We are grateful to three leaders in the United Methodist system for being willing to reflect on their own network together: Bonnie Marden, project manager for Wespath’s grant, Diane Owen, program director for the Dakotas-Minnesota Annual Conference’s grant, and Chris Bouchard, program director for the Missouri United Methodist Foundation’s grant.
This is the full interview, an excerpt of which was found in the August 2018 version of the ECFPL newsletter.
You three seem to have developed a really functional informal working partnership. Can you tell me a little about your connection: how it began, what the impetus was, etc.?
Bonnie: When I met Diane at the Lilly meeting in the spring of 2017, we naturally fell into some sharing about our projects – spent some time exploring similarities and differences – both of us curious to learn more about our work, our projects and ways our efforts might align. We connected with Chris and began connecting by conference call – aiming for every 6-8 weeks – but actually connected about once a quarter. As United Methodists, we are just naturally – connectional!
Diane: I attended my first Lilly gathering about 10 days after I started my position as the Program Director for the Dakotas-MN Area of the UMC. I was very uncertain about my role and the challenges that lay ahead. We were year 2 and thus a year behind both Bonnie and Chris. I was able to connect with Bonnie and then, Chris and immediately began learning from each of them. I must admit that I felt very inept at times but they were both encouraging and reassuring – very helpful to have more experienced project leaders for someone just starting out.
Chris: Two years ago, I was completely new to the United Methodist and Lilly worlds. Since my background is Presbyterian, the first person I bonded with was David Loleng, from the Presbyterian Foundation. He and I started a similar informal partnership just to share and learn from each other. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to do the same with colleagues from the Methodist denomination.
What are the primary benefits to your work of being connected?
Bonnie: All three of us are in different situations working on the same goal, and discovering each others’ gifts, backgrounds and perspectives on this work is inspiring. Just knowing we can reach out to each other with questions and ideas offers deeply appreciated support. Diane: While we each are working with and for the United Methodist denomination, we come from three different types of organizations. I have learned a great deal about the role of the Foundations – both at the “local” level and at the national level. I come out of the Annual Conference side and did not have much experience with the work of the United Methodist Foundations. Yet my role required the alignment of two Annual Conferences and two Foundations. The insights provided by Bonnie and Chris were invaluable. I also was able to provide insights as to how the Annual Conferences operate and the importance of including certain individuals in their work for alignment. Again, because they are both a year ahead of me in their projects, they have blazed a trail and have already discovered answers to many of my questions. Bonnie’s work is at a national level and we can positively influence her work to benefit the whole denomination based upon our “local” experiences. We have shared resources – materials, subject matter experts, workshops, etc. – that could be helpful in our work. Chris and I, in particular, are working with pastors and churches more directly and have more common strategies to discuss.
Chris: There are several. 1) Learn from each other and bounce ideas off each other. 2) It’s a safe place. It is easy to be vulnerable because we share similar challenges and the group is not judgmental. 3) We are discovering ways to partner together.
What is one thing that might not have happened, or that might have happened differently, had the three of you not been in conversation?
Bonnie: While we are all working in the United Methodist system, we are in different places and positions within the system. By connecting across those different roles and positions, we are discovering different perspectives and possibilities for various partners – roles for conferences, roles for foundations, emerging young leaders and practitioners – basically a network that we wouldn’t know about if we hadn’t connected. More specifically, the fall 2018 Wespath Clergy Benefits Academy is in the Midwest and we are exploring pooling some of our resources to support young clergy participation in that event. By providing some financial support, we have the opportunity to follow up and cultivate ongoing relationships with future leaders. Some of that resource sharing is a direct result of our collaboration.
Diane: I would not have had the perspective of the work of the Foundations if I did not have the insights of both Bonnie and Chris. It is challenging to bring multiple organizations (leaders) together around key strategies. Understanding each organization/leader is critical to create this alignment. Additionally, I am working directly with Chris on a project around church finance management practices that would not only benefit our constituency but our denomination (at least in the US).
Chris: Diane’s program requires pastors to complete a program before they can access the direct aid. The Missouri program expects recipients to complete education and coaching after they receive direct aid. Though we have seen some great successes, there is a segment of recipients who have not been as committed to the expectations as hoped. Since coaching has been most effective in helping people change their situation, we are moving in the direction of requiring applicants to set personal financial goals and the strategies to achieve them, before they receive the all of the aid. Their coach helps them do this. Blending upfront requirements with long-term expectations may not have happened without the examples of other programs.
Do you think your collaboration could have an impact on sustainability for your projects?
Bonnie: Chris’s and Diane’s projects’ interest in and support for our Excellence in Clergy Leadership Scholarship is one way our collaboration is impacting sustainability for the Wespath project as we strengthen the other funding partnerships for this scholarship. We are all seeking to embed this work into the ongoing work of the places in the denomination where we are currently located. Because we operate both in denominational and in judicatory and foundation environments, ongoing collaboration and exploration of sustainability strategies can be multi-faceted and creative. Bouncing ideas off each other has also borne fruit!
Diane: Absolutely! How we continue to provide personal financial education on an ongoing basis is not an easy nut to crack. And finding ways to continue the education around church finance and generosity practices is best done in collaboration, leveraging our connectional quality. We must continue to learn from each other and divide and conquer as we seek ways to ensure long-term system changes in the UMC.
Chris: One of the goals of the Missouri program is to integrate the services developed through the Lilly project into the regular activities of the Conference so the services can be sustained after the grant money ends. Diane has been very helpful in suggesting how to ask for input from key people in the Conference office in order to garner their support and align our services with their Conference responsibilities.
Are there any additional comments or thoughts that might be beneficial for your peers?
Bonnie: While our actual contact time has been limited, the value of creating our own internal support system is real. Support systems play a critical role in well-being and leadership development. Since we are working within complex systems with their own sets of priorities and agendas, we have created a space to share thoughts, ideas, challenges and to brainstorm possibilities. We had to take the initiative to create it – and we encourage others to do the same!
Diane: Finding projects that are a year ahead has been invaluable. I would encourage all to do this. Minimally, finding others within the same faith tradition or denomination and setting up a communication plan early will reap tremendous benefits! Make it a practice.
Chris: Find a comfortable place where you can bounce your ideas off someone to see if there are other perspectives you haven’t considered. This can be done through a peer group like ours, or with someone familiar with your work. My Advisory Board is another group that is used for this. My board meetings have evolved from reviewing reports to informal meetings where the report is sent prior to the meeting and the meeting time is spent sharing ideas and thinking about possibilities. If you are the smartest person in the group, find a new group.