Skip to Main Content

Advisory council sets goals for Higher Ground Initiative

By: Amber Laffey, program assistant for Higher Ground Initiative

Higher Ground Group

The Higher Ground Advisory Council met for the first time on March 20, 2019, in the Dakotas Conference office in Mitchell, SD.

A team of eleven clergy and laity gathered to shape goals and vision for the Higher Ground Initiative. The advisory council, recently meeting in the Dakotas Conference office in Mitchell, will serve as a sounding board as program elements are implemented.

The Dakotas Conference is making an effort to change the overall health of clergy through the newly developed Higher Ground Initiative. This initiative is made possible because of a $925,000 grant received by the Dakotas United Methodist Foundation from the Lilly Endowment's Thriving in Ministry program. Read more about the grant award here.

Members of the advisory council include: Rev. Ray Baker, who serves Fargo Faith UMC and is a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, Rev. Roy Caudill, retired clergy and former district superintendent, Dr. Shawn Culey, a member of the Dakotas Conference Board of Pensions, Rev. Joel Higgins, who serves Brandon Celebration UMC, Deb Kjerstad, the director for Leadership Development for the Dakotas Conference, Rev. Laurie Kidd, who serves Wagner and Tyndall UMCs, Amber Laffey, who serves as the program assistant for the Higher Ground Initiative, Stephanie Moore, a mental health provider in the Sioux Falls area, Elaine Roberts, a member of the Board of Pensions, Rev. Rebecca Trefz, who is the director of ministries for the Dakotas Conference, and Diane Weller, coordinator of donor relations for the Dakotas United Methodist Foundation.


Amber Laffey, program assistant for Higher Ground.

The main purpose of the advisory council is to be the voice for recommendations and support to the implementation team for the Higher Ground program. “Advisory council members share their gifts in service to our mission by providing our team with their professional expertise,” says Amber Laffey, program assistant for Higher Ground. “Their diverse knowledge and perspectives, connections to local or national resources, and contact with colleagues or peers will enhance our efforts.”

The group reviewed some of the plans in place for the first retreat. The team gave feedback to make sure plans are in line with the Lilly Grant and the eight-year-assessment in the Book of Discipline.

“Their experience in ministry and in their careers helped us understand what things we can include in the retreat and in the recharge refocus year that follows, which will be most effective for our clergy,” says Laffey.


Ray Caudill and Elaine Roberts enjoy a lively discussion at the Higher Ground meeting on March 20.

Rev. Rebecca Trefz informed the advisory council that one grant component is annual coaching. Coaching connects clergy with coaches and counselors targeted to specific individual goals of clergy. Coaching opportunities for clergy will be matched based on the new Clergy-Church Annual Assessments and Pastor Self Assessments.

“Based on the needs identified through these assessments, we will identify approximately 20 clergy to receive direct coaching for the coming year,” says Trefz. “This coaching may come in the form of leadership coaching, counseling to deal with challenging personal or professional situations, spiritual direction of renewal, or technical coaching in some area of ministry. It may be one-on-one coaching, or we may create small cohorts of three to five pastors based on similar development needs. We are excited to see the ways in which this direct support will help pastors and churches better thrive in ministry.”

Rev. Roy Caudill, a member of the Higher Ground advisory council, shared that he sees this initiative as God wanting to do a new thing in these pastors’ lives. “We hope and pray that God will open their hearts so they will be willing to uncover and accept this new thing that God wants to do in their professional and personal life,” says Caudill.


Deb Kjerstad, director of Leadership Development, listens to Rev. Laurie Kidd during the Higher Ground meeting.

The advisory council set a goal at the meeting to educate congregations and Staff-Parish Relations Committees (SPRC), on how to care for their pastor. Some key concepts of this care include how to ensure they are taking Sabbath each week, that there are boundaries established, and also that pastors are encouraged to take time off for renewal and rest. The grant will provide resources for SPRC members, as well as paying for pulpit supply. Congregations need to feel supported and also encourage their pastor’s participation in the Higher Ground Initiative.

“We hope to see a culture of care established in churches for our pastoral leaders,” says Deb Kjerstad, Director of Leadership Development. “Congregations who have a pastor that participates in this process will see a pastor that is renewed and reenergized for the next chapter in their life in ministry.”


Dakotas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church 605.996.6552 Appointment Announcements1.jpg 1331 University Ave. Mitchell SD 57301-0460 US 43.69689310 -98.03291320 122 W. Franklin Avenue Ste 400 Minneapolis MN 55404 US 0.00000000 0.00000000 1331 W University Ave Mitchell SD 57301 US 0.00000000 0.00000000 1331 University Ave Mitchell SD 57301 US 0.00000000 0.00000000