes, this year’s class is shaped by its retreats, held at the sustainable living Bellwether Farm in Wakeman, Ohio. The second retreat, held in October, brought insights and surprises to the current Nollau class.
“The opportunity to gather with other leaders and learn diverse perspectives was truly meaningful,” said Dr. Zaria Davis, part of CHHSM’s Emerging Leadership Cohort and an M.Div. student at UCC-related Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Mo. “We talked, laughed, shared, and were vulnerable — all of which were beautiful and sacred to me.”
According to the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associated for advocacy and leadership development, “The first retreat focuses a lot on the individual level: Who am I? What does it mean to be a leader? Who are we as a cohort? The second retreat then uses that self and communal awareness as a foundation to really hone in on organizational content and skills.”
The retreats become a “leadership lab” of sorts, Berry added, “where they get to practice their leadership skills in a safe and low-risk environment. This is different — and deeper — than just learning content on a webinar, for instance.”
For Reylene Robinson, chief community officer for Bellewood and Brooklawn/Seven Counties Services in Louisville, Ky., one of the biggest surprises was “how easy it was for our small group to pick up where we left off.”
“The bonds of our team, created through the Nollau curriculum, are strong and long lasting,” Robinson said. “It is often easy to feel a sense of hesitation when you share personal details with a small group, and then do not see them for a period of time. This is definitely not the case with the Nollau groups. It is truly amazing!”
Scott Hackenberg, chief lending officer for the UCC’s Cornerstone Fund, found a different surprise. “I am always pleasantly surprised by the experientially diverse members of our class,” he said. “It creates such a richly collaborative experience.”
Day one of the second retreat included a discussion of the book Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, led by CHHSM President and CEO Jamar Doyle. This was followed by group coaching strategies with Berry. Tuesday included a career advancement and enhancement section held by Nollau adjunct faculty member Mike Readinger, former president and CEO of CHHSM. The day continued with an emergent strategy session with Berry.
“Mike Readinger’s presentation on career enhancement and advancement was really inspiring and meaningful to me,” said Hackenberg. “The concept of Ikigai (Japanese for ‘a reason for being’) really hit home: finding that intersection of passion, mission, profession, and vocation. The discussion and exercises around this concept really helped identify my ‘why’ and articulate my purposed in life.”
“Reflection on past jobs I’ve had, and how and why they weren’t a long-term fit for met — I wasn’t reflecting on Ikigai and converging my passion, mission, vocation and profession. I was simply looking to ‘fit in’ and follow a crowd that wasn’t in alignment with who I am,” Hackenberg added.
The final three days of the retreat also included presentations from adjunct faculty members: the Rev. Roberto Ochoa, the UCC’s minister for ethnic inclusion and congregational support for small and rural churches; the Rev. Dr. JJ Flag, UCC minister and CHHSM board member; and theologian and pastor the Rev. Dr. Mona West.
Day three of the retreat included an Ethics for Leadership discussion with Berry. Most of the day was given over to a tour of the UCC national setting in downtown Cleveland, and included a presentation on Rural Communities and Racial Justice with Ochoa. This was followed by a special ritual held around the Amistad table in the UCC’s offices. The table was made of wood from Sierra Leone, where the enslaved persons of the Amistad event were born and lived prior to their enslavement and removal to the United States. Congregational ministers — predecessors of the UCC — helped free the slaves, which allowed them to return to their homeland.
“The presentation from Roberto Ochoa really spoke to me,” said Robinson. “I think our world often focuses on the racial injustices of the urban areas, and the rural communities get overlooked. This presentation really gave me a sense of the overlapping and opposing issues surrounding the rural/urban divide in our country. As a leader of ED&I [equity, diversity, and inclusion] efforts in my organization (that has a large rural footprint), I walked away with a tremendous sense of urgency to expand the work we are doing in the community.”
“Since the content of the second retreat is about organizational life, the additional adjunct faculty members reflected that theme and that scope of topics,” said Berry. “It is one thing to talk about the UCC connection and affiliation, and quite another to meet multiple presenters on national UCC boards and ministries and tour the UCC’s national offices in Cleveland, and hold a ritual around a table that tethers us to Amistad. I also heard a rumor that UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson actually prepared that space for us to make sure it was ready. Talk about extravagant welcome! I felt like we were held and accompanied by the wider church in such a real and tactile way.”
“This is such an important experience for our Nollau program,” Berry added, “because although all of our Nollau agencies are affiliated with the UCC, that relationship isn’t always in the forefront. This second retreat embodied not only the values of the UCC, but the people, the space, and the relationships of the church.”
Thursday saw Flag’s presentation on Disability and Leadership, and included organizational change theories presentation by the Rev. George Graham and enneagram work with Berry. Friday morning brought West’s deeply grounding workshop on “An Undivided Life: The Spirituality of Leadership.”
During the retreat, “we spoke about accessibility and the information provided opened my eyes to different ways to engage and to view people who may be different than me,” Davis said. “That could be physically, spiritually, or people with different life views.”
The final event on Thursday evening included a closing ritual of gratitude, filled with song, prayer, and readings. “It was so meaningful to hear people say that they had found their ‘people,’” added Berry, “that they truly connected with themselves and each other, and that they had tangible takeaways that they couldn’t wait to share with their teams back home.”
More than anything, Nollau members share that sense of gratefulness for the Nollau experience.
“Words can’t convey how meaningful and impactful Nollau is for me,” said Hackenberg. “It’s such a blessing to be immersed with others who share my values and want to support my progress and happiness.”
Robinson reflected on the two retreats, noting that they “build upon information from the ‘homework’ and small group work. Each retreat built upon previous material, all while introducing new thought-provoking material.”
In addition to their capstone projects, Nollau participants currently are still working in small groups via Zoom, and will be meeting in an extra retreat day during the Annual Gathering, where they will discuss the book Holding Change by adrienne maree brown. Participants will be on hand throughout the Annual Gathering to talk with attendees about their capstones and their experiences during Nollau. Their final activity will be a special service at Eden Theological Seminary, where the class will be consecrated as Diakonal Ministers.
“This leadership program is able to reach people from various beliefs and walks of life,” Davis added. “It brings together unlikely people and creates an amazing cohort that bonds over their time together. It also opens the door for new friendships and opportunities.”
Perhaps the best takeway from the entire Nollau experience, and particularly the retreats, is best summed up by Robinson. “I’ve heard my colleagues speak on the impact that Nollau has had on their work, but I would have never imagined that it would be so impactful,” she said. “I remember very distinctly coming away from the first retreat thinking, ‘I’ve found my people.’ I truly feel the retreats have made me a better leader and have given me a group that I will carry with me for a long time!”
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