Efforts to provide support and mentor clergywomen as they begin or progress through their careers are underway through the Thriving in Ministry program, sponsored by the Lilly Endowment Fund and the Center for Ministry at Millsaps College. Led by the Rev. Elizabeth Henry, the first of three large-group retreats took place September 2–6 in the greater Jackson area.
Participants in the program are clergywomen serving in their first solo role as a pastor or senior pastor and associate ministers who feel called to leadership positions. The goal of the retreats is to bring participants together with role models and mentors beyond their own peer group. These role models and mentors will be experienced senior and solo pastors, scholars, coaches, or consultants brought in as facilitators, preachers, teachers, panelists, and guest participants. The retreats also provide opportunities to expand a sense of belonging and develop authentic friendships across geographic and denominational lines. The second retreat will take place at Casa Millsaps in Yucatán, and the third will be a pilgrimage experience in Germany, allowing participants to end their time in the program with a focus on spiritual practices, personal discernment, and renewal.
The initial retreat took place largely at Mt. Leopard Wellness Ranch in Flora, MS. Participants did exercises and reflections with Equine Healing Solutions, led by director Tim Risler and Rev. Susan Woodard, a clergywoman and counselor who often partners with Risler in his work at the ranch. Set in a round pen where the horses roamed freely among them, Risler guided the clergywomen through a number of activities, one of which was to choose a horse and coax it over a barrier without touching or bribing it. The women broke into their peer groups and set about the task, which quickly proved to be a frustrating one. In the subsequent discussions, the horses took on the symbolism of challenges in life where solutions cannot be forced, and participants reflected on how each woman adapted and worked with what was in front of them.
"It was really cool to have so many women who are so different but all in such a similar calling and role," said Henry. "Someone mentioned during reflections how freeing it was not to have to explain what they do. They were able to automatically connect with each other on a deeper level. I think I had underestimated how much that would mean to them, just to be with other clergywomen who got it."
Henry also reflected on what a joy it was to finally meet all 22 women in person as they kick off this 15-month journey. "It was really wonderful to see their peer groups coming together, forming an identity, and bonding," Henry said. "I'm so excited to watch that grow."
During the course of the week, each peer group decided where they would take their small-group retreats, and additional ways in which they will continue to build resources and develop their skills. One group, centered in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, will be doing a pulpit swap on Magnificat Sunday, and preaching to one another's congregations. "It's so awesome—these clergywomen celebrating this key woman in scripture," said Henry. "This is the kind of thing we hope will happen to help build them and their communities."