The Dakotas Conference is impacting the overall health of the clergy through the Higher Ground Initiative. In its fifth year, the initiative centers around five key aspects of well-being: social, financial, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Clergy fulfill vital societal functions as meaning-makers and community builders. Partly because of their essential roles, clergy frequently encounter stressful situations. Further, studies, such as the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, suggest that clergy experience high rates of depression. The Higher Ground Initiative is made possible because of a $925,000 grant received by the Dakotas Methodist Foundation from the Lilly Endowments Thriving in Ministry program.
More than 70 clergy have participated in a Higher Ground cohort and retreat. The experience is offered to clergy at their eight-year junctures in ministry. All clergy must participate in this eight-year assessment process as the Book of Discipline requires. For each pastor, it is a commitment to wellness.
"We have the cohorts where people go into the recharge, refocus year and have all sorts of learning and connection experiences," explains Diane Owen, Director of Clergy Well-being for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. "I work with each person to identify their goals and intentions for further growth and development."
The year-long journey includes monthly cohort meetings, individual goal setting, and personal coaching to help meet goals.
There are monthly meetings of the group that happen on Zoom and at least two sessions in-person. The 2023-24 cohort met in-person this fall at Lake Poinsett Living Waters Retreat Center.
Rev. Karl Kroger, McCabe United Methodist Church in Bismarck, North Dakota, is a 2023-24 cohort member. He had delayed participation in Higher Ground in previous years.
"Our time together in-person was wonderful. The facilitators do a remarkable job," said Pastor Karl. "It was great to get to know other people in the group. It will enrich our online interactions."
Since 2019, things have changed with the format and delivery of cohort meetings and a week-long retreat. "We changed the delivery method. We used to start with the week-long retreat and followed that by a series of meetings. Now we do the meetings, culminating the year with the retreat," said Owen. "It's about connection to God and each other. It's grounded in spiritual formation. We create space for the person to connect with God, deepen their faith, to connect with their colleagues."
A week-long retreat is the crowinging experience held at Terra Sancta Retreat Center. The site is intentional—a respite away from daily expectations.
"Being in a space that was completely separate, I think, lends itself to this atmosphere of a place set apart just for us," said Rev. Seth LaBounty, Hartford UMC in South Dakota.
Taking time away from work is a blessing.
"I found the higher ground retreat to be such an incredible blessing. To take an entire week to be still, worship, pray, and be in community with others. Taking time to examine my soul was a gift," said Rev. Sara Nelson, First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota "It helped me re-energize the ministry that God's called me to and life in general."
Taking time to be a participant rather than be a leader is rewarding. LaBounty shares, "As pastors, we're so used to leading these sorts of things and helping to organize them. It was a bit of a learning curve stepping aside and allowing ourselves to be served. A few times during worship at the retreat, we found ourselves saying the leader parts and not the people's responses."
A week-long retreat can be a challenge for clergy with families. The activities of the retreat were life-giving and inspiring.
"I was driving to the retreat, and I was feeling bad about being away from my family for a week. I just felt like, I hope this is worth it," said Rev. Katie Ricke, who serves at First United Methodist Church in Yankton, South Dakota. "The first night, they made it a silent night. That was exactly what I needed. The next morning, I had letters under my door from people in my congregation and my husband sharing words of support for my presence there and my call to ministry."
The Higher Ground Initiative provides clergy coaching for members of the cohort and individual clergy. Clergy across the Dakotas have received hundreds of hours of coaching.
"We have coaching and access to resources, often recommended by their district superintendent after a one-on-one conversation, for clergy," shared Owen. "We have some group coaching experiences. Six clergy will be participating in reflective supervision. Another group coaching option is forming around rural ministry. Another cohort or group coaching experience is for clergy serving a larger church system."
Scripture Circles have been held as part of the Higher Ground Initiative. "It is really about spiritual formation in a group setting," said Owen. Learn more about Scripture Circles and sign up for upcoming group sessions.
Spiritual formation was an area that Ricke focused on and received some coaching. "My biggest goal was around keeping my spiritual practices. I elected to work with the spiritual director," said Pastor Katie. "I am coming away from my Higher Ground experience recognizing how important it is to tend to my own needs and the reminder that I am enough. I am the person that God wants me to be. I need to be that person for the congregation I serve."
Pastor Seth LaBounty is working with a spiritual director. "I've become connected to a spiritual director, meeting once a month to focus and fine-tune some of the things I've been working through," said Pastor Seth. "I really appreciate that it doesn't just end with the retreat. There is some follow-through to help you develop some sustainability with habits and practices."
Pastor Sara Nelson set goals around physical well-being and continues to meet with a health coach.
"I've really leaned into physical health. I have been meeting with the health coach every couple of weeks and setting some goals around exercise and nutrition," said Nelson. "When I'm stressed, my focus on physical well-being tends to get lost in the shuffle. When I feel better physically, I feel better in all areas of life."
Even though 2023 marks the fifth and final year of the grant, resources remain to continue the work in 2024. In 2025, the intent is to apply for a sustainability grant from the Lilly Endowment with matching funds committed from the Dakotas Conference Board of Pensions.
"We are creating a runway of funding to extend Higher Ground to the next five years," said Owen.
Clergy participants share that sustaining the efforts of the Higher Ground Initiative is essential.
"I think the work that conference leaders have done is just tremendous. I hope it will continue so that clergy will renew their call to ministry and will be able to sustain themselves through the joys and challenges, the highs and lows of life and ministry," said Kroger.
"Ministry is wonderful and a blessing. It is also demanding. It is really important to all clergy to take the time to look at the interrelated aspects of our lives and see how we can continue to be healthy and whole," said Nelson.