Worship, Keynotes, Workshops, Celebrations, Meeting In Person Highlight CHHSM Annual Gathering

Board Chair Michelle Just (center) with Jamar Doyle and his husband, William Christmas.

From the introduction of the Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III — president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary — as opening keynoter to the Rev. Dr. Jamesetta Ferguson’s (MOLO Village) powerful words during the closing worship service, CHHSM’s 84th Annual Gathering was a time of reflection, celebration, healing, and looking ahead that left attendees praising its merits.

Held March 8-10, 2022, in Louisville, Ky., during the week of the two-year anniversary of the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, the Gathering’s focus on systemic racism and moving Forward Together towards becoming anti-racist was both poignant and appropriate.

“I was literally re-ignited to hear that the struggles of this nation around justice were not just embodied in passivity by CHHSM itself and its members, but that so many sessions and our plenaries had actionable and prophetic ways for us all to move forward in our RDEI commitments,” said the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, CHHSM board member and executive conference minister of the UCC’s Southern New England Conference.

The three-day Gathering interspersed reflection time, workshops, and celebrations around worship and keynote addresses. The workshops included both topics of sustainability and programming as well as advocacy, with the theme of achieving racial equity prominent throughout.

A highlight of the event was meeting in person.

“This Annual Gathering was an inspiring three days for everyone in attendance,” said CHHSM’s outgoing President and CEO Michael J. Readinger. “This was our first in-person event since COVID-19 arrived, and we relished the opportunities to share our stories and ministries through the workshops, worship experiences, celebratory events, and keynotes.”

“Each day flowed into the next one,” said the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development. “The content and conversations from the day before carried on into the next one. I remember sitting at breakfast talking with a group of folks about the incredible poet who performed [the night before]. We talked about how blown away we all were, but then that led us to think about how we could incorporate more art into our ministries. The energy was electric, even at eight in the morning, with possibilities and inspiration.”

The Annual Gathering celebrated the ministry of Mike Readinger, who retires in April.

For Kyle Zanker, chief development officer at Crossroad Child & Family Services in Fort Wayne, Ind., the “special times” of celebration were the most moving aspects of the Annual Gathering. These included the installation of Jamar Doyle as CHHSM’s new president and CEO during the opening worship service, the evening of celebration honoring Readinger — who retires next month, and the closing worship service, where the graduating class of CHHSM’s Nollau Leadership Institute were consecrated as diakonal ministers.

Throughout all of these events, “there was a great sense of honor for what has been done by CHHSM, and a deep sense of hope for the future work of the organization and the important relationships of those in mission at the member organizations,” said Zanker.

Kenney Washington, director of client services at Back Bay Mission, concurred. “I was inspired by the celebration of the great things that Michael Readinger has accomplished with CHHSM the last 17 years, and the enormous possibilities that lie ahead for CHHSM under the leadership of Jamar Doyle,” Washington said.

Local poet Lance G. Newman II leads a rhyming contest during the celebration of Mike Readinger’s ministry.

The evening celebrating the ministry of Readinger “involved great food, a photo booth, the presentation of scores of cards and letters in a bound book for Mike, a tribute video, and performances by a young singer via video and a local poet. There were lots of memories and laughter shared,” said the Rev. George Graham, CHHSM vice president. “The comments that Abby Drane, Michelle Just, and Ken Daniel made — as well as those who were included in the tribute video — really spoke to the relationships he has formed and the energy he has brought with his leadership. We raised over $7,000 for the CHHSM Legacy Fund for leadership development, which I think is a tribute to Mike and his commitment to this area.”

But “for me,” Graham added, “closing worship was particularly poignant — to see our 16 Nollau graduates lined up across the front of the room and to know how they had grown individually and as a group was really meaningful to me.”

This year’s graduating Nollau class was particularly unique, said Berry, because they had been so severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally a one-year program, the class had been together for two years.

The Nollau graduates were consecrated as diakonal ministers during the closing worship service.

“This community has journeyed through two years of global, national, and personal trauma and loss, and has relied and leaned on each other in extraordinary ways,” Berry told worshipers during the closing service at The Ali Center. “Every class has bonded, but there is something very special and unique about this group of people. After all that they have been through, what they came out to say is, ‘Being a leader is about leading with love. It’s about being authentic and connected to your spirituality while claiming yourself as God’s beloved child.’ … This group has extraordinary things to say and they came out more loving and graceful.”

During the Nollau portion of closing worship, the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging of United Church Homes in Marion, Ohio, and the Rev. Samantha Jewell, chaplain at Bellewood & Brooklawn in Louisville, gave Readinger and retiring Nollau faculty member Peggy Mullan gifts of handmade pitchers, symbolic of the CHHSM logo.

Readinger and Peggy Mullan with the Rev. Samantha Jewell and the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins.

“In recognition for all that you have poured into Nollau and the wider CHHSM community, Mike and Peggy, please receive these pitchers as a symbol of our gratitude,” said Long-Higgins. “We thank God for the ways you not only answered your call, but nourished it. And we celebrate the ways God continues to work in you with abundant purpose and deep belonging.”

After being installed the morning of March 8, new President and CEO Doyle gave his first official address at a dinner that evening. Both events earned well-deserved applause from those in attendance.

“I was thrilled to be able to meet so many of our CHHSM members and begin to get to know them as I begin my ministry with CHHSM,” said Doyle. “The entire Annual Gathering was both a learning experience and a joy, and I look forward to our work together in the future.”

Doyle during his first official address.

For incoming Board Chair Michelle Just, president and CEO of Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix, the Annual Gathering was the perfect combination of celebration and futuring. “We took time to celebrate Mike Readinger’s ministry and to welcome Jamar Doyle as our new president and CEO,” Just said. “Those celebrations gave us renewed energy to share our stories, and discuss ways in which we, as member ministries, can work toward a more just, equitable, diverse and inclusive future.”

Some of the biggest highlights of the event were the keynote addresses, particularly Pollard — president of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary — and closing keynoter Nikki Lanier, founder of racial equity firm Harper Slade.

“Dr. Pollard brought together our city, nation, and the world issues to the stage,” said Abby Drane, outgoing CHHSM board chair and president and CEO of Seven Counties Services/Bellewood & Brooklawn in Louisville. “During this time of Lent, we take time to reflect, and his speech reminded us of where we have been, where we are, and how we need to take time to plan where we are going. I’m inspired and I know other must be as well.”

The Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, and Jamar Doyle

Essence Ellis, the CHHSM/Justice and Local Church Ministries UCC Fellow, concurred. “I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Pollard. He started with a clip of “No Church in the Wild” [by Jay-Z/Kanye West], which was a really influential song for me in high school,” Ellis said. “His keynote itself was incredible, but the question and answer part was my favorite. He gave big answers but also left you with tangible bits to walk away with. And he got us all fired up to be present and intentional with one another throughout the rest of the Annual Gathering.”

For Stephanie Franklin, senior vice president of UCAN in Chicago, Nikki Lanier’s approach to racial equity resonated with her, especially Lanier’s statement that “we can no longer afford to explain DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] because it prevents us from getting to the real work that needs to be done. That’s the lens we need to use to get to work and disrupt these racist systems, policies and procedures,” Franklin said. “As Nikki Lanier stated, the right thing to do does not disrupt because you cannot legislate beliefs.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul Davis of Clay Street Table, outgoing CHHSM Board Chair Abby Drane, and the Rev. Dr. Jamesetta Ferguson of MOLO Village.

On March 9, the CHHSM board held its annual business meeting. During the meeting, it welcomed two new CHHSM members — Clay Street Table, which operates a meals program and food pantry in downtown Portland, Ore.; and MOLO Village Community Development Corporation in Louisville, a ministry that works to transform, empower, and renew the lives of those it serves through education, community service, advocacy, and healthy living.

The board also passed a resolution establishing a new standing committee — the Race, Diversity, Equity Inclusion — Justice (RDEI-J) Committee. The committee will work with other CHHSM entities to integrate CHHSM’s RDEI-J initiatives across the life of the organization.

The new slate of officers is introduced.

During the business meeting, the 2022 slate of board officers was approved: Michelle Just, president and CEO of Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix, chair; Kenney Washington, director of client services at Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., vice chair; Jay Biere, CEO and president of Plymouth Place in LaGrange Park, Ill., treasurer; and Stephanie Franklin of UCAN and the Rev. Leslie Jackson, vice chair of Settegast Heights Village in Houston, at large members. It also welcomed new board members Greg Watson, vice president of operations for Embrace Living in Oak Brooke, Ill., and the Rev. Dr. J. J. Flag, pastor of Emmanuel Congregational UCC in Watertown, N.Y.

“The new RDEI-J Standing Committee is particularly important as we move forward in our commitment to becoming anti-racist,” said Just. “The committee indicates both the importance and gravity of RDEI to the future of CHHSM — and the greater community.”

The board also recognized CHHSM members’ milestone anniversaries, including Back Bay Mission, Samaritan Bethany, and Uplands Village (100 years), Isaiah 58 Ministries, Harmar Place (United Church Homes), Settegast Heights Village, and Saucony Cross Apartments (50 years), and Evangelical Manor (EHM Senior Solutions), Sarah A. Todd Memorial Home, and several United Church Homes and Retirement Housing Foundation communities (25 years).

Co-presenter William Hall during the UCAN workshop.

As in past years, the workshops interspersed throughout the Annual Gathering were popular among attendees. Stacey Parke, executive director of Orion Family Services in Madison, Wi., particularly enjoyed the “Leading with Love through Crisis” workshop presented by UCAN representatives Franklin, Claude Robinson, vice president of external affairs and diversity, and William Hall, director of faith and community. The workshop contained “valuable learning and discussion and an engaged sharing of ideas,” said Parke. “I loved learning about the Employee Wellness Contract used at on-boarding and at regularly scheduled intervals to support staff in maintaining self-care.”

UCC Fellow Ellis ran a workshop on embodiment. “Many of the people were excited to hear what they can do tangibly to explore embodiment as both a lifestyle practice and as a movement, along with learning ways to stay aware of the work being done on the ground by reproductive justice organizations around the country,” she said.

Former CHHSM Scholars Emily Howard and UCC Fellow Essence Ellis.

But perhaps the most joyful portion of the Annual Gathering was just the opportunity to see, talk, laugh and celebrate CHHSM partners in person. Said Orion’s Parke, “I loved being with everyone. I felt such a spirit of celebration and joy!”

“Regarding being together again, as a term Dr. Pollard used in his plenary, we created ‘outrageous space’!” said UCAN’s Franklin. “From celebrating Mike to welcoming Jamar, to spending the majority of our time focused on love, health, healing and commitment to disruption, we are looking forward to the future of our work together.”

“Our Gathering this year taught me to focus on every sacred moment we spent together,” said Settegast Heights Village’s Jackson. “It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the emails, texts, and slack messages … but for me, reminding myself to be present allowed me to fully celebrate Michael, to recognize this pivotal moment of installing Jamar, to appreciate every side conversation, and to immerse myself in the brilliance of our community.”

“I’ve learned, at this gathering, the process is more meaningful than the product,” Jackson added. “It’s not what’s on the agenda. It’s not the business that must get done. It’s the moments we share together, being with one another, that matters most to me. Then the agenda becomes more meaningful, the business more sacred, and our sessions more transformative.”

Back Bay Mission’s Kenney Washingon and James Pennington during their workshop.

For outgoing Board Chair Drane, “meeting with my CHHSM family, CEOs of other UCC faith ministries in person is the support I need the most, as they understand my work, those I seek to serve, and they understand my motto, ‘You do not need to finish the work but you cannot abandon it.’”

“CHHSM is truly the support most ministries need and cannot afford to provide their leaders,” Drane added. “It provides connections with like-minded faith ministry leaders of various experiences that seek to share information and support to leaders. I joined CHHSM through the Nollau Leadership Institute at the beginning of my CEO career, and I don’t know how I would have made it the last seven years without their support and mentorship. I’m a seasoned professional, but the faith-based support of my peers is not something I could pick up in business school or locally at the nonprofit training institute.”

For Crossroad’s Zanker, the Annual Gathering was “one of the best ever.”

An extended “sign of peace” during closing worship exemplified how much meeting in person meant to attendees.

“Some of that may have been because we were together in person, but it was also my observation that the  topics were very well presented and people were very engaged in Q&A at workshops and in plenary sessions and they were still chatting with great interest about concepts in between meetings,” Zanker said. “I personally believe it is in relationship that we learn and grow and experience the greatest joy in our lives. It was a constant delight to be at this meeting because of those I saw in each meeting, at each table, and with each personal connection.”

Or, as Jackson said about closing worship, “With tears in my eyes, we did something some of us haven’t done in a long time. We looked each other in the eyes, greeted each other with a hug or fist bump, and reminded each other of who we are: May the peace of Christ be with you. You are beloved!”

Special thanks to the Rev. Dr. Elyse Berry, Dave Ragan, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon for the use of their photos in this story.

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