What Nollau Taught Me

Introduction by: The Rev. Danielle K. Bartz, CHHSM Program Associate 

Megan Culbertson, CHHSM Scholar, epitomizes the future of nonprofit faith-based leadership by pursuing both a masters of divinity and a masters of social work in Chicago. Part of her experience as the CHHSM Scholar was to participate in the 2013 Nollau Institute. She was also able to earn academic credit for her year in Nollau from Chicago Theological Seminary. As part of her final project, she wrote a paper about her Nollau experience and reflections on what it means to be a servant leader. The paper is this month’s guest column. Not only is it very well written, it also outlines the immense value that is found in studying the concepts of counter-cultural leadership.

By Megan Culbertson

I went into the Nollau Institute with vague ideas about what leadership is and what health and human service ministries should be. This past year, through conference calls, online discussions, books, articles, and in-person retreats, my ideas about these concepts have been broken down and built back up. I have come to realize how narrow my vision of leadership was, and I am excited for the new possibilities that I have encountered. Through my interactions with my class, consisting of leaders serving various organizations, I learned how these ideas might actually look in practice — in all of their glory and challenges. I hesitate to say that I now know what either leadership or health and human service ministries are at this point; instead, I now recognize that these concepts are flexible, and my ideas about them and the ways that I practice them will continue to evolve and change as I interact with new ideas and new people.

The Nollau Institute was centered around four in-person retreats, with readings, on-line postings, and conference calls in between. To share what I have learned, I will focus on the topic of each retreat, outlining what we talked about and what I have taken from it.

Countercultural History and the Diakonal Call

In the first session of our first retreat, we discussed the countercultural history of the UCC and CHHSM in order to frame the discussions we would have throughout the rest of the institute. This discussion started with the tradition of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, drew through Jesus’ ministry, continued on with the history of the traditions that eventually merged into the United Church of Christ, and then came to the work that CHHSM organizations are doing right now (of course, we talked about Edward Louis Nollau, the namesake of the institute, who came to the U.S. from Germany and started many of the agencies that are still operating in St. Louis today). This continuum does not end, as it points towards the future of the work that CHHSM will continue to do. We discussed how these traditions have all walked against the grain of society, speaking up for injustice, loving radically, inverting hierarchy, and living out of a mind frame of abundance rather than scarcity. The Nollau Institute is designed to bring that countercultural call into the leadership of the current CHHSM agencies, encouraging us to take a risk and adopt the countercultural mindset, stepping into the stream of the long tradition of diaconal, countercultural ministry. A meaningful exercise for me involved a huge timeline taped to the wall that listed some of the foundational events for CHHSM. Each person in the group added the beginning of their organization and their own journey with CHHSM to the timeline, grounding our work within the larger history of this movement and asserting our commitment to this work.

During this retreat we also talked about what it means to be a diakonal minister, tracing the history of the formation of health and human service ministries throughout UCC history. We learned how congregations have responded to the needs in their communities by creating orphanages, nursing homes, and family-service agencies, ministering to the direct needs of the community. They connected these ministries to Jesus’ call to serve “the least of these” and create the Kingdom of God on earth.

I personally first felt my call to ministry 10 years ago, at the 2004 General Synod, when I was a freshman in high school. At that time, the only model of ministry that was available to me was parish ministry, and that is what I thought I would do. As the years have passed I have become aware of my strengths and passion for social work, and struggled to reconcile that with my call to ministry. My classmates in both schools (CTS and SSA) seem to be focused on either parish ministry or social work, and I often feel like what I want to do doesn’t exist or isn’t legitimate.

The Nollau Institute has helped me to fit these two pieces together. I now know that there is a long, rich history of ministers carrying out their call through direct health and human service to the marginalized. Before I heard of CHHSM a few years ago, I didn’t realize that the churches that became the UCC had started hundreds of agencies to serve the elderly, orphans, children, and families, pointing to their calling to fulfill Jesus’ mission to serve “the least of these.” I was surprised to learn that there is an entire organization that keeps these organizations in relationship with the United Church of Christ today; that the UCC is in covenant with these organizations and supports and values their work. Nollau gave me a chance to be around people who are also interested in talking about and living into ministries that directly serve people by meeting their direct needs, recognizing this as a legitimate form of ministry alongside those who serve in the parish.

This retreat also connected the UCC values of “continuing testament,” “changing lives,” and “extravagant welcome” to the mission of CHHSM agencies. This was a great reminder that these values take work and can — and should — be carried out outside of the church building. This discussion got me thinking about how more UCC churches can extend their mission beyond their doors, either by looking at and responding to the needs in their surrounding community or partnering with a CHHSM agency. I left the first retreat excited about finding a place where I “fit,” and challenged to live out the call to a countercultural diaconal ministry.

Annual Meeting

In between the first and second retreats, we all met at CHHSM’s annual meeting. At the annual meeting I was able to meet leaders of other CHHSM organizations, many of whom have gone through the Nollau institute in the past. Their positive energy, excitement, and dedication to their work impressed me. So often, the only stories I hear from social work organizations are about burn-out or tough resource allocation or frustration at clients. It was refreshing to hear positive stories of things that are going well, or how agencies have worked through challenges and are now thriving. To me this was another sign of the countercultural call of CHHSM, as we focused on abundance rather than scarcity and leaders worked to build each other up, sharing challenges and ideas – despite often being from agencies that are competing with one another.

The annual meeting, along with a visit I was able to make to Back Bay Mission as CHHSM Scholar, got me excited about the possibility of working in a CHHSM agency in the future. While I recognize that every organization has challenges, I want to work in an agency that has a culture of collaboration, where everyone in the agency is excited about their work and passionate about the movement. My social work classmates and colleagues are great people, but there is a different energy and purpose that radiates from those I have encountered at CHHSM that I believe comes from being connected into a larger mission beyond oneself and your agency.

Practice of Leadership

I feel like since I was young I was being groomed to be a “leader,” starting with the Mayor’s Youth Commission when I was in the 5th grade and continuing through leadership positions on sports teams through high school and in campus ministry in college. In these positions, leadership seemed to be an innate skill that one did or did not possess, and the leadership process was described in vague terms that revolved around how to control or teach people. In Nollau I learned a different philosophy and style of leadership, one that focused on collaboration, encouragement and leading from strength.

Our second retreat began by taking and discussing the Strengthsfinder in the months leading up to the retreat. I learned that I have strengths as a Relator, and Developer; and strengths of Belief, Input, and Intellection. While a few of these came as a surprise to me (I really didn’t think of myself as someone with “intellection”), I have since been able to explore the meaning of these further and apply them to my own leadership.

The concept of “leading from strength” recognizes that everyone on a team has their own strengths, and it is the job of the leader to draw out the various strengths of the individuals on the team, allowing everyone to do their best work. This is related to “following the energy,” or allowing the team to work on what they are passionate about. Some of the concepts in this retreat have been a little hard for me to conceptualize, as I haven’t been working on a team or in a formal leadership position. I have been using my Strengthsfinder results in supervision at my internship and have seen how they come into play in my work at The Center for Faith and Community Health Transformation.

In reflecting on my strengths and my vocational call, I can see a relationship between the two. I have especially felt my “relator” and “developer” strengths come out in my social work side— I get a ton of energy out of helping people work through problems and connecting them to other people or resources. My “input,” and “intellection” come out in seminary, as I seek to take in as many theories and theologies as possible in order to make sense of the world, the church, and my place in them. I think that “belief” ties my two sides together, as my faith and my study of theology influence my desire to serve others through social work or health and human service ministry.

Another way we explored countercultural leadership was through exploring new theories of organizational culture and leadership. We talked about intrinsic motivation and self-organization, both theories that speak to the power people have to motivate and organize themselves. The model of leadership that emerged is a hands-off style that encourages creativity and risk. It also recognizes that everyone in the organization has strengths and a unique contribution to the work of the agency—breaking down the hierarchical, top-down leadership model that is often practiced in organizations. It was recognized that these concepts go against our natural inclination for leadership models and therefore can be hard to implement — organizational culture is hard to change, especially when the culture you’re trying to create goes against the norms of society.

Another concept that stuck with me from the second retreat is the “Theory U,” a method of problem-solving that begins by sitting with the problem for awhile before jumping to a solution. I think that this concept relates to my “input” strength, and I was and am excited about this method of problemsolving. I appreciate the opportunity to really think through all aspects of a problem and all the factors that contribute as I work towards a solution. I have seen this concept applied to a project at my internship. It has definitely been hard for the group to really engage with the problem before jumping to solutions, yet the process has been incredibly rewarding and I’m excited to see the outcomes.

This retreat contained presentation and discussion on multiple theories that can be applied to leadership and organizational culture. A lot of the material discussed at this retreat has been hard to apply to my current situation, yet the concepts and methods are all very interesting to me and I hope to hang on to them as I move into a job or leadership position in the next few years. Part of our discussion at this retreat was about how hard it is to change organizational culture, and that has helped me think about my eventual job search. When looking for a job, I am now thinking about paying close attention to the culture in the organization, judging if it fits with my personality, strengths, and values rather than thinking that I will be able to easily influence or change the culture.

Organizational Culture

The third retreat was about organizational culture. We used Paul’s letter to the Corinthians to think about analyzing and addressing our organization’s culture, using an appreciative approach and the NCRI – Naming, Connecting, Resourcing and Illuminating – model. We also looked at organizational culture from an ethical perspective, exploring how we make tough decisions in an organization through an ethical framework. I learned a lot from my group members in this retreat as they brought forward organizational issues that they are struggling with. This got me thinking about how organizations live into their values while still balancing issues such as budget, safety regulations, and government policies. In these instances, one could be constantly calling the organization to uphold its values, or one could constantly be calling on the organization to stick to practical matters. A new word I learned during this session was “telepathy”: becoming so focused on one aspect of your job/organization that you lose sight of the bigger picture. The real challenge is to find a middle ground and be able to uphold the organizational values while making the tough decisions concerning budget or policies.

The balance between values and practicality had been on my mind throughout Nollau, as I experienced leaders who either sit on one side or the other and leaders who seem to have figured out how to exist in the middle. I came into Nollau firmly on the side that organizations should always make decisions based solely on their values. I quickly realized how idealistic I was, and have since integrated a more practical stance into my view of how organizations are run. It has been challenging to consider the situations my Nollau classmates are facing — such as budget cuts or firing longtime employees — and think about how I would handle those situations.

This retreat also had sessions on diversity. We talked about diversity broadly, touching on race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class. While I have had these discussions multiple times before at both CTS and SSA, some of the concepts introduced were new to a few of my classmates and sparked interesting discussions. I was reminded that not everyone thinks about diversity the same way that I do, and that can cause conflict within an organization.

We also discussed generational diversity, using generational theory to categorize how different generations see themselves and behave in the workplace. This was a new concept for me, as I hadn’t thought about my or anyone else’s actions as being influenced by their generation; yet I found a lot of truth in the generational categories. For instance, we talked about millennials — my generation — valuing a work-life balance and flexible schedule, which fits with how I’m thinking about work at this point. We revisited the topic of generational diversity in the last retreat, touching on individuality and recognizing that sweeping theories cannot be used to pigeonhole a person. While I appreciate the framework of diversity training and discussions, I think the most important take-away for me is to remember that people are influenced by multiple intersecting identities and we must get to know a person before making assumptions about how they might think or act. Interacting with people as individuals and getting to know a person beyond their surface categories can be considered countercultural. The dominant culture wants to be able to put labels on people, yet as Christians we are called to recognize the divine light and difference within each individual.

Putting It All Together

The last retreat, in St. Louis, was designed by the class and focused on putting all the theories we learned into practical examples. We visited two CHHSM agencies in the area. While at Cape Albeon Senior Living, we had a panel of three Nollau Institute graduates who gave their perspective on how they are integrating the ideas they learned in Nollau. All three described Nollau as “life-changing,” and it was encouraging to hear how their leadership styles and organizational cultures had changed from putting the Nollau concepts into practice. They encouraged us to take one or two concepts from Nollau to focus on integrating into our work moving forward. For me at this point, the idea that has most stuck with me is an open-mindedness to let the spirit work — following the energy that is working in me and in any group that I am working with. This also applies to ethical decisions, remembering to take in all sides and considerations before moving forward with a decision or judgment. While this is a broad concept to put into practice, it is applicable across the various settings in which I am currently engaged.

During the last retreat we went from the senior living facility to Caroline Mission, a daycare/early childhood education center of Neighborhood Houses, an agency that works with underprivileged children and families. While I greatly appreciate the work of CHHSM agencies that serve the elderly, I definitely get my energy from working with children and families. I felt my energy shift as we toured Caroline Mission, and a few of my classmates noticed a change in my energy as well. This was a reminder to me to follow my own energy as I move forward into this ministry, taking my strengths and passions into consideration as I decide what jobs to take.

The culminating event of the Nollau Institute was our consecration as Diakonal Ministers. This took place at St. John’s church in St. Louis, where one of our Nollau classmates is the pastor. He gave a sermon that pulled in many of the issues we have discussed over the course of the last year. While all of these concepts are important and will certainly improve our ministry, he said, it’s important that we remember why we’re here and how we got here. We must focus on serving God above all else, following the calling that brought us to this ministry and the divine energy that is leading us on each of our paths. This message brought the entire year together for me. At times I felt overwhelmed by all of the information and new ideas thrown at us, but, ultimately, I trust that it will all come together as I move forward following God’s call and the divine energy that is moving my life forward.

During our consecration as Diakonal Ministers, I was thinking about the history of diaconal ministry that we started with at the first retreat. Throughout this Nollau experience I’ve met many people who have gone through CHHSM leadership institutes and have taken on the Diakonal title, and I have always been impressed at their organizations, their leadership, and the way they move in the world. To join in the ranks of people who have been changed by this institute is a challenge for me to live up to the transformational ideals of the countercultural ministry throughout history. I feel extremely grateful to be a part of this group of people who I look up to and hope to emulate in my own life and work. While I am no longer a student of the Nollau Institute, I am sure that I will continue to learn and grow from my involvement with CHHSM and my interaction with the material of the Nollau Institute.

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