The Rev. Nancy Benson-Nicol is a trailblazer and a prophet.
Called in 2006 to campus ministry at the University of the Ozarks – a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related school located in Clarksville, Ark. – Benson-Nicol immediately understood that she might be isolated here from a pastor's traditional communities of support. Since being ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in 2001, her previous ministry experience was in the parish.
And because she is African-American – the only clergywoman of color in the Presbytery of Arkansas and one of only two professional African-American staff people at the small, private university and its sole chaplain – she also knew that she might have to be more proactive in seeking out her own networking opportunities.
"Being engaged in something other than the parish can be isolating," Benson-Nicol said. "And because many people do not understand higher education ministry, even if they say they understand, they don’t really know."
Benson-Nicol found her life, ministry and outlook transformed by an invitation earlier this year to join a select group of racial ethnic clergywomen in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – nominated by their presbytery and synod executives – in Montreat, N.C., to be inspired, connected, equipped, and encouraged to aspire to key leadership positions within the denomination.
Held at the Montreat Conference Center from September 19-22, the inaugural Racial Ethnic Clergywomen's Leadership Institute was presented by the Racial Ethnic and Women's Ministries/Presbyterian Women, PC(USA), in partnership with the Center for Faith and Life at Montreat Conference Center.
Reflecting on her overall experience of the institute as one of its thirteen participants, Benson-Nicol said, "Though it might sound melodramatic, there are no words adequate to describe what a tremendous blessing it has been. I have met new sisters with and for whom to pray as they carry out their extraordinary ministries. They give me hope and inspiration for the present and the future of the church. I walk away from the experience feeling affirmed, encouraged, inspired, and challenged in unique and wonderful ways. I only wish I had experienced this gathering earlier on in my ministry. I can't wait to continue to build and expand my networks with these ministers and to introduce my flock to their voices and contributions as well."
Although she described all of the presentations at the leadership institute to be "extraordinarily beneficial," Benson-Nicol said that her single most valuable take-away from the conference from a strictly practical standpoint was a support model that was both explained and experienced by the Rev. Arlene Gordon. Gordon, who recently retired as executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida, was one of the institute's presenters.
When Gordon first arrived at Tropical Florida Presbytery, much like in Benson-Nicol's situation, she knew that she would need to seek out – and perhaps even create – a community of support. Gordon’s middle governing body colleague, the Rev. Gerry Tyre, executive presbyter and stated clerk of Tampa Bay Presbytery, shared with her that he had his own mentoring group in place, which he found to be an invaluable source of encouragement. The Rev. Paige McRight, executive presbyter of Central Florida Presbytery, also provided information on forming a mentoring group.
When another clergy colleague from Tampa Bay, the Rev. Del Poling, volunteered to assist Gordon in selecting, educating and training her own mentoring group of five to seven people who wanted to see her succeed in her ministry, Gordon found her own life to be transformed.
"This was the best new piece of information I had received in a long time and one that I plan to implement in my current setting," Benson-Nicol said. "That was my 'Amen, Hallelujah' moment."
Benson-Nicol also found that the leadership institute was helpful in giving her new perspectives on the way she engages in her current ministry.
"Hearing the Rev. Diane Givens-Moffett, pastor of the St. James Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, talk about how to engage and equip people in a ministry context gave me a renewed sense of my own commitment to celebrate and equip individuals on the Ozarks campus to the glory of God," Benson-Nicol said. "Her perspective really allowed me to see the nuts and bolts of what I had been doing in the larger framework that underlies my ministry."
Read more about the Racial Ethnic Clergywomen's Leadership Institute in the Fall 2010 issue of the Racial Ethnic Torch. Order a free copy online through the Church Store, or to be added to the complimentary subscription list, please contact Laverne Rhodes by e-mail or by calling (800) 728-7228, x5695.